From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Find Your Happiness


Some people pursue happiness, others create it.

~Margaret Bowen

We’re all familiar with our constitutional right to pursue happiness. As a child, I recall more than once telling my not-at-all-amused mother that I was “pursuing my right to happiness” when I made a particularly large mess. She very cleverly informed me that if I wanted to enjoy life or liberty, I would clean it right up too! Who doesn’t want to be happy? Not only does being happy beat the alternative, happiness has some pretty attractive benefits. Research has found being happy adds about nine years to your life!

Chances are you picked up this book in hopes of reading some stories that can help brighten your own day or put you on a new path that’s got a bit more joy or a little more laughter than the road you currently travel. Inside this book are 101 stories specifically chosen to show you there are many roads to happiness. After you read these stories, you’ll be much better equipped to find the path — and the destination — that’s right for you.

Some people pursue happiness, others create it. Take a look at Margaret Bowen’s quote and ask yourself, “Who’s more likely to be happy? The person chasing, or the one creating?” If you need a hint, you may find a clue in these words by Henry David Thoreau that I had on a poster on my wall during high school and college:

Happiness is like a butterfly: the more you chase it,
the more it will elude you, but if you turn your attention to other things,
it will come and sit softly on your shoulder.

As much as you may try to be happy, your efforts probably only serve to make you frustrated. “Don’t Worry — Be Happy” was a cute idea in a song, but as advice for those who’ve lost their zest for life, it doesn’t work. You can’t just “be” happy. But turn your attention to other things — the right things — and you will find that happiness has found you. What are the right things? We’ll get to that in a moment. But here’s a central truth: When it comes to being happy, the journey IS the destination.

It’s funny that the Chicken Soup for the Soul people came to me to write the foreword for a book on finding your happiness because there was a period in my life when I was profoundly unhappy. Perhaps I was even depressed. I was too down in the dumps to seek professional help to find out. My career was in the toilet. My telephone had stopped ringing. I didn’t think I would ever work again. So what happened? Did I wake up one day, put on make-up and hop over to a TV studio, saying, “I’m back! Put me on the show!”?

Hardly. Instead, I got out my sewing machine. In the depths of my unhappiness, I pulled out my old Kenmore machine, dug out some lengths of fabric, and started making curtains and slipcovers. You can work out a lot of aggression on those long seams as you floor the foot pedal. When you see the results of those hours with the machine — slipcovers that make an old chair new again, curtains that warm up a bare room — you can’t help but feel pleased about your work... and yourself.

That long-ago search for happiness led me to reconnect with a long ignored passion. I had been sewing, doing embroidery, and knitting and crocheting since I was eight years old. Dusting off that machine, reminding myself of the many pleasant hours I used to spend stitching, helped brighten my spirits. Some people pursue happiness, others create it. That I was happy after returning to my long-lost hobby was an unintended consequence of engaging in something that I had once enjoyed. Without expecting to, I had created my own happiness.

The surprise factor has a lot to do with happiness. If you look up the etymology of the word “happy,” you see that it stems from the Old Norse word happ, which meant “chance” or “unforeseen occurrence.” By chance, we stumble into happiness. Like that butterfly, we rarely catch it if we are chasing it.

Here’s another secret: You won’t find happiness by always striving to be the best. Good enough is, well, good enough. Research conducted by Professor Barry Schwartz of Swarthmore College found some notable differences between those he calls “maximizers,” people who have to have the best and are compelled to research every possible choice, and those who are satisfied more easily. Because they insist on the “best,” those maximizers do tend to earn about $7,000 more annually, but they feel worse. They’re not as happy as the rest of us who are willing to “settle.” The ordeal of making the choice, coupled with the potential for regret over the decision made, mitigated any pleasure they might have enjoyed from their increased spending power.

So what can help you Find Your Happiness? Here’s my recipe:

Count Your Blessings— Happiness operates in an upward spiral; it feeds on itself. People who keep track of the “good things” in their lives are healthier, more active, more productive — and held in higher regard by others. That would make me happy, wouldn’t it you? So take note of what’s right in your life and see if things don’t change for the better. This book is filled with examples of people who say it has worked for them.

Foster Connections— There is no question it is the connections with others that bring richness to our lives. Strong social connections and shared experiences create the foundation on which happiness can thrive. Pick up the phone; e-mail an old friend.

Know Yourself and Pursue Your Passion— To “Find Your Happiness” you must first know what makes you happy. Perhaps the words of the German philosopher Goethe are helpful: As soon as you trust yourself, you will know how to live. Pull out your notebook and a pencil and try to answer these questions: What are your passions? What pastimes give you joy? What are you good at? What long-ago dreams have you put out to pasture because they weren’t practical, were unrealistic, “could never happen?” Forget what all the naysayers may have said in the past. The answers you supply can help you plan a new journey and find your happiness. The joy is in the doing as much as it is the “done.”

Keep Learning— The day you stop growing is the day you start going. There is no question that people with goals and challenges find life more zestful than those content with the status quo. You’ll love the story of Jane Congdon, who gave up a career that had stopped making her happy, and at age sixty-six will have her first book published.

Find Meaning— People who have found meaning and purpose in their lives are happy. Period. You might find meaning by getting outside yourself in service of others as Shannon Anderson has with her “good deed a day.” You’ll read her story about how she first taught her family the benefits of doing good deeds, and then inspired her whole first grade classroom to do good deeds and keep a diary of them. The kids loved it! Ralph Waldo Emerson urged: Make yourself necessary to somebody. You lift yourself when you lift others. Perhaps you fail to see the meaning in your job or profession or maybe your job’s not right for you. Even hospital cleaners, at the bottom of the ladder in both pay and prestige, see their work as challenging and skilled when they are shown that their contributions are central to the hospital’s mission.

Find Quiet— The Chinese have a wonderful expression: Only the stillness can still. No matter how noisy and hectic it may be where you are, close your eyes for just this moment and imagine you are deep in a lush green forest, sitting on a moss-covered stone, listening to the distant sounds of water tumbling down a stream. Breathe. Sit. Forget about all the “stuff” in your life. Don’t worry about the jam-packed schedule. Just breathe. That small momentary exercise has likely left you feeling just a bit more in control, a bit less frazzled. Remember that butterfly called happiness won’t come and sit softly on your shoulder if you are rushing about madly.

The people who have shared their stories with you in this book have all found their happiness through variations of this “recipe.”

Betsy Franz knew only one way to live her life and that was at full speed. The way she described a trip to the grocery store, you almost wanted to warn the other shoppers to stay home. She flew around the corners on two wheels hurling her purchases into her cart. Then one day Betsy’s life coasted to a halt. Literally. She was so busy she forgot to check the gas gauge and she ran out of fuel on the way to an important meeting. Being the sensible woman that she is, Betsy did the obvious: She screamed and pounded the steering wheel.

Then she stepped out of the car to flag down some help — and saw something she hadn’t seen before on her morning commute: the sunrise. It was a glorious, awe-inspiring sight. She eventually made it to work with a lighter heart. Today Betsy Franz moves at a slower pace, one that allows her to be present, to notice the small things, and hear the small voice deep in her soul that had been muffled. She is happy.

Michelle Smyth found her happiness and an unexpected purpose when her son was diagnosed with autism. She became a mom on a mission, researching everything she could learn about autism, elated when she heard about a new therapy that held promise. She hit brick walls at every turn. “Too expensive.” “We don’t offer it here.” But this mom was not to be denied. Michelle cajoled her way into observing some training sessions, convinced a respected specialist in the field to coach her, and turned her basement into a therapy center, all so she could work with her little boy. His progress was incremental, but real. Small accomplishments were celebrated and more challenging tasks tackled.

Before long, other families struggling with autism heard of Michelle’s efforts and asked if she’d help their children. A support group was born that has since blossomed into a full-fledged autism center serving kids throughout her area. Michelle says she has “an indescribable joy,” excitement for the future, and happily believes she is fulfilling her destiny.

Jennifer Quasha thought her destiny was to be constantly depressed. She probably hadn’t heard that researchers believe that forty percent of our sense of happiness comes from our own activities. She’d had a difficult childhood, lost two friends in a car accident, survived a mugging at gunpoint and was brutally assaulted — all before her mid-twenties. Depression ran in her family and she just assumed it was to be her lot too.

Then she decided to confront her depression. She’ll tell you all the things she’s done, including what she calls her “little secret.” It’s the small datebook in which each night she writes down the one thing that made her happiest that day. It’s working. As Jennifer puts it, “The spin on my life has changed. I actively seek the positive.”

Alexander Brokaw tried to see the positive in his college studies. He really tried. With two parents on Wall Street, he figured he was supposed to pursue a career in business, but his heart wasn’t in it. His books went unopened until just before finals, which he somehow squeaked through. On winter break his sophomore year, a friend got into a bar fight and Alex rushed to defend him. Two guys attacked him and Alex ended up in the emergency room, being examined for a concussion.

The CT scan revealed no concussion. It was worse. The scan had picked up a brain tumor. Alexander had to withdraw from school and undergo chemotherapy. During his forced break from school, he resumed a childhood pastime he’d discarded years before. He began playing pretend, conjuring up epics with adventures and storylines that he put on paper. When Alex recovered and went back to school, he switched from finance courses to a creative writing major. He says, “Being successful is doing what makes you happy. Life is too short and uncertain to do anything else.”

It is the uncertainty of life with which we begin our stories, with the incomparable wisdom of Angela Sayers. One of Angela’s greatest wishes was to be published as an author. In this book, she is. Sadly, it was one of Angela’s last wishes, as she had been battling osteosarcoma since she was fourteen. You’ll notice I said one of her “last” wishes, not her “dying” wishes, because as this very wise young lady put it: “I’m living. Every day.”

Angie wrote her story for this Chicken Soup for the Soul edition as she was nearing the end of her long cancer battle. She’d already lost one of her lower legs and most of her lungs to the disease, which doctors had just learned had spread to her brain. Yet twenty-year-old Angie had not an ounce of bitterness. Listen to her perspective:

“I’m still here. I’m still living. Life is precious, whether you have a straight road stretched before you as far as the eye can see, or whether, like most people, your road turns and bends into the undergrowth and you have no idea where it leads. Follow that bend, and your heart, no matter where it goes. Mine may go on, to places unmentionable, but everyone’s does, eventually.”

Angela Sayers’ journey ended on July 15th, 2011, as this book was being completed. She was only twenty. But while her body has gone, her incredible wisdom lives on. We start and end the book with Angie’s wisdom, including Story 1, in which she describes her happiness as she continues to live her shortened life, and Story 101, her final letter to family and friends, which her family found after she died. Turn the page to see the gift that Angie left you in her inspirational stories and ninety-nine others that show you how to find your happiness.

~Deborah Norville

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