The journey to personal happiness, and how to get there.
By Carlin Flora published January 1, 2009 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
Anyone can increase feelings of meaning, satisfaction, and joy in their lives. But it takes a lot of work. Here, meet three people who consciously overhauled their lives in search of happiness.
Crazy Sexy Cancer
On Valentine's Day 2003, Kris Carr got a surprise all right: a diagnosis of an incurable form of cancer. The doctor told Carr, then a 31-year-old actress who had starred in several Budweiser commercials, that she had 24 slow-growing tumors on her lungs and liver: a stage four sarcoma.
Immediately she launched a vigorous campaign toward wellness. She consulted with oncologists, a macrobiotic chef, an acupuncturist, and a shaggy-haired spiritual guru, among others, and documented her efforts in a film that aired on The Learning Channel, Crazy Sexy Cancer . Carr wasn't searching for joy—she was trying to save herself. But personal happiness was the by-product of her life overhaul.
Before her diagnosis, Carr was struggling emotionally but viewed changing her life as difficult, even impossible. Her good salary as a commercial actress didn't allay feelings of frustration and insecurity, given the grueling nature of auditioning. "For women, it's a line of work that is focused on physical appearance rather than substance. I was always being judged, and always waiting for permission from casting directors to do what I wanted to do. I probably got more rejections in one week than most people get in a lifetime. "Yet to give up on performing, her childhood dream, didn't seem an option.
A true nature lover, Carr had nevertheless been living in New York City for more than a decade. Thoughts of moving to the country popped into her head from time to time, but she quickly shot them down; a rural existence couldn't be reconciled with the life of an actress.
Carr's social life was further fueling her insecurities. "I was dating guys who were basically vampires, just sucking the life out of me and then disappearing. I would think to myself, 'This guy treats me bad, but there's something exciting about him.' I was addicted to drama."
The shock of the diagnosis and the prospect of a much shorter life than she had ever imagined transformed Carr's inner voices into stentorian commands. She immediately sold her apartment and moved to Woodstock, a lush and funky community two hours north of the city."I was like a plant moving toward the sunshine," she says. She ditched her cavalier boyfriend du jour and eventually married Brian, the sweet cameraman with whom she made her film. "In my pre-diagnosis life, I wouldn't have noticed Brian, because I wasn't responding to nice guys."
Carr's health today is remarkably robust—the tumors have not progressed. And her new career as a health advocate is flourishing: Her sassy, defiant voice brings resolve and comfort to many cancer patients, especially young women who don't want to sacrifice their vitality and attractiveness to the disease. Her latest book, Crazy Sexy Cancer Survivor: More Rebellion and Fire for Your Healing Journey , includes dating tips, raw food ideas, meditation tips, and advice on acceptance and forgiveness.
"I'm much happier now that I listen to my gut more, and now that I have the courage to think that my voice matters," Carr says. "In my old life, I was always trying to see if people liked me, if they accepted me. Now I speak from my heart."
When she goes to conferences about nutrition for cancer patients, "I'm the only person there without letters after my name," she says. "I have to trust that I'm smart and capable. Before, I would second-guess myself into inaction. Now I'm more willing to take risks."
Living with cancer is in itself not hard for her, she says, even though it is presumably a constant reminder of how fragile life is. "I'd rather have one phenomenal year than 90 mediocre ones. When you are really living, it really doesn't matter how long you're here."
Less is More
In 2005, Leo Babauta was a speechwriter for the governor of Guam, the U.S. territory where he'd grown up and still lives. He spent long hours at a stressful job he didn't really like, his kids were growing without him, and he was overweight and tired. "I just wasn't happy," Babauta says. Despite his prestigious position,
"I was an underachiever. I was smart enough to do well, but I never felt motivated. None of what I was doing really excited me."
He did achieve one thing during that time: He quit smoking. "I did a lot of online research on changing habits," Babauta says. "I had always wanted to be disciplined, but I never was. I would start to get organized or to wake up earlier, but the efforts would always fall apart. It's not that I was a total loser; it was just difficult for me to stick to things. That's why it was so exciting to learn how."
Soon Babauta applied his new habit-cultivating skills to running, a pursuit for which he developed a burning passion. (He's currently training for his third marathon.) Then he began to eliminate his debts, to simplify his daily routine, to wake up earlier, and to rid his diet of meat.
Babauta concluded that achieving goals is the key to happiness, and that the key to reaching them is the cultivation of good habits through daily practice. "It is my belief that you must practice a habit, as focused as possible, every day for a month," enough time for the new behavior to take hold. "I also learned that you can get over your urges to engage in your old habits by riding them out and focusing on something else."
And, finally, he started his blog, Zen Habits (zenhabits.net). With more than 70,000 subscribers, the blog, which discusses productivity, motivation, and healthy eating, among other hot topics, is supporting Babauta, his wife, and his six children.
At first, his only readers were his wife and mother. "But pretty quickly," he reports, "a lot of people connected with the things I was writing about. I wasn't an expert. I practice what I preach. I'm human, and I share my failures and what I've learned from them." He insists he's "grown along with my readers, and improved my life with wisdom from them. That has been a wonderful thing for me."
True happiness came to Babauta after he clarified what is most important to him—spending time with his family, writing, reading, and running—and cut out nearly everything else.
"I don't watch TV. I don't talk to people on the phone. My Internet searches are all work-related," he says. "Most people have too much going on and not enough time for things that are truly important.
Simplifying makes room for these important things. It also reduces stress and clutter, and that leads to a more peaceful life."
His work led to a publishing deal and a first book, The Power of Less , about learning to choose the essential and eliminate the nonessential. "No piece of advice is going to work for everybody," Babauta says. "I always tell people that you have to figure out what works for you. Also, you could read my blog or another one for years and not actually do anything. There's a bridge you have to cross, and to cross it, you need to feel excited about your goal. That's what helps you put thoughts into action."
The Happiness Project
Gretchen Rubin has a systematic mind. It got her into Yale Law School. It helped her clerk for US Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. It enabled her to write four critically acclaimed books. And it may help her find happiness.
"It wasn't that I was unhappy," Rubin says of a day when she realized she "should have been happier, considering what I had. I thought of something Colette had said on her deathbed: 'What a wonderful life I've had. I only wish I'd realized it sooner.'"
A superstar lawyer and then writer, Rubin didn't feel she was living up to her own standards as a wife, mother, friend, and creative intellectual. She kept thinking life was going to begin some day in the future when, in fact, "it was already here."
She didn't just let her insight fade; she unleashed her perfectionism on it. First, she set out to study happiness. Then, for a year, she test-drove "every principle, tip, theory, and scientific study I could find, from Aristotle to St. Therese to Martin Seligman to Oprah." She chronicled her quest online (www.happiness-project.com) and in an upcoming book.
Staying happy is labor-intensive—every day Rubin checks off compliance with eight resolutions, each revolving around a theme she changes monthly: "Sing in the morning" (to become a more cheerful mom), "read memoirs of catastrophe" (to see the preciousness of ordinary days). "Filling out the resolution chart is a tremendous burden," Rubin says. "But it's incredibly important because it's a way to track manageable, concrete actions."
Rubin's most successful uppers to date include a few classics: Getting more sleep and exercising more. Both calm her and raise her energy level. Some realizations have been painful, such as seeing how quick she was to get angry. "I felt guilty, but then I felt better once I saw I could change." Resolutions: "Don't use my husband as a dumping ground" and "Don't talk about annoyances." She's also learned to avert situations that spark her temper." I don't let myself get too hungry. I've stopped drinking, since it made me more belligerent."
Another favorite tactic is acting the way she wishes she felt. "If I'm intensely annoyed with my husband, I'll write him a cute e-mail about something that happened. It releases me from my feelings, even if I have to push myself to do it." His invariably lighthearted responses further lift her mood.
Feeling vexed about taking her daughter to the doctor, she pretends she's looking forward to it. "This technique is so powerful, because soon I start to realize that it's true; I don't want someone else taking my daughter to her appointments, after all."
Rubin has become "a huge evangelist for happiness." She advises others to identify one thing that's bringing them down, whether it's eating junk food or spending too much money, and commit to fixing that problem. "Tell your friends so you have a bit of accountability." Rubin's happiness formula exemplifies the purposeful, if not always pleasant, life: "To be happier, you need to think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth."
"What's right might not necessarily make you feel good," she stresses. For example, people hate commutes, but they make them to live in a good school district or to give their kids a yard. It's a source of feeling bad, but it's often the right thing to do as a parent."
"Happiness is elusive, always just out of reach," she says. "That's why it's important to have a feeling of progress, of growth and change for the better. That could be learning something new, or having an actual garden, or just noticing your children maturing. Even if a life feels right, it's not going to bring happiness if it's stagnant."