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3 Steps to Happiness

The simple practice that will change your life.

The secret to happiness is simple. It is based on a famous quote by professor and political figure Reinhold Niebuhr, “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” How can you implement this principle? Follow these 3 steps.

Step 1: Identify sources of unhappiness. For this step, you need two sheets of paper and a pen or pencil. Take the first sheet of paper and make a list of everything in your life that causes you unhappiness or dissatisfaction. Each person’s list will be different and your list will also change over time so you will want to make a new list as often as needed. Maybe as a teenager your unhappiness stemmed from lacking autonomy, in middle adulthood it was financial stress, and in older adulthood, your health became a concern. Each person will have multiple things on their list but the size of your list will shrink over time, based on the extent to which you follow these steps. Once you have developed your list, use a second piece of paper to organize your list from top to bottom in terms of what causes you the greatest unhappiness (at the top) to the least unhappiness (at the bottom). Look at your ordered list and put a minus sign (-) in front of items you cannot change—things that are not under your control—and put a plus sign (+) next to items that you can change—things that are under your control.

Step 2: Accept what you cannot change. For this step, you need items from your list with minus signs as well as an open heart and mind. In reading through these items, you might decide that some can be turned into plus signs, which is great. But in the end, some will be left sitting there as things you cannot change. They might include things like unrequited love, a certain relative or coworker, a health condition, or your age. Your goal is to make peace with these things. Realize that stressors are put in your life for a reason. We grow from facing difficulties; we become our best selves. Rather than feeling upset about the things you cannot change, feel grateful. Say “thank you” for the opportunity to grow. Each challenge presents a lesson to be learned. What is the underlying lesson? Is it patience, persistence, empathy, forgiveness, love? Keep in mind that although you learn the lesson, you will continuously be tested to ensure you are on track.

Step 3: Change what is under your control. For this step, you need items from your list with plus signs as well as motivation and patience. Each item on your “changeable” list will require its own unique solution. For example, mental health and childhood issues may require medical attention and a good therapist; insecurities will require excelling in valued domains (gaining skills and expertise) and/or working on body image (healthy eating, exercise); work stress and financial issues may require discipline, education, and changing jobs or career paths; dysfunctional romantic relationships will require repair or dissolution; and political dissatisfaction will require getting involved. The good news is that simply writing down the things you wish to change will bring you part of the way there. The remaining part may require a great deal of effort, energy, and determination, but it will be worth it. If you have a family to consider, you should sit down and outline the changes you plan to make and ask for their input and support. Given that your list is ordered from most to least influential, you might first tackle an item near the top for the greatest impact. Alternatively, if items near the top require immense change, you could start lower down for incremental progress. As you gain momentum and emotional strength, you will be better equipped to tackle the larger items.

Is your happiness worth it? Yes! This is where Reinhold Niebuhr’s quote is especially pertinent: you need the courage to change things under your control. Remember that you are the protagonist of your own life and no-one but you can create the outcomes you seek.

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