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The Secret to Happiness

The secret to happiness is also the secret to a long and fulfilling life.

When most of us think about what makes us happy, we tend to focus on the “things” in life that we crave or long to own. These things may be concrete consumables or they may be intangible resources, such as “time,” “inner peace,” or “true love.”

It is easier for us to create a list of what we want the world to give us than it is to think in terms of what we can give back to the world.

We live in a world of instant feedback and conspicuous consumption. It may be experienced firsthand through the “Buy Now” button on Amazon’s website or through the obsession with following celebrities’ tweets or video reviews of products, films, and life, in general.

It is amazing how many “things” everyone seems to have in their lives—and how many more things we might desire that we believe will make us feel even better about ourselves in relation to how we think others feel about us.

It is perhaps the paradoxical desire to divest to have more that has created the hot new trend for “tiny houses” or the online tales of people who are living “off the grid,” (ironic, isn’t it, that we hear about these folks’ experiences online?), or the movement to make do in life with 100 possessions or less. Actually, now that our cellphones can do just about anything that we need them to do—from finding our potential mate to preparing dinner via online ordering from nearby take-out places—making do with less isn’t as austere as it once might have been.

“Down-sizing,” “right-sizing,” or “de-cluttering all reflect the same realization that is gaining momentum—possessions simply won’t bring lasting happiness to our lives.

Happiness is a state of being, not a pile of stuff.

So, I’m going to share with you the Big Four Happiness Factors.

Disclaimer: I’m a counselor, a counselor educator, and more significantly, an unashamed optimist. So I’m going to assume that I am planting the seeds of unimaginable levels of personal growth and development through these next few ideas.

The Big Four practices that can change your life for good are friendliness, cheerfulness, compassion, and gratitude.

Let’s break these down.

Friendliness First

Some people can be described as “the type of person who’s never met a stranger.” These are people who meet the world with a pleasant temperament and an openness to new people and new experiences – regardless of who may be placed in their path on any given day.

Friendliness is about offering warmth and good humor to those around you.

It is about being willing to make the first move socially while recognizing that others may be a little slow to warm up and that the rewards for friendliness are not always immediately enjoyed. I once worked with a vibrant and delightful woman in her 70s who avowed that “every day is a new opportunity to add to your collection of friends!” She couldn’t count the number of friends she had and she couldn’t find words to describe the pleasure they brought her in life.

Human beings are social creatures and being kind is a lot more likely to help you build your “tribe” than showing indifference to or disinterest in the people that you might someday need for support or assistance.

Make Cheerfulness Your Default Demeanor

There are plenty of old songs that encourage us to “put on a happy face” or “smile when your heart is breaking,” or “don’t worry, be happy.” Many of us may feel a little confused about why we are always encouraging people to “lie” to themselves.

Actually, there is a Zen koan or saying that states simply, “Practice smiling while peeling carrots.” My yoga instructor always encourages us to smile during the most difficult poses. She asks the question, “Are you smiling because you are happy or are you happy because you are smiling?”

She was on to something important.

Being able to offer a sunny disposition to the world, regardless of your inner state, actually encourages you to physically feel better!

So when someone else is turning to you to help them deal with their problems, smiling at them will help you let go of your frustration and exhaustion and be present for them in an awesome way.

Smiles are contagious, too, and if we are able to find the energy to offer our own smile to others, even when our inner world is falling apart, we are going to feel better when our smile is returned.

Seeing someone offer you a genuine smile has actually been found to be emotionally and mental healing.

When You’re Feeling Lonely, Do This ...

Did you know that simply imagining that you are being smiled at by someone you love is just as powerfully healing as having that person present?

Close your eyes for a moment. Now, imagine being with someone you love and who cares about you and who isn’t here with you today. Now, imagine this person offering you a warm smile. Once you’ve locked that image in place, take a deep breath and slowly open your eyes. Did you find you were smiling just thinking about that special person’s smile? Did you feel warmth around their heart, like a hug, as you imagined that person?

Yep, it works almost every time!

Now, if you need one more reason to be cheerful, how about this.

Research has shown that when patients grimace during medical treatments or procedures, they actually feel more pain than those who do not.

Gritting your teeth and bearing it is not the best option. Letting yourself smile in the midst of struggle is what brings a change in perception.

Be empathetic to those who might seek assistance from you and offer them extra support by way of an encouraging smile. When you use your warm presence to help them get through difficult times, the payoff can be huge!

Be Compassionate

Offering compassion to others is another charitable act that positively influences the giver. When we accept others’ shortcomings or cut others slack for their own wrongs or missteps, we are actually valuing humanity over someone else’s personal flaws.

Most of us are truly doing the best we can at any given moment. Sure, some days our “best” is far from “enough,” and there are days when we know that we are guilty of giving less where we probably should have tried harder to give more.

No one is at 100 percent of their game every day. However, if you accept the shortfall of another, the windfall for you is a happier life.

Offer Gratitude

Whatever you have in life and wherever you are, you can find some reason to be grateful. Today, you may be anxious, but you showed up, for instance.

Acknowledging your own good fortune—no matter how seemingly slight or minimal at the moment—can actually enhance your overall well-being.

Researchers have found that being truly grateful for what you have can yield important physical benefits—we sleep better and enjoy better relationships!

Not only that, but researchers have also found that your level of gratitude is inversely proportion to your level of depressed feelings or sadness.

The more grateful you are in life, the better the chances are that you will actually enjoy what you have!

So, I’ve shared the Secret to Happiness. Being happy is that simple. But maybe you’re wondering, “Why bother being happy?" There’s so much drama with politics, healthcare, the economic crisis, global warming, domestic strife, you name it! I get it. Sometimes it seems that if you’re expecting the world to make you happy, it simply isn’t going to happen.

However, you might realize the value of instilling these four practices into your daily life if you realize that choosing to engage in health-promoting behaviors will positively influence your own satisfaction with life—as well as of the lives of those around you!

Happy people enjoy less stressful lives!

Happy people are protected against some forms of chronic illnesses.

In fact, happy people actually live longer, too!

Plus, you are a lot more fun to be around if you’re feeling good about life!

You don’t have to win the lottery, earn a 4.0, bowl a 300, find the perfect job, find true love, or live a perfect life to find happiness.

You just need to do four things:

  1. Meet the world with a positive attitude.
  2. Smile at and befriend others.
  3. Cut us all a little slack.
  4. Be consciously grateful for all that you do have rather than worrying about why you do not.

Why be happy? Because those of us who see the world as a good place actually will enjoy the present moment more fully and typically have a few more moments in life to enjoy than the Debby Downers around us.

Be happy—just do it.

More from Suzanne Degges-White Ph.D.
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