The Dalai Lama once told a waitress at a ski resort the meaning of life. The article is a good read, but I’m going to give away the punch line: he said the meaning of life is happiness. Ah, but how do you get there? What is the secret of happiness? His Holiness is a tricksy one.
“Folks are usually about as happy as they make up their minds to be,” Abraham Lincoln supposedly said, and there is some truth to that. Sometimes simply reminding yourself that you want to be happy has the power to make a difference in your attitude. But as someone who has spent significant stretches of time floating, jellyfish-like, in the murky underworld of dysthymia (or, as I like to think of it, “depression lite”), I believe I am qualified to say that simply willing yourself to be happy is not quite enough to get you there if the other pieces of the puzzle are not in place.
What are those other pieces? See, here is where it gets tricky, because I’m not going to tell you anything you haven’t heard before, and I’m afraid that if you’re stuck in that not-so-happy place, you’ll do what I did for years: mentally nod your head, dismissively think “sure sure,” and keep moving along in autopilot, because it can’t be that simple/won’t work for you/you’re already fine just the way you are (except maybe you’re not). DON’T DO THAT. Please. This is important stuff.
Secret of Happiness #1: Take Care of Yourself
When I say “take care of yourself,” I mean physically. I skipped this step—parts of it, anyway—for a looong time. In fact, the old me, reading this, would have stopped right here and said “right right, sure sure, won’t work for me, anyway I’m fine just the way I am.” The current me would like to smack the old me upside the head, because the current me is pretty certain that this is a required foundation for a Glittery Castle of Happiness. Without it, all the lovely turrets and towers and corbels and whatnot that make up all the pretty bits of life will eventually sink quietly into the Sludgy Moat of I Feel Dead Inside. What I’m saying is that if you are inclined to dismiss this, then you probably need to read and absorb it more than most. I know, because that’s who I was, too. Because I think taking care of yourself physically is SO important, I’m going to go into a little more detail.
Eat the Food
I stole the phrase “eat the food” from Amber Rogers of Go Kaleo, a website dedicated partially to the proposition that diets suck and that eating a sufficient amount of reasonably good food is a requirement of good health. I happen to agree. What is good food? Mostly whole foods that you enjoy, with fruits and veggies and sufficient protein and fats, plus a little that’s just fun¹, in quantities that allow you to not feel like you’re starving but also don’t burden you with excess calories. It may require some playing around to figure out what works for you. Her website happens to be a good place to start (or to check up on yourself), if you are so inclined.
Until I started regularly exercising earlier this year, as a dedicated couch potato, I had no real idea of the transformative powers of moving your body several times a week. Oh, I gave lip service to it, but until I felt myself growing stronger, until I saw the changes in my body, until I began to actually look forward to my time walking or biking or (in bad weather) on the elliptical, I didn’t really know. Exercise. Is. Amazing. If you don’t exercise now, just start walking. Go outside every day. Walk for 15 or 20 minutes at a pace that feels purposeful. Maybe you’ll graduate to hiking (which I love) or biking (which I also love) or yoga (which … I’m trying to love). Or maybe you’ll just keep walking. That’s perfectly fine! Just move regularly several times a week. I promise it will improve your life.
Speaking of outside: go there. Plants need sunshine, and so do we. We really do need it to make Vitamin D, which is so important for, among other things, mood. And hey, if you’re pale and freckly like me, something like 15 minutes a day is all it takes to get what you need. Ooh! You could walk or hike or bike at the same time! Efficient!
My favorite place to go is the ocean. It calls to me. Tragically, I live hundreds of miles from the ocean, so it’s mostly a long-distance relationship. But closer to home, I like to hike at a place that feels removed from cars and asphalt and LCDs (though I admit to whipping out my phone from time to time to snap pics). In addition to giving me a good workout, it recharges my emotional batteries and centers me. A walk in the woods, for me, is like meditation (which I also recommend).
Try to get seven or eight hours a night. You’ll get more done during the day if you are well-rested than if you drag yourself through it, zombie-like, because you are tired. If you aren’t sure how to make that happen, google “good sleep hygiene.” Then try the suggestions, even (especially) the ones that sound too simple to work.
Eat, exercise, get some sunshine and fresh air, rest. This won’t fix everything, but knowing what I know now, it’s what I would always recommend as a starting place. And this is really important: when it comes to taking care of yourself, thinking about it will just make you feel worse. Less thinking. More doing. Don’t over-complicate it. Have a snack. Go for a walk.
Secret of Happiness #2: Other People
Okay, now that you’re on your way to taking care of yourself, it’s time to add other people into the equation. Look, I don’t care how much of an introvert² you are. You need other people. Yes, you do. Maybe you only need a few other people. Maybe you need 300 other people. But you—we—need other people.
And I think we need them in person. Really. One trap that I sometimes fall into, though I’m getting much better about this, is the tendency to socialize mostly online. I love Facebook. It’s how I keep up with people I don’t get to see often. Buuut … in the past, I have used it to pretend I wasn’t isolating myself. Except, really, I was. The best parts of human life happen in meatspace, where you can literally touch other people. Typing “(((hugs)))” is not the same as a real, actual hug. A smiley face emoticon does not have the crinkly eyes so important to a real, actual smile. Social media is great. It has its place. But if it is your only way of interacting socially, unless you literally have no choice (in which case, it’s certainly better than nothing), that is a problem.
Regularly make plans with people. Keep them. If no one’s inviting you, invite yourself. Or invite them. Eventually it will become reciprocal. It was true in grade school, and it’s true now: the best way to have a friend is to be one.
Human relationships are important because they help us feel connected. The more connected we feel, the more we see that we really are all so much alike, the more contentment and joy we will have. What sucks more than thinking you are all alone in the world? NOTHING, that’s what.
And if you want a good, quick pick-me-up, there is no better mood lifter than doing something nice for someone. It can be a small thing. It can be a big thing. It can be for someone you know or someone you don’t. Get a “thinking of you” gift for a friend going through a tough time. Pay for the guy behind you at the drive-through. Look at your local Freecycle site and see if you have something someone else needs. Drop off homemade baked goods. Give someone a compliment. Total, instant, magical mood lifter.
Secret of Happiness #3: Feed Your Mind
By “feed your mind,” I mean consciously choose what you experience. I love to read books. Not everyone does, but there is something almost transcendent about climbing into someone else’s head for a while. It gets you out of your own, for one thing, and I think it helps us empathize with other people in general. (Oh, hey, there’s that connectedness thing again.)
Another thing I like about reading is how purposeful and focused it is. It’s calm. It’s intentional. Somehow it’s different from the influx of media that shouts at us daily from our TVs, radios, news sites.
I think a lot of the benefit of reading, in fact, comes from the time NOT spent listening to the shouty media. Limiting our exposure to news (which, nearly by definition, is filled with all the bad crap in the world) is one of the healthiest things we can do. The human brain is not equipped to handle a constant flow of “LOOK HOW HORRIBLE THE WORLD IS” and still maintain equilibrium, and mass media is designed to make us keep tuning in to hear about how horrible everything is. This planet is full of good stuff too! Yes, there are awful things in the world. But does hearing about them constantly do anything to fix them? It does not. So turn off the TV and go find your starfish to fling into the sea. You’ll feel better—and so will the starfish.
Secret of Happiness #4: Be Yourself
This is the part I can’t tell you how to do. Only you can figure it out, because you’re the only one inside your head. What I can tell you is that on your journey to be yourself, you will encounter many people who want you to be someone else. They generally don’t mean to harm you, and it’s usually worth at least listening to others and balancing what they say against your own judgment and good sense … but in the end, it’s you who will have to live with yourself until, one day, you don’t. Trying to make everyone else happy is an unwinnable game, at least for you. You are responsible for behaving like a reasonable human being. You are not responsible for anyone else’s happiness. Be yourself. Find your tribe.
So … that’s it. People have written book after book on the subject of how to be happy, and as I said at the beginning, most likely nothing I’ve said here came as a surprise to you. But then, the most profound truths are often the ones we really knew all along. The real surprises come when you start practicing what you already know.
¹I read once that it’s a good idea to get about 10% of our joy from eating. While of course something like that is hard to quantify, the point was, I think, that if a high percentage of the joy in our lives comes from eating, we might want to examine ourselves to see if we’re as balanced as we want to be, or if perhaps we might want to seek out other sources of joy.
²An introvert is someone who gets energy from being alone or with a few key other people. I used to think of myself as a relatively social introvert. But now I think perhaps I get my energy from the balance of alone time and social time. Maybe I should take the Meyers-Briggs assessment again.