The Declaration of Independence asserts that “the pursuit of happiness” is an inalienable right. In spite of this as well as the mounting data from the fields of Applied Positive Psychology, Social Psychology, and Medicine extoling its benefits, few of us consciously and intentionally commit to our own happiness. Sure, we love it when it happens; but for the most part I think we tend to be at its effect instead of the other way around. Let’s start by distinguishing what happiness is not. It is not a flat, homogeneous emotional state. Happiness is not pleasure or comfort, though neither is necessarily antithetical to it. The pursuit of happiness is not hedonism. It is fuller, richer, and deeper than that. In fact, happiness often requires that we stretch, that we lean into pain and discomfort in service of a goal. Happiness enables perspective. Indeed, when I am happy I sense that even though there are a lot of things wrong in the world, at some level it and my place in it all make sense.
Happiness is both intrinsically and extrinsically valuable. Though the benefits that are born of happiness are too many to list, here are a few: happiness fuels the will to live, creativity, inspiration, generosity, ingenuity, and general wellbeing. Happy people can see more opportunity, are healthier, and more productive. Given all this, it is surprising that more people don’t truly commit to their own happiness—sometimes myself included. Perhaps we equate happiness with selfishness. And no one wants to be thought of as selfish (which is an interesting topic in and of itself). Perhaps we believe happiness is beyond our control. Whatever the reason, it is clearly worth having a look.
I don’t advocate that we should always be happy or that it is wrong not to be. Experiencing the full range of human emotion (both those considered positive and those considered negative) enriches, inspires, motivates, and makes genuine empathy possible. What I do advocate is that we own and take responsibility for all of ourselves (including and especially all of our emotions) and that we exercise our freedom to choose our emotional states.
So what can we do to choose happiness for ourselves? With all its benefits, choosing happiness should be among the most worthy of endeavors. How do we create happiness when our current circumstances make it feel difficult (or maybe even a little crazy) to choose?
How about putting together a Happiness Kit? Is there a piece of music that reliably lifts your spirits when you hear it? Put that in your kit. Is there a photograph that warms your heart? Is there a scent that brings you delight? What about that video that you received in email that had you laughing out loud? That letter or card someone sent you? Your list of wins? That friend whose presence is like a balm to your heart? That favorite walk you take? You get the picture.
Just as we are often least likely to take vitamins when we need them, we are often less inclined to engage in happy-making activities when feeling low. To address the vitamin situation we might do something like laying them out ahead of time or dispensing them using a special container that makes taking them easier. To address the absence of happy-making activities, we can create a Happiness Kit. Below are the steps to putting together your custom Happiness Kit. Do these when you are not experiencing a happiness deficit.
1) Make a list of all the things that you know make you happy. Incorporate as many senses as you can.
2) Gather and co-locate physical and digital objects, making sure that they are noted on your list.
3) Now make it a practice to notice more things that make you happy and add them to the list and/or appropriate location (in step 2). Notice the times when you seem to be happy for no reason and open yourself up to what it could be that has you feeling that way.
4) Start working out your happy-making muscles. When you are in a neutral emotional space, reach into your Happiness Kit and see how quickly you can change your emotional state to one of happiness.
What’s belongs in your Happiness Kit?