Like most states of well-being, happiness is underrated. While we know that reducing stress can prolong our lives, wanting happiness—perhaps the inverse of stress—can sound idealistic. “Sure”, we might think, “I’d love to be happy, but I’ve got work to do, people to manage, a family to support.”
Being happy elevates our enjoyment of daily life. It energizes us and makes us more resilient. Being happy is good for our general well-being and our professional success. People who appear happy are viewed as more confident, and happiness is a key predictor of performance at work. We look up to and choose to follow leaders who appear happy.
So why don’t we all make happiness a primary focus of our lives and then use its dividends to get our stuff done? Because it takes work to be happy—sometimes so much that we think getting there is impossible, or outside of our control.
The most important thing we need to do to create a happier life is to think of happiness not as a destination but as the vehicle to get there. We may not be heading toward the job or relationship or salary or body we hoped for, but instead of using our energy to be frustrated about what’s not happening, we can use it to figure out what else we can do to make things better. We still might not be able to change the destination, but at least we’ll have a chance. And, either way, the ride will be more enjoyable.
Being happy requires a constant state of mindfulness and attitude adjustment. So, even if we agree that happiness is worth the effort, it can still be difficult to achieve. (Gretchen Rubin documents an entire year of focused happiness work in her Happiness Project.)
I’ve never been happier in my professional life than I am now. Three simple approaches have helped me get in this position.
Turn it around
On most workdays I wake up excited to work with clients, students and colleagues. I settle into my desk with a hot cup of coffee or drive to a nearby destination, enjoying the chance to get out of the office. On some days happiness is elusive, not just at the beginning of the day, but at different points throughout, for example when a client reschedules or when I realize I failed to plan for a due date. As one who likes her independence (read: control), I have a habit of getting frustrated when external forces change the way I had planned to spend my time.
When I feel frustration or other undesirable emotions, I ask myself, “how do I want to be in this moment?” Then, I try to be it. Thankfully, my propensity for control is balanced by an affinity for spontaneity and pride in being able to make damn good lemonade out of those proverbial lemons. So, when I start to feel frustrated about losing time, I choose to be flexible and invigorated. Instead of focusing on what I’ve lost (a well-planned day, a block of writing time), I find something gained (some surprise discretionary time, an imminent accomplishment).
To turn it around, ask: How do I want to feel about this situation? What opportunity can I find to act this way?
If you’ve done work to develop enjoyable skills or helpful ways of thinking, you’ve experienced the link between growth and happiness. While it might sound exponentially difficult to grow capabilities while trying to grow happiness, it’s more of a two-for-one deal: you learn something new and that something new is useful and enjoyable. Motivation psychologist, Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, hypothesizes that “The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times . . . The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”
Ever feel stagnant and happy? Probably not. Ever feel restless—like you needed something new to make you feel happier? That’s what I’m talking about. Whether it’s a different career, an improved skill, or a new hobby, stretching ourselves is an important part of long-term happiness. Note the “long-term” part. Sometimes our initials attempts cause more angst than joy as we figure out what we want or how to be good at it. (When that happens, remember to “turn it around”.)
To refuel, ask: What area of my personal or professional life could use a happiness boost? What is important to me? How can I integrate something “difficult and worthwhile”?
Take a detour
Sometimes life sucks. And we can be sure that we will never be free from having to do things we don’t want to. For me, it’s paperwork. I’m “not a detail person”, which is to say I delegate as many forms and computation-based tasks as possible. I don’t enjoy having to organize my receipts (before delegating to my bookkeeper) or filling out government forms (before delegating to my accountant). When I “flip it”, I choose to be responsible and results-driven. I envision the beauty of a nearly empty inbox. Meh. I’d still rather do something else. So I do.
I’m not suggesting avoiding unsavory responsibilities—at least not entirely. I’m suggesting a distraction. While being mindful of our happiness levels is important, ruminating on unhappiness isn’t helpful. The point of being mindful is to find the opportunity to improve our situation.
When I don’t want to do rote paperwork but need to, I put on a podcast or Netflix show that doesn’t require much mindshare. I think of this as luxury time to myself, when I just happen to be doing some paperwork in the background. For more strategic tasks, I open a window, turn on ambient noise, embrace a fresh cup of coffee. Or I reward myself after completing something I don’t really want to do. Maybe I’ll take a walk. Or eat ice cream. (Or both!)
To take a detour, ask: What makes me happy? What could I integrate with this task or use to reward myself afterward?
If you’re naturally optimistic, or someone who has done a lot of self-development work, you’ve already figured out that happiness is always possible, and it’s up to you to make it happen. That’s great! Keep smiling! And be patient with those of us who may have to put in extra effort. Even better: share your secrets to happiness by commenting below.