As we start a new year, most of are thinking of new beginnings, fresh starts, or making changes of some kind. Why? Most of us just want to be happy. That got me to thinking about the times I have been really happy, and what makes the difference between those times and times of discontent. I noticed some things, many of which you may already do, and others you may want to try. As for me, I’m going to remind myself of these often.
- Don’t get upset at insignificant things; save your anger for righteous causes: Most things don’t really merit the damaging side-effects of anger. Learn to blow things off, unless they truly deserve anger. Righteous anger over injustice or cruelty can make a difference in the world. If it isn’t going to make a positive difference in the world, let it go. One way to mitigate anger is to change your perspective by putting yourself into the metaphorical shoes of the people making you angry. When you understand where someone is coming from and what motivates him, it’s a lot easier to let go of anger.
- Do something nice for someone when it is completely not your responsibility: A generous act of kindness means the most to others and to you when you know that doing it is in no way your responsibility. Cooking dinner when it’s your turn—you’re supposed to do that. Cook dinner when it’s someone else’s turn, and it means something. It also creates a pleasant feeling. But make sure you do not expect or even want something in return. That kind of destroys the whole concept.
- Be grateful for what you have. The old saying goes: “It’s not getting what you want; it’s wanting what you get.” It’s so easy to be discontent when you think of all that you need or would like to have—even non-material things like a relationship or more time. Try to stop yourself when you think of these things and focus on what you now have that you didn’t have before. Notice how far you’ve come and realize you will probably have those things someday anyway.
- See yourself as a member of a community: Everyone needs to feel like she belongs to something bigger than herself. For some this is a church family; for others it is a local charitable organization. Still others join book clubs or Cosplay groups. When you connect to people with similar interests, you develop meaningful friendships that can alleviate loneliness, add meaning to your life, and give you a break from stress as well as something to look forward to.
- Spend time each day doing something you enjoy: Don’t wait for the weekend to have some fun. Take a little time, even in the busiest day, to treat yourself to something you love. It may be taking the time to get in a workout, reading a chapter of a good book, watching a favorite TV show or movie, or taking a quick nap. Never get so busy that you neglect taking a moment to relish your life.
- Do meaningful work or make your work meaningful: Face it. You probably spend most of your time at work. With this in mind, you need to make your work matter. You will enjoy it so much more if you believe the work you do is important—and not just for paying the bills or important for improving the company’s bottom line. If your work is meaningless, either find a way to make your work improve the lives of others or find work that does.
- Don’t think you are more deserving than someone else: The quickest way to unhappiness is to become bitter and jealous, thinking you deserve what someone else has. Don’t compare yourself to others or elevate yourself over anyone. Be humble. Humility leads to gratitude and gratitude to contentment.
- Realize that everything changes and look forward to it: You can’t stop change. Embrace it and know that every change is a chance to make things even better.
- Find something to laugh at every day: Laughter is good for your health and state of mind. Don’t take things so seriously, and find something that makes you really belly-laugh often.
- Don’t just laugh: Express yourself emotionally whenever appropriate. Don’t hold in your feelings. Cry when you need to and express anger and disappointment in kind, thoughtful ways. Show love when you feel it. Feeling your emotions gives depth and beauty to life.
- Think about what you say and how you will say it before speaking: Few things cause such damage as careless words. You can save yourself a lot of heartache with a few carefully chosen words or deciding words are not necessary at all.
- Don’t lie—ever: Yes, easier said than done, but lying is not only unethical, it can cause a lot of stress. If you make a habit of not lying, you never have to worry about it coming back to haunt you or about it having unintended consequences. Also, when you are totally honest, you are allowing people to really know the real you. Being known by another person, and being accepted anyway, is necessary to happiness.
- Don’t gossip: Even innocent and seemingly harmless gossip can end with serious consequences. Your gossip will come back to burn you when you least expect it, and it hurts people you probably never meant to hurt.
- Truthfully compliment someone every day: Consciously notice good things about others, including those you may have conflicts with, but especially those you want to keep loving, and then let them know that you noticed these good things. Not only does this make those you compliment feel good, it makes you like them more. When we look for the good in others, we will find it, and we will realize their value more often. It also makes us happier to see the good in others, rather than focusing on their faults.
- Spend some time in nature as often as possible: Even city lovers benefit from listening to nature’s sounds, breathing in fresh air, and feeling the earth beneath their bare feet. Connecting to the earth can be a spiritual experience for some, creating inner peace, calming stress, and lowering blood pressure. Spending at least twenty minutes a day in the sunshine helps prevent cancer and lifts the mood as well.
- Take care of yourself: Mind and body. Eat delicious, nutritious foods, exercise your body, get plenty of sleep, and use your brain. In addition to physical exercise, exercise your mind by reading, solving puzzles, riddles, or problems. Learn something new or memorize a favorite quote or poem. Keep a vocabulary list of definitions of interesting new words and use them daily. Being healthy, mind and body, contributes to happiness.
- Enjoy the arts, even if you aren’t talented: Read and write poetry, watch dance or dance yourself, view and make visual art, go to a play or act in a local theater production, listen to music or make music yourself. The arts make life more beautiful, and creating anything artistic naturally leads to joy.
- Give to charity throughout the year: We often think of donating at the end of the year either for tax benefits or because everyone is having their end-of-the-year drives for contributions, but organizations need help all year long. Giving is much more meaningful if we research and support organizations that represent our personal convictions and passions. As an animal lover, I find it rewarding and important to give to no-kill shelters and animal rescues. I also like to give to organizations that help the poor in my own community, such as the Springs Rescue Mission, the Salvation Army, and the local Red Cross shelter. My husband and I support National Public Radio as sustaining members because its presence and content is important in our lives and that of the community. We also give to various charities that help the community and to fundraisers we find worthy. Giving throughout the year, helps others, makes you a part of a larger community, gives a sense of belonging, and reinforces the values you claim as your own. Charity gives a sense of identity that corresponds to the ideals you hold dear, makes you more of the person you aspire to someday be, and gives you a sense of joy seated in the idea that hope continues to exist in the world, despite the tragedies and pain you also endure.
- Love an animal: Few things imbue such a sense of satisfaction and tranquility as sharing your life with an animal that loves you in return. Giving and receiving love from an animal actually makes your heart bigger and kinder. Caring for an animal has been shown to create empathy in sociopaths, purpose in the elderly, and kindness and gentleness in bullies. Personally, I can’t imagine being truly happy without a dog or a cat to share my home.
- Cultivate meaningful relationships: We are social beings and not complete without relationships. Make time to develop at least one or two relationships with people you value. Even though we can have friends who remain dear without proximity, to have a life-enhancing, close relationship with a person requires time together on a regular basis. Choose just a few people who are important to you and devote some time to them at least a few times a month. The time is well-spent. True friendship brings a great deal of happiness. Don’t be fooled into thinking that you don’t have the time to cultivate at least one relationship. In your old age, these relationships will be what you fondly cherish, and you will likely wish you spent even more time on them.
- Enjoy your own company: One thing is certain—you will always have yourself, so it is imperative for happiness that you enjoy time alone. You need to love and like yourself. If you don’t, you need to figure out why and fix it. Time alone can refresh you in important ways; it allows an opportunity for introspection, self-expression, self-improvement, and lets you know who you are, so that you can identify what you need to be happy, and when you know who you are and what you need, you can more easily share that with others, not only for your benefit, but for theirs. Truly knowing and accepting yourself gives you a strong foundation that can keep you from sinking in the shifting sands of change and even tragedy. Liking yourself and enjoying time alone can be the basis for happiness that comes from the inside out.
I’m not saying that happiness should be the most important thing we aspire to. I’m sure there are loftier ideals; however, the same things that are good for the world—other people and animals—are the same things that tend to make individuals happy, so why not? Go ahead, be happy. –Christina Knowles