Actually, nothing can make you happy.
You have to choose happiness.
That’s where courage comes in.
That’s easy for you to say, you tell me. You have no idea the kind of day I’ve had.
That’s true. I have no idea the kind of day you’ve had. But I know a thing or two about lousy days: I’ve had crappy jobs, been on the outs with my wife, been laid off, and worse, pushed to a lesser role without so much as an explanation. I’ve been on business travel and learned my wife had a car accident. I’ve been to war and had a man I respected killed. I’ve fought cancer.
For most of my life, I figured that was just the way things were supposed to be. Plenty of better people have harder lives than mine, the script went, so what the hell business do I have being happy?
That’s the fallback for most of us, isn’t it? We’re not happy by choice. Life is supposed to be hard, so we make sure it’s hard. Whatever our economic situation, whatever our race, whatever our sexual orientation, we fixate on the things that make life difficult. We wallow in misery.
It takes courage to make a different choice. Courage, and patience. I was closer to 40 than 30 when I learned I could make that choice, and it’s taken me almost a decade to figure out how to do it. I still struggle with it some days–heck, some months. But I’ve learned a few keys that help:
1. Be grateful.
There’s no antidote for a crappy life quite as strong as focusing on the things you like. They’re there if you look: a flower, a sunset, your kid’s crooked smile. Food in your belly. The smartphone you carry. The car that gets you from home to work, that gets your kids to school and your family to church and that movie you wanted to see, even though it’s old and you hate the color and somebody keyed the door three years ago.
Find something to be grateful for every day. Your friends might think you’ve lost your mind. That’s OK–do it anyway. I promise you’ll start to notice a difference in your life.
2. Take charge of your life.
You may choose misery because you feel like you have no control over your life. Your bills, or your need for health insurance, keeps you stuck in your job, which keeps you stuck in a town you don’t want to live in. Your credit keeps you in a house that’s too small for your family. And between your job and your kids’ activities and trying to maintain something like a social life, you hardly have time to breathe, much less take control of anything.
But you don’t have to take control of everything at once. You can start small. Make a budget and take control of your finances. Set aside one evening each week to spend with your wife or husband. Make a workout plan and keep it for 30 days.
Set a goal for a month from now, create a plan to achieve it, then follow your plan. There’s no better way to empower yourself.
3. Find what makes you come alive.
Find is misleading here. It’s more like remember.
There’s something you used to do as a kid that made time disappear for you; you’d start in the morning, then look up surprised when your mother called you to supper.
Remember what you were doing? Was it making up stories? Start a blog, or a journal. Digging in the dirt? Claim a corner of the yard for a garden. Building with blocks or Legos? Build a gazebo or treehouse in your backyard, or put together some shelves for the garage, or see if you can remember how to assemble a $20 model car.
To be a responsible adult, you told yourself years ago, you had to put your childish interests aside. But what if they weren’t so childish? What if finding, or remembering, the thing that made time disappear for you as a kid could help you be a better adult?
4. Help Somebody.
This may be the most important step of all, and it’s the one that requires the most courage. Because we’ve conditioned ourselves to believe helping others is dangerous to us, or harmful to them, or both. The guy asking for money to fill his gas tank is really an addict, we tell ourselves, and he’s going to use any money we give him to buy booze or drugs. That hitchhiker is probably a murderer, and if we pick him up we’ll become his next victim. And the family across town who’s asking for donations because dad’s gone and mom’s out of work? Well, they just need to try a little harder. Sending them money will just deepen the cycle of dependence.
But you don’t have to give money. You can give time, instead: help your neighbor move, or cut grass for the woman across the street who lost her husband in Afghanistan. Babysit for a single mom after school so she can work a little later and improve her family’s situation.
You can’t dwell on your own problems when you’re helping somebody else. It may be possible, but you’ll probably forget to. And forgetting your problems can become a habit, even when you’re not actively helping.
Of course, following any of these steps–better yet, all of them–will require courage, just like any other change. It will require you to say no to something you’re doing today so you can free up time to choose happiness. It may put you at odds with your friends, who are still stuck thinking misery is the way to go.
That’s okay. You’re making a different choice. And when they see the change your new choices make in your life, they may decide to try something different themselves.
Then you’ll be a leader. And that really takes courage.