4: My Own Happiness Project

4: My Own Happiness Project

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Find Your Happiness

My Own Happiness Project

Happiness is an attitude. We either make ourselves miserable, or happy and strong. The amount of work is the same.

~Francesca Reigler

When you find yourself sobbing unexpectedly in a bookstore, you know something’s wrong with your life.

I was snuggled into a puffy chair, focused on the book in my lap, Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project. It told the story of the author’s yearlong journey to examine her life and make happiness-promoting changes recommended by scientists, philosophers, popular culture, and friends.

As I read the opening pages, I found myself nodding, relating to her ideas. She warned readers that her experience was unique, but I saw reflections of myself in her personality, her marriage style, and her interests. I read quickly and eagerly, thinking I could improve my life, too, and suddenly I was stirred by a long-forgotten feeling, hope.

When my husband and friend found me, I was a sniffling, emotional mess with tears soaking my cheeks. I was overwhelmed not only by a desire for change, but also the realization that I was ready to succeed. I pulled myself together and clutched the book possessively on my way to the checkout counter.

Over the next few weeks I savored the author’s words, sometimes reading in bed or in a coffee shop, always with a pencil and paper nearby for notetaking. After I finished, I spent hours sitting at the desk in my study, designing my own happiness project. I considered what happiness meant to me and decided what behaviors to change or keep, how I would make that happen, and what attitudes I would cultivate. It looked like a lot to take on, but I had a plan. Getting more sleep, making time to relax with my husband, seeing my friends frequently — all these could be accomplished by better time management, right?

Not so fast. The moment I put my plan into action, I was immediately reminded that if it was all so easy, I’d have done it long ago. Sure, some changes were manageable, but I still only had twenty-four hours a day. If I wanted to expand time for my goals, I had to cut other priorities. How was I supposed to say no when everything was important?

Despite that struggle, life began to change — but not because I’d mastered time. I’ll probably always wrestle with the clock. Instead things were looking up mainly because of two attitudes I embraced regardless of what was on my calendar: gratitude and presence.

Gratitude and I go way back. We’re like old friends who rarely see each other but always click when they do. Years ago, I’d started a gratitude journal, recording little joys like mint mochas and scented lotion as well as thankfulness for life-defining things like good health and loving relationships. At first I wrote often, then less so as time passed. I didn’t give gratitude much thought until years later, when major surgery reminded me how much I needed it. There was nothing like being mostly helpless for months to remind me to appreciate the things I still could do.

The lessons of that time never left me, but, just like my attention to the journal, they faded into the background as life directed my attention elsewhere. It was time for another reminder.

I was running through my gym’s parking lot during a rainstorm, preoccupied as usual. As I entered the gym, the desk clerk asked how I was.

“I’m soaked,” I complained. “It’s pouring out there!”

Instead of commiserating, he asked me an unexpected question. “Do you like the rain?”

I was taken aback. Actually, I had always liked rain. I thought it was comforting, loved its sound, appreciated that it made everything so lushly green. Why was I complaining?

“Yeah, actually, I do,” I said, feeling thankful he’d made me think about it. It was a simple moment, but it was an effective reminder that cultivating gratitude is like cultivating a friendship. The more effort I put into appreciating and acknowledging it, the more rewarded I feel.

To keep gratitude in my daily life, I started playing a game called “five things.” I think of five things to be thankful for in the moment, with no generic answers allowed. Instead of “I’m grateful for my health,” I’ll say, “I’m grateful my leg feels well enough today to exercise.” This game is particularly helpful when worry sidetracks me, such as when I’m driving home from my job, pointlessly dwelling on workday problems. To distract myself, I focus on five current things to be grateful for, for example, a project finished early, praise from my boss, a favorite song on the radio, a storybook-blue sky ideal for a late-afternoon walk, and the fact that my husband will be cooking his famously mouthwatering hamburgers that night.

Playing “five things,” with its emphasis on what’s right, right now, works well with its companion attitude — presence. It wasn’t until I started making an effort to live in the moment that I realized how much time I’d spent fretting over past actions or worrying about future events. After struggling for years with anxiety, I was shocked to find that eliminating stress was often as simple as focusing on the present. You can’t wander into traffic if you’ve stopped to smell the roses.

I discovered something delightful, too — like scissors cutting paper or rock crushing scissors, presence quashes worry. If I’m truly in the moment, I’m not worrying. I’m too busy taking action or having fun. If I start to worry, I can stop it by assigning a time to take the next step to solve the problem and then letting it go until it’s time to act. If there’s nothing I can do, I skip straight to letting it go. I’ve found it’s not bad situations that sour my life, it’s the related worrying that’s most toxic.

I’m not saying I’m always happy. Interpreting my world through a prism of gratitude and presence takes practice, and sometimes I need reminders. Recently I was grumping around the house, knowing I should exercise but feeling uninspired. My right leg, which has periodically bothered me since my surgery, was aching.

“I need motivation help,” I said to my husband, Frank, who had just gotten home from work. “Will you go on a walk with me?”

“I can’t,” he said. “My foot’s hurting again, and I need to get off my feet.”

I must have looked disappointed, because he glanced at me and said, “You look sad! You can’t be sad! You’re happy now, remember?”

I smiled at the fantasy that I could eliminate all unhappiness. Still, even as I complained that I’d been putting off exercise for days, and you can’t just do that — sure you can, the King of the Couch argued — my perspective was changing. Frank’s comment reminded me that point of view is a decision I make. With that reminder, I knew I was going to walk. I’d appreciate the fresh air, the cold, clear sky, and my ability to take each step through the neighborhood. As I put on my walking shoes and my winter coat, I felt better already. Grateful. Happy.

~Alaina Smith

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