The Road to Happiness

A wise friend told me recently, “Wealth is not your money in the bank. Wealth is your ability to appreciate your life.”

Taking in the wonder – the miracle – of each new morning lightens your heart, puts a smile on your face, and brings happiness into your heart to soul.

As I was trekking up a mountain trail the other morning, the only sounds I could hear were the chirping of the birds in the trees and the crunch of my feet on the path. The sun was just beginning to peek over the ridge, turning the majestic pines a deep green and making the snow on the distant mountaintops glisten brilliantly against the cobalt-blue sky. The aspen leaves were gently quaking in the crisp, cool breeze. A new day was beginning.

I had a choice. I could either look down at my feet and focus on my strained, heavy breathing as I thought about the burdens of the day ahead. Or I could look up and take in the splendor around me.

We always have a choice. One produces stress. The other appreciation, peace, and happiness.

Looking in All the Wrong Places

Of course, you can’t be happy every minute of every day. If you were constantly filled with delight and bliss, you wouldn’t be able to discern good news from bad. You couldn’t tell the difference between a compliment and an insult. You’d be out of touch with reality.

But the idea is to try to move through disappointments, setbacks, negative circumstances – even tragedies – as quickly as you can so you can reset your life onto a positive trajectory.

In her book Positivity, Barbara Fredrickson says that positive thinking and a happy attitude open you up to becoming more resilient and creative. Positive emotions broaden your ideas about new possibilities. They give you the opportunity to flourish, to not only feel good, but also to do good and add value to the world.

People who flourish are driven by a sense of purpose and are highly engaged with their families, their work, and their communities, sharing and celebrating the goodness in others. This positivity not only reflects success and health, but also predicts it.

Sadly, our culture leads us to look for happiness in all the wrong places. Higher incomes, more material possessions, more expensive vacations, and more elaborate lifestyles don’t make us happier. It’s a lie.

We often work harder today hoping and believing that “one day” we will arrive at that place where our dreams will come true and we will be truly happy. So, we neglect the moment, the loved ones around us, and the quieter, simpler things in life that bring inner peace. We wait for something external to splash into our lives and bring a long-awaited something – a something that will have made it all worthwhile.

But it doesn’t come, because we were expecting the wrong thing.

Choosing Happiness for Yourself

I spent several hours talking with Donna about her unhappiness. With no job and her kids grown and gone from home, Donna felt isolated and alone. She spent most of her day moping and thinking about how unfulfilled she felt.

She began to take out her sadness on her husband, putting a strain on their marriage. Everything was dark and depressing. Nothing was right. There was no optimism, no glint of light at the end of her tunnel.

But Donna had a choice. She could continue to choose negativity. Or she could start on a new path – one that held hope for a happy future. These are the four things we talked about to get her on the road to happiness:

1. Relationships: Research shows that relationships lead the way to health and happiness, perhaps even adding up to 15 years to your life.

In spite of the seemingly social world we live in, people are lonely. They don’t feel connected and they don’t feel close to one another. Intimacy and community matter.

Susan Pinker writes in her book The Village Effect that there is a decreased incidence of dementia, heart attack, and stroke in 50-year-old men who have active and extensive social networks.

She also writes that neglecting to maintain important relationships can be as dangerous to your health as a pack-a-day cigarette habit, hypertension, and obesity.

No, online relationships don’t work. In fact, there is evidence that turning to the internet may even increase feelings of isolation. Interactions have to be face-to-face in order to make the vital, human connection that leads to happiness.

I suggested to Donna that she make a list of her friends and commit to reaching out – arrange to have lunch, go for a walk, or attend a community event with them. She discovered that spending time with other people gave her something to look forward to. It provided a fresh perspective and allowed her to think about someone other than herself.

2. Gratitude: Taking the time to appreciate increases your happiness and makes your life more satisfying. Gratitude is a deep thankfulness for the good things in your life, even when they sit alongside the things that are not so good. When you feel overwhelmed by greatness, awed by the beauty of nature, or inspired by human accomplishment, stop in your tracks, take notice, and make your gratitude intentional.

Take a moment to recall something another person did for you that made a difference in your life. No matter how long ago it was, remember the pleasant feeling. Martin Seligman, father of positive psychology and author of the best-selling book Flourish, suggests writing a gratitude letter to that person. Be specific about how it affected your life. Then deliver the letter and read it in person.

Afterwards, discuss the content and your feelings for each other. It will strengthen your relationship with that person, lower the risk of depression, and raise your overall sense of well-being.

In order to awaken her feelings of gratitude, Donna agreed to tell her husband one thing about him she was grateful for each morning when she woke up. She discovered how good it made her feel and was particularly pleased with how good it made him feel! It began to heal the tension in their relationship and put a smile on her face that decreased her depression.

3. Optimism: Simply said, just think optimistically. You’re much more likely to feel happier if you do. When you focus on what’s gone well rather than on what’s gone wrong, it gives you a view of the bright side of life. Optimism helps dispel uncertainty and fear, and propels you along the path toward success.

In his book The Simple Secrets for Becoming Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise, author David Niven cites several research studies that show that optimists are happier and live longer than pessimists do. And when you feel more optimistic about yourself, others are much more likely to feel optimistic about you and to support your goals.

Optimism automatically reframes the negative into a positive. It gives you hope for the future. It allows you to see the glass as half full instead of half empty and to realize in bad times that “this too shall pass.” It increases your sense of well-being.

This was a hard one for Donna. She had become accustomed to negative thinking. But with a little encouragement from me, she was gradually able to see some of the bright things in her life. In making a list each day of the things that had gone well, she began to let go of her fears and anxieties and regain hope.

4. The positivity ratio: Negativity is real. You can’t simply ignore the difficult things you experience. It would be false and would mean walking blindly through life with your head in the sand.

But you can try the 3-to-1 positivity ratio technique. That means for every one hurtful, disappointing, or negative emotion you experience, try bringing to mind three positive emotions that uplift your spirit.

John Gottman, a leading research scientist on marriage and family and the author of the best-selling book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, says that maintaining a fundamentally positive view of your spouse is a buffer against bad times because it provides a reserve of good feelings that carry you through.

In flourishing marriages, the positivity ratio is about 5-to-1; failed marriages score lower than 1-to-1. Even families and work teams with ratios above 3-to-1 do remarkably well. In contrast, those that are unhappy, unpopular, and unprofitable score in the gutter.

I explained to Donna that, in the end, she is responsible for her own feelings. No one else can make her feel either depressed or uplifted. It’s up to her. I recommended that every time she experienced a negative event, she should write down three positive outcomes that could result from what had happened to her.

At first, she thought the exercise seemed disingenuous because she didn’t really believe in what she was writing down. But over time, she began to realize that she had power over her feelings and was able to improve her positive outlook on her life.

Choosing Happiness for Your Family

Some years ago, I talked with an unhappy young man who told me the sad story of his youth. Gary was the son of a tough, strict army guy who believed that hugging was for sissies and affirmations were for the weak. So, Gary grew up with very little emotional nurturing.

As soon as he was old enough, Gary was sent to military school. His parents rarely called or wrote to him. During vacations, he often went home with a friend. During shorter breaks, his parents were the only ones who didn’t show up, leaving him at school, the only one in his dorm.

I wish I had had the opportunity to talk with his parents about what they could have done to increase the happiness level for Gary and also for their entire family. I would have discussed these four simple ideas.

a) Talk with your kids: Don’t lecture or teach. Don’t judge or criticize – not ever, for any reason. Just chat. Share your ideas and your thoughts with your kids and ask for theirs.

Talking is a great way to get to know your children better, to support them more fully, to help them explore their own problems, and to have a lot more fun with them.

But the most important part of communication is listening, so don’t interrupt them, gloss over their opinions, or jump to conclusions. Let them know you value them and what they have to say. Don’t assume your perspectives are correct or that your solutions are the right ones.

Level the playing field so that your kids know they won’t automatically lose an argument just because you’re the parent. Everyone in your family is happier when you develop a win-win communication style, one that makes you the person your kids want to talk to – and listen to – even about the difficult stuff in their lives.

b) Create a family mission statement: Successful businesses create mission statements to keep them focused on their vision, goals, and objectives. Successful, happy families do the same thing.

The real value is in setting aside time together for all of you to talk about what it means to be a part of your family. It develops intimacy, a sense of belonging, and pride in being part of the family team.

You get to discuss what is important to you about your family; your values, principles, and beliefs; how you want to treat each other; how you want to relate to your community; and how you want to give back and be remembered.

Creating a family mission statement helps keep you on track and provides a compass and a destination so you know where you’re going. It gives your family a shared purpose and a sense of stability. It makes it easier to make decisions and to work together toward common goals, which helps ensure a happy, successful future for generations to come.

c) Share family stories: According to Bruce Feiler, in his New York Times best seller The Secrets of Happy Families, kids who know about their family history have a higher degree of self-confidence than kids who don’t. In fact, research shows that knowing their family’s history is the number one predictor of a child’s emotional well-being. That’s because it’s the stories we tell that bring meaning to our lives.

What’s really interesting about this research is that it indicates how important it is to share the challenges and failures within your family history, not just the awesome successes. When kids hear how their ancestors struggled and grappled with setbacks, it gives them confidence that they, too, can push through difficult times. Your ancestors become role models and provide examples of coping with the ups and downs of life. Children learn that success and happiness can be stronger than all the tough times they will experience.

d) Have family meetings: Businesses are becoming more agile, and a similar evolution is happening in happy families. They’re not bound by fixed rules. They create new rules when the old ones don’t work. They flex and adapt to new situations. And decisions are made together in regular family meetings.

In The Secrets of Happy Families, Feiler cites studies that show that having weekly family meetings increased communication, improved productivity, lowered stress, and made everyone much happier to be part of the family team.

The meetings need not be long – only 20 minutes a week – during which time you can ask what went well this week, what didn’t work well, and what you can do differently next week.

You can even have the meetings during dinner. Numerous research studies show that having dinner together as a family makes a huge difference in children’s lives. Kids who regularly eat with their parents are less likely to drink, smoke, do drugs, get pregnant, commit suicide, or develop eating disorders. They have better grades, fewer behavioral problems, and higher self-esteem. Eating together increases the happiness level in your family.

One way to get happy is to decrease negativity. Avoid needless unpleasant or unsavory activities. Stay away from toxic neighbors who thrive on sarcasm and gossip. Push negative thinking out of your mind. Don’t ruminate about ugly or fearful thoughts, but distract yourself with positive activities that absorb you fully.

Increase your positivity by meditating and becoming more mindful of the beauty around you. Savor the good things and count your blessings. Dream about your future and visualize it as though it were real. And make appreciation a ritual in your life.

You always have a choice of which path to take.

You can’t always be successful in keeping happiness at the forefront. Sometimes, life is just too difficult. But you can continue to try. A colleague recently told me about her aunt, who had a great saying when she was diagnosed with cancer: You can give out, you can give in, but you can never give up.

Never give up. Relentlessly and continuously strive to stay on the road to happiness, positivity, and well-being for both yourself and your family.

© Joanne Stern, PhD. All rights reserved. Originally published in the Bonner & Partners Family Office Strategic Review, Volume 4, Issue 8, August 2016 •


About the Author:

Joanne K. Stern, PhD, is a family consultant with an extensive background in psychology. She helps families resolve the complex people problems that often tear families apart and destroy harmony, happiness, and sustained financial success. A frequent speaker, keynote presenter, and workshop leader, she has been a guest expert on more than 200 TV and radio shows and has contributed to various newspapers, magazines, and online media.
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