Just watched The Happiness Advantage on PBS. Much resonated: Shawn Achor tells how only 10% of our happiness comes from our external world. The rest we generate within.
I know that personally, because I have learned through living with pain that I can choose to feel happy. Of course, often I don't, but I can and each time I make the conscious choice, it is easier the next time. This is like NLP (neuro-linguistic programming) where you are taught to recognize your most resourceful state and deliberately access this before meeting a stressor. (How to do it.)
But why have I made such a fetish of happiness? Where am I coming from? I have had a deteriorating back, back surgery and a limited life for some years now. Two years ago, we moved from our country cottage on 10 acres near a lake, pure heaven, into a downtown condo house, mainly because of my health, which made me feel very bad for my husband.
Moving into a new community, I knew I was a hard sell socially. I have celiac disease (no gluten) and also can't tolerate dairy, which makes me hard to feed. I can walk well, but I can't sit for long, so it is difficult to go to someone's home with unknown chairs. I can't easily go out for a meal or for coffee with a friend. Point blank, I can't go to a movie, a pot luck or book club, play cards, knit or volunteer. It is very off-putting to a would-be hostess when I accept an invitation: “I'd love to come, but I can't eat or sit.” You have to be very good company for them to persevere!
Yet, we are happier here than anywhere before. I have had to learn (and it was so hard) to be upfront., say I can't stand around talking if we meet, have to check out the food or bring some. It's funny, people don't like it if they can't feed you – it makes them uncomfortable.
So I knew I had to be cheerful, interested and positive. I had to be rewarding enough to counterbalance my disadvantages. And it had to be genuine. I had one experience behind me as a resource. Before my surgery I had been in a wheelchair, not all the time, but shopping, traveling and walking any distance, Everyone had told me to expect to be ignored or patronized. But it didn't happen. As long as I felt inside and behaved as if I were able bodied, then people reacted to me as if I were. So could that also work socially in a new community?
To my surprise and relief, everyone has been kind and tolerant. We have made good friends and life is interesting and fulfilling, though it has taken effort to get up on bad days and set myself up to be happy and content. But, as my mother would have said, it's like a muscle and gets stronger the more you use it.
Gradually, I am finding I know my happy state and can select it rather like a tune on a juke box. Dr. Achor talks of working with bankers who have missed a bonus, then soon after going to Africa where an entire economy had collapses, yet the Africans were the more cheerful.
I can vouch for that. We have many times visited former black homelands in South Africa, where the women carried the household water on their heads and there was one long drop toilet between several houses. The children played in the dust and crowded round me, running their hands through my hair while I taught them high fives. They shared their food with us and afterwards they danced, joyously they danced, while 20 miles away in the nearby town, the whites rushed by, harried against time.
What have we lost that they know in their bones? Ben, a villager and aid worker, told me that one New Year's Day he danced for five hours in the dust and the sun, for the pure joy of being alive.
Shawn Achor gives his steps to greater happiness. The first is to be grateful each day for three new good things that have happened. It works. Some years ago when a friend's marriage broke up, i knew she would be all right when she told me she was keeping a gratitude journal. Ten years later, she has a new husband, a job she loves and a Harley!
You obviously have to be careful: another happiness program boasted one participant took his course and ended up with a real estate agent. And Norman Vincent Peale taught a womanositive thinking …”and now she owns a corset factory!” So far I have netted a happy marriage and a contented cat.
For several years, I have been being consciously grateful for three good things just before I sleep. It gives a flavour to the day, colours it gold, not drab. It is so easy for days to run into each other, humdrum and the same, so I have expanded my gratitude exercise. I run the day through my head, highlighting each warm moment, every kindness, times when I see another's humanity. And then, I see, the day is not a featureless puddle of happenings, but there's a rainbow of grace colouring it. I can say, yes, that was a day worth living.