Stealing Happiness

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woman smiling while sharing an apple

Happiness is one of those things we all need, we all seek, and yet sometimes (oftentimes) we struggle to find it. We search and search and search. We look in all the right places. We try positive thinking, morning affirmations, self-help, self-care, setting and achieving goals, planning and going on vacations, and all the other things that are supposed to make us feel better.

Well, here’s the thing, dear reader. We’ve been looking in all the wrong places.

I know, I know, you’re saying, Jimmy, I love my positive thinking and my self-care bubble bath. I get it. Me too.

But that’s not what brings us true happiness.

True lasting happiness can’t be found in those activities. I’m not saying they don’t feel good. They do! But they are not going to keep you in the land of happy too far beyond the time you’re engaged in those activities.

But don’t give up hope. I’m here to tell you that you can experience true, lasting happiness whenever you want it.

Because happiness is not found; it is created!

Yep, that’s right. We have the capacity to create happiness any moment of any day no matter how bad, how disappointed, or how doomed we feel.

I know it sounds too good to be true, but I’m going to let you in on the dirty little secret of happiness.

We create happiness by doing good. And we do it best by engaging in any of the four following activities.

Appreciation, Giving, Forgiveness, and Laughter

Yep, just those four. And the great thing is, the return is immediate and long-lasting.

If you’re hesitant to believe me, just read a bit more and see if I can’t change your mind.

Let’s start with Appreciation.

Appreciation of others is one of those miracle activities that is so counter-intuitive, we rarely take advantage of its power.

You see, appreciation is just like gratitude, and they both have the same effect. I like to use the word appreciation, because it has a bit more “action” behind it.

While gratitude is something we usually do in a daily journal, we rarely “do” gratitude with another person. And while gratitude has a pretty strong effect on our level of happiness, appreciation goes one step further, because it engages the other person.

Here’s a good practice you can form into a habit. Next time you’re thinking about someone, write down their name and write what you are grateful for. Then, either pick up the phone, write a letter, or send a card to let them know you were thinking of them and remember to include what it is you appreciate about them.

(You might want to have a box of tissues around if you engage in a verbal or virtual exchange. Tears tend to flow when these conversations take place.)

Now that you’ve filled your heart with love and appreciation for someone else, it’s time to do some good old-fashioned Giving.

Giving to others is another one of those “Hold on, I thought this was making someone ELSE happy,” activities. It is, and it’s interesting to see how much we get back from giving back.

You know the old saying, “It’s better to give than receive.”? Well, it’s true.

A recent study conducted by Carolyn Schwartz involving 137 multiple sclerosis patients were to receive phone calls providing emotional support. That is wonderful and patients’ well-being did improve. The interesting thing that showed up in the study results was that the five patients who made those phone calls had the biggest boost in physical health and emotional well-being.

That’s right. The ones who MADE the calls had the greatest gains.

Giving can come in the form of volunteering time with a non-profit, working a couple of hours on a crisis hotline, or simply giving someone a compliment.

(I happen to do all of these things but start where you can and watch your own happiness grow.)

Of course, giving can also come in the form of financial offerings and donations, but that doesn’t carry the same weight as taking the time and effort providing physical or emotional assistance in some meaningful way. The gift of time or talent creates a much stronger tie to personal happiness than the gift of treasure.

So now that you’re in the giving mood, let’s talk about a different kind of giving – Forgiving.

Forgiveness is a tough one. Even for the most positive, happy people in the world, forgiveness can seem like a bridge too far. I mean, some people are just assholes and never deserve to be forgiven. I get it.

But allow me to drop a little pycho-science on you with this one.

Research by Krause and Ellison in 2003 showed that people who forgave others tended to enhance their own psychological well-being. The team also found that adults who forgave unconditionally received even greater levels of satisfaction and relief than those who asked for an apology or some other act of contrition.

In fact, unconditional forgiveness does not even need to involve the other person at all. If the idea of facing your offender is just too much to bear, you can simply think about the incident or person that hurt you and then write out the definition of forgiveness that you feel comfortable with. That’s it. Just write what it would look or sound like if you were confronting that person in real life.

The important thing here is to make this act of forgiveness, whether written or verbal, completely unconditional.

You’re not condoning bad behavior of others; you’re taking responsibility for our own actions.

You’re not seeking an apology; you’re letting go to find inner peace.

And there’s a bonus that we often overlook when we do forgive. When we forgive, we take back control. You see, when you hold anger against another person, you give them (or at least that thought) control over your well-being.

Ruminating about negative thoughts, beliefs, or experiences prompts even more negative thoughts and beliefs, increasing anger, anxiety, and/or depression.

Release the anger, let go of the grudge and regain control over that situation.

And while you’re at, go ahead and forgive yourself for any self-judging or self-shaming. We all tend to be our own worst critics, so this time be your own best friend. Give yourself the same forgiveness for mistakes that everyone else gets.

That was pretty heavy, so let’s end on a lighter note. Laughter.

You know how they say, “Laughter is the best medicine.”? Well, it is, in fact, absolutely true.

It works with colleagues at work, loved ones at home, and even in the relationship we have with ourselves.

Seriously, when we take time to look at the lighter side of things, we actually improve our psychological and physical well-being. Studies have shown that when we laugh, we build especially healthy immune systems and we fend off heart attack and stroke by forty percent.

In fact, people who engage in regular bouts of laughter tend to live 4.5 years longer than those who don’t.

And since we’ve effectively lost the last two years to pandemic lockdowns and limitation, an extra four and a half years seems like we owe it to ourselves to a little chuckle here and there.

Using light-hearted humor at work builds stronger relationships among team members and between subordinates and supervisors. And when work relationships are stronger, people tend to be happier.

And when work life is good, home life gets better.

According to the Gottman Institute, couples who use humor and gentle teasing to deescalate conflict and reduce stress, have much stronger and happier relationships.

And just like the other happy-inducing activities, give yourself a bit of grace here as well. Cut yourself some slack and just laugh a bit. You may not be perfect, but no one is. So don’t be so hard on yourself and find a few ways to see the humor in your flubs and foibles. You deserve a little comedy break.  

Wait. What’s that? You’re the selfish type? You don’t want to do good for others, because they can find their own happiness. You’re just out to get yours?

Well, you’re in luck, my ego-centric, selfish friend. I’ve got great news for you.

Being good in the ways I’ve just outlined are perfect ways to be incredibly selfish. You see, while you may be doing some good for those you show appreciation to, give to, or forgive, you’re getting the last laugh because you receive the bigger benefit.

It’s like you’re stealing happiness.

They think you’re being nice to them, when in fact, you’re doing it for yourself.

There, feel better now? Awesome!

So whether you’re a benevolent do-gooder or a selfish, happy hog, how will you find ways to show appreciation to others? How will you spend a little time giving back and volunteering? And how will you learn to forgive, take responsibility, and take back your power?

Oh, and don’t forget to laugh. It really is the best medicine.

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