Recently, I was talking to Linda, a harried marketing executive with two troublesome teenagers. We chatted about what she could do to make her life better, but I could tell we weren't getting anywhere. She kept focusing on her problems an unresponsive boss, children who were struggling in school. I asked her to look at the happy people she knew and then report back on what she observed.
A week later, Linda called with the answer. "People who are happy are more appreciative," she told me. "They take action on the things they can and don't worry about the rest. And they smile more." There you have it. The prescription for being happier: Focus on what's right instead of what's wrong in your life, understand the difference between what you can and can't control, and find things to smile about during the day. I'd add just one more be kind and generous to others.
Noticing what's right in our lives reminds us that we've been given so much. It's not that we deny the difficulties, but that we choose to focus on positives. After her sister was killed in an automobile accident, my friend Charon decided that the best way to honor her memory was "to celebrate all of life's gifts and not take anyone or anything for granted ever again." There's an Irish proverb that captures this attitude perfectly: "Count your joys instead of your woes. Count your friends instead of your foes." Despite living through a terrible loss, Charon was able to avoid bitterness and maintain an upbeat outlook.
Understanding what we can and can't control helps us stop bearing the weight of the world on our narrow shoulders. So many of us use endless amounts of energy worrying about things that cause unease but aren't within our control bad flying weather, say, or a flux in the stock market, or a friend's stormy love life.
This doesn't mean that we stop trying to make our lives better. As Susannah, a mother of two, says, "Before I had kids, I rarely let myself worry about anything. Now things happen my kids get strep throat, they don't catch on to blending sounds in reading class and I worry. But taking the initiative to seek help and resolve issues is a newfound source of happiness."
Finding a reason to smile means relishing the joys that are ever present a favorite song on the radio, the smell of lilacs, the touch of a loved one's hand. Free for the asking, these simple pleasures are the frosting on the cake, and they instantly raise our spirits. And don't underestimate the power of smiling itself. A recent study by two business school professors, Laura Morgan Roberts at Harvard and Stéphane Coté at the University of Toronto, confirms that presenting yourself as more cheerful than you actually feel reaps positive benefits for you as well as for those around you.
Kindness and generosity help us get out of our narrow self-focus and recognize that we're all in this together. As we reach out to others, our bodies are flooded with feel-good hormones, producing what Robert Ornstein, Ph.D., and David Sobel, M.D., call in their book Healthy Pleasures a "helper's high." Just try a random act of kindness, like feeding a stranger's parking meter or holding the door open for a class of handicapped students, and you'll experience the feeling.
Tracey, who started college at age 44, after her kids were grown, understands the power of these acts of heart and mind: "Happiness is more how I think than how I am. The more positive responses I give, the less complaining I allow in my conversation. And the more time I spend in giving, the more happiness pervades my actions and feelings...." The difficulties of our lives get a lot of our mental airtime and sap a great deal of our life force. How about giving equal time to happiness?