Can You Choose To Be Happy?

I was depressed. I was very depressed.  I had tried medication and found the side effects too high a price to pay for joy.  I had tried yoga and meditation and found that I couldn’t count on either practice to generate the joy I sought on a consistent basis. I had subjected myself to blood tests and discovered anemia and hypothyroidism were definitely affecting my mood.  I had been taking supplements to correct those imbalances and seen a marked improvement. Still, the holidays of 2014 put me into what had become an annual funk. My confidence had gone underground, and I was struggling to appreciate the good in my life. I was tired of it. I wanted to empower myself, and so one January morning, I decided: “I will be happy no matter what.”

Choosing to be happy changed everything. It wasn’t a switch; making the choice didn’t create automatic joy. Instead, in choosing to be happy, I committed to find ways to make it happen daily.  It worked for me, and I believe it can work for you, too.  Here’s my recipe for consistent happiness:

Focus on the good stuff.  

Contrary to how it might sound, focusing on the good stuff does not simply mean making lists of gratitude.  Sometimes I find that practice helpful; sometimes not.

Rather, for me, focusing on the good stuff means blocking out the bad stuff. Is there a very good reason for me to know about the latest mass shooting? I don’t think so. My rule is: if I can’t find an inspiring aspect of a given event, and if I can’t effect change for the better in a given situation, I don’t need to know about it.  Therefore, I spend very little time reading news reports.

Still, focusing on the good stuff doesn’t mean I put my head in the sand. With my teenaged daughter, I sleep at a women’s shelter about once a month. We help ensure the women and their children are safe, have what they need, can get their medications and have someone to talk to.  Seeing these women move from helplessness to hope, and being a part of that in some small way, is both inspiring and empowering.  It’s also a poignant reminder of how blessed I am to have a healthy, loving family, and a basically stable life.

Set a personally meaningful goal.

According to positive psychologist Tal Ben-Shahar, people who set goals that they find personally meaningful are happier. Some people find great fulfillment training for and ultimately running marathons. For me, running a marathon would be neither fulfilling nor fun; it would be torture.  I set goals in the form of challenging and engaging projects.

This winter, I chose two projects.  The first was to write a story.  I wasn’t sure how long the story would be, but since I wanted to complete the first draft by April 30th, I committed to writing every morning for at least one hour until it was finished. To do this, I altered my rising time to 5:00 a.m., so I could be done early enough to handle my other responsibilities. I completed my 46,000-word novella in early April, and have been seeking the critique of trusted readers since then. Editing will be phase two of this project.

The second project was to create a meditation aid and find a way to sell it. This project has turned into a business, and my work with it is ongoing and quite fulfilling.

Find a coach.

Life coaches come in many shapes and sizes; from executive business coaches to spiritual coaches. Coaching differs from therapy in its approach; a coach will help you move toward your goals and will spend little to no time assessing how long-past events have shaped your life.

Ideally, you will find a personal life coach with whom you can spend significant time focusing on your path and your pursuits.  I didn’t have the money for that, but through a series of synchronous events, I discovered Brian Johnson’s 5-day Optimal Living coaching call, which included access to a monthly follow-up call.  This was incredibly empowering and offered me exactly what I needed, when I needed it.

Listen to motivational speakers and read uplifting material that resonates with you.

If you haven’t already found a motivational speaker you love, visit TED.com and click on a topic that interests you.  There are so many inspiring people in the world, and it seems most of them gather at the TED conferences!  You’ll also find a great community of inspiring people and organizations on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.  Just search with hashtags about subjects you love.  (My top searches are #Art, #SocialEntrepreneur,  #MeditateEverywhere and #Yoga.)

Meditate

Meditation can take many forms, and I’ve written more extensively about the subject on my own blog, “Bliss & Wisdom”.  While the practice of meditation alone may not always boost your mood, it is proven to promote relaxation, which is a key component of joy.  Personally, I take twenty minutes to meditate every single morning before my yoga practice.

Exercise

“Exercise has a profound impact on cognitive abilities and mental health,” writes Dr. John Ratey in Spark.  Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar makes the claim that any day you do not exercise is a day you may as well have taken a depressant.  Our bodies are designed to move, not sit.

There are so many ways to exercise, it should be easy to find one that you love.  I practice yoga for twenty or more minutes every day, then do some combination of rowing, cycling and walking for at least 45 minutes per day. I also love to rebound on my mini-trampoline, which offers great aerobic conditioning, as well as lymphatic cleansing.

Eat food that makes you feel good long term.

There are myriad variations on the healthiest diet choices. I have tried a few, read about several, and ultimately chosen a dietary path that works for me. For you, I offer this advice: pay close attention to your body. Notice how particular foods affect your physical and mental state, both in the first ten minutes after eating, and in the subsequent hours.  Choose foods that boost your energy and your mood not just ten minutes after you consume them, but hours later. It’s easy to get caught in a trap of eating for the moment, only to discover the components of that “feel good food” are actually having a negative effect. After eating, you should be able to breathe freely and move easily.  Symptoms such as headache, bloating, excessive gas, nausea, stuffy nose, irritability, and itchy skin can be caused by foods that don’t jive with your particular physiology.

The choice is yours.

It’s easy to forget that how you feel is a choice you make.  This morning, for example, I awoke feeling grumpy, annoyed, and sorry for myself.  There was no reason for this that I could think of, so I asked myself, “Why am I upset?” I repeated the question over and over as I went about my morning routine, and then thought up reasons why I might be irritable. After a few minutes, I realized what I had done. Well, would you look at that.  I started searching for reasons to be upset, and lo-and-behold I found some! I even dredged up a few old reasons. I think I’ll try looking for reasons to feel good. I really want to feel good today. I want to have fun and feel great.

Making that simple choice set me on the path I prefer. When I sat down to meditate, I set the intention to feel good, and worked toward it. At the end of twenty minutes, I was starting to feel better. Moving into my yoga practice, I reminded myself of my intention to feel happy. I turned on music I enjoy and started warming up.

I’m not saying there’s no place for sadness, grief, anger or the full range of emotions. Yet, when biochemistry or learned habits keep you down for too long, the repercussions can be serious.  Since most of the time there are myriad reasons to experience joy, and since you do have a choice, wouldn’t you rather choose to be happy?

 

Rebekah L. Fraser is a freelance writer whose work has been published by Kripalu’s THRIVE blog, the Christian Science Monitor and Vegetarian Times. She is also a designer, mother, yoga teacher and entrepreneur.