It was a cold, dreary Saturday. My husband and I had plans to go out to dinner for a birthday celebration, but Ana, our three-year-old, woke up with a fever. We had no choice but to cancel our reservation and hunker down with our crabby child.
Somehow, we survived the day, but not without many tears and tantrums. As night fell, I held Ana in my lap in a rocking chair. "Hard day, huh?" I said. She looked up at me and wailed, "I just want to be happy!" I burst out laughing, my mood instantly improved by her precocious remark.
The pursuit of happiness is one of the rights promised by the Declaration of Independence. But many of us simply don't know how to be happy. In a recent survey, the United States ranked only 16th (out of more than 65 nations) in the percentage of its citizens who say they are very happy.
We seem to have gotten the message that happiness is out there in the right job, the perfect mate, the $50,000 SUV rather than inside ourselves. We've trained ourselves to think in "if-onlys": If only my spouse would come home from work earlier; if only we could make $20,000 more a year; if only I could be a stay-at-home mom then I'd be happy. We spend our time trying to make our if-onlys come true, only to discover that even if we do achieve them, a new if-only arises.
It's often said that happiness is a choice. That's a bit simplistic. No one can be elated on demand. Rather, happiness is a feeling that arises from the thoughts we choose to hold and the actions we choose to take. I was reminded of this recently when I met Tami, a mother of two and a driver for a private mail carrier. Tami decided to make her work more enjoyable by spreading mental sunshine copying inspirational quotes on small pieces of paper and handing them out as she delivered her packages. Folks on her route now wait eagerly for the next message, Tami told me, while she feels more optimistic about dealing with whatever life brings her.
I'm convinced that regardless of the challenges we face, we can experience happiness on a daily basis, and not just during peak moments or special occasions. As Ed Diener, Ph.D., a psychologist and researcher at the University of Illinois, notes, "Happiness is how frequently you're happy, not how intensely." Even on bad days, there are ways to feel good about your life.
Unfortunately, some of us are actually afraid to be happy. In the recesses of our hearts, we believe that we'll jinx ourselves. Or that if we get too much of a good thing, we're just setting ourselves up for disappointment. Perhaps you don't feel you deserve to be happy that happiness comes only from hard work or from good luck that you just don't have.
If such thoughts are a legacy of your family, acknowledge them as part of your heritage and then do an experiment. Try some of the happiness practices described here and pay attention to what happens. Chances are you'll begin to perk right up. As wise woman Sarah Delany wrote in her book Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years, "Life is short, and it's up to you to make it sweet."