The Habits of Happy People, Part 2 of 8

thank you sign
“Folks are usually about as happy as they make up their mind to be.” –Abraham Lincoln

Activities, choices, habits. As Lincoln alludes to above, these are what distinguish happy people from those who talk of happiness or chase it or complain that they don’t have enough of it but don’t seem to be able to attain the happiness they crave.

Let’s make up our mind to be happy as we learn about the first of the 5 Habits of Happy People that I will cover in this series.

Habit #1: Gratitude and optimism.

Gratitude and optimism allow us to look on the bright side and have a positive outlook – by choice, if not by disposition. If we aren’t naturally grateful or optimistic people, we will have to make up our minds to find something to be grateful or optimistic about in any given situation.

Think about it: It is hard to feel sad or down when we are thanking someone else and noticing the good in our lives. Noticing the good makes us feel good.

We can begin to feel happier by finding something to be thankful for: a job that enables us to pay the bills, a vehicle to get around in, a roof over our heads. Or someone in our lives: an understanding boss, a good friend, a neighbor who looks after our pets or who just stays out of our hair. Or the resources around us: the sun that shines, the rain that falls and waters the plants, beautiful beaches or forests, a safe community.

A woman I know writes notes on the outside of envelopes that she sends in the mail. To the mail carriers, she writes, “Thank you for the work you do. Smile!” This woman is so thoughtful and considerate. The act of writing those little notes probably does more for her than for the mail carriers who deliver those envelopes.

Like her, we can draw our attention to the things we are grateful for and allow our mind to rest on them. Notice these things as we go about our day. Show gratitude.

Optimism is also about finding the positive side of things. Being optimistic is as simple as believing in ourselves and the strength that we have to get through. We can practice optimism by thinking to ourselves that we will make it through the day or the week and that we have what it takes to do so.

Researchers have tested the effects of optimism on happiness by having folks write about what they called their Best Possible Selves. The research participants were asked to imagine themselves in 5 years. If all in their life had gone as well as they could expect and they had been their best possible self, what would their life be like?

We, too, can meditate on our best possible self and what that means to us.

Optimism comes into play when we avoid overthinking and making social comparisons. We can ask, “Does it really matter?” or “Will this matter to me in a day, a week, or a year?” If not, let it go.

And as far as social comparisons, really the only time that comparing ourselves to others works for us is when we are thinking, “I have it so good,” or “It could always be worse.” If we are comparing ourselves to someone else and saying, “I wish I had what they had. I am so envious,” that is not conducive to happiness.

We can begin practicing Habit #1 by picking up a card or a piece of paper or opening an email and drafting a thank-you note to someone who has helped us. Express gratitude to a teacher, parent, co-worker, family friend, pastor or whomever. Thank that person, and, ideally, send or give the note to that person.

Notice the happiness welling up inside as we choose to bring more gratitude and optimism into our lives.

To read the other blogs in this series:
Part 1
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Part 7
Part 8


The Habits of Happy People, Part 1 of 8

Business people-showing teamwork
“Because I’m happy…”

The Happy song by Pharrell Williams became an instant hit, being played and replayed and getting stuck in heads worldwide. The song speaks to an obsession with happiness that also has increased significantly in recent years.

Over and over again, in poll after poll, all sorts of people identify happiness as their main goal in life.

To be sure, happiness offers some lucrative benefits. Among them are better health, a tougher immune system and a longer life; more effective coping methods and greater self-control; more and stronger relationships; and a successful work life, higher income and greater job satisfaction.

Being happy seems very positive, and it feels good, too.

It has been said, “Happiness is a choice, not a result. Nothing will make you happy until you choose to be happy.” Happy people choose to be happy.

But can we really become happier, just like that?

Some of us view happiness as our birthright, while others see happiness as an elusive state akin to paradise or nirvana.

We want to be happy, yet we may be going about pursuing happiness in entirely the wrong way.

In this series of blog posts, I will explore happiness and some of the habits that are most closely associated with a happy life.

Longitudinal research with a variety of populations indicates that the life events that we associate with happiness are not necessarily where it’s at. Happiness does not require much. Achieving lasting happiness is not dependent on securing a bigger paycheck, being cured of an illness or recapturing youth or beauty.

We humans tend to assume that positive events – job promotions, victories by our favored candidates or sports teams, attractive mates or smart kids – will make us happier than they actually do. These events lift our mood for a bit, but they don’t bring long-term joy.

Rather, happiness is influenced by three specific areas of life. The researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky wrote about these in her 2007 book The how of happiness: A new approach to getting the life you want.

The largest influence on happiness seems to be our genetics, also known as our nature, which accounts for 50% of our happiness level. This is our set point, how happy we are naturally. If we have happy parents, we are probably more likely to be happy people. If we have unhappy parents, we are probably affected by that, too. Our set point accounts for a lot, and it is not very changeable.

Another area that influences our life is our circumstances, also known as nurture, which accounts for about 10%. This is our environment, which is what most people focus their time and energy on changing or at least complaining about. Our childhood experiences, the city we live in, our friends and neighbors, our job, our income and our looks would all fall under this category. We have some control here – we can change jobs or move – but we don’t have much.

The area that really gives us the most bang for our buck is the last one: our activities or choices. This area accounts for 40% of the influence on happiness.

The remainder of the posts in this series will focus on the habits we can cultivate to make an impact in this area of our lives.

To read the other blogs in this series:
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Part 7
Part 8

Love as a healing force, Part 3

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

This seminal quote by Dr. King pretty well summarizes his life’s work.

During the years he was active, Dr. King faced hatred that was so vehement, so rotten, so putrid and so deadly. He knew that the only force more powerful or as powerful as that hatred was love.

Matching hatred with more hatred is like fighting fire with fire. You end up with an inferno. But by fighting fire with water, hatred with love, with the desire to exert oneself for the benefit of another, a vision of ultimate human growth and progress, Dr. King and his allies created a compelling dynamic that tipped the scale away from discrimination, segregation and brutality.

Dr. King today is remembered as a man of profound love who put his life on the line for what he believed was right. He left a lasting impact on our country, our society and the world.

We can’t forget that Dr. King was a human being. He was not a superman but a regular person who used his placement in time and history, his unique situation and his gifts for the betterment of others. The difference between him and others, perhaps, was his recognition that he could make an impact.

Remember that Dr. King envisioned a “Beloved Community.” Kendyl Gibbons, the author of the article “Primal Reverence” that Is the inspiration for this series of blogs, writes that, “The Beloved Community not only says but intuitively feels that what happens to one of us happens to all of us.”

Dr. King understood that what happened to him touched others and that what he did about it also could touch others, and he decided that it was worth it.

Gibbons writes that “the primal experience of reverence also comes in the stories of human lives that move us with their courage, with their dedication to justice or beauty.”

When we witness or learn of the work and efforts of people such as Dr. King, Paul Robeson and my friend Leroy Boyd — the genuine, selfless love that they convey – it rekindles in us a warmth and a hope that the world is, indeed, a decent place. Many of us have been hurt, disappointed, abused or mistreated in the name of so-called love. We may have lost faith that love is even possible or real and instead sought the quick fix, the quick high, of something synthetic – or given up entirely.

Meditation on the deeds of our fellow human beings strengthens in us the knowledge that we are a resilient people capable of great love and that this love has the power to heal and transform.

Our actions may not make the news, but they can make someone’s day.

To read the other blogs in this series:
Part 1
Part 2

Love as a healing force, Part 2

bell hooks

bell hooks

Fellow blogger Larry Drain of Hopeworks Community in Tennessee captured a very profound concept in just a few words posted online about a year ago.

Larry expressed that there are really only two kinds of love: Because Love and Despite Love. “Because Love cares because of what we do, what we say, the way we look,” according to Larry. “It is a love that says we matter because we stack up, we measure up.”

Despite Love, on the other hand, is the ideal form of love, unconditional. “Despite Love says there is nothing to prove,” Larry writes. “It is love that says you are a prize even when you don’t act like one.” Despite Love is given despite your flaws, your empty pockets, your sickness or your pains.

Because Love lasts only as long as it is convenient. Because Love is disposable. Despite Love requires commitment.

Feminist, cultural critic and theorist bell hooks tells us that genuine love does not provide instant gratification. Love doesn’t give us a quick high like a drug, which wears off and leaves us searching vainly for more. It is an investment.

bell hooks, in fact, would probably question the use of the word ‘love’ to describe the emotional and behavioral state that Larry Drain identified in his blog as Because Love.

hooks takes a strong, even controversial, stand on love, which she defines in her 2001 book All About Love: New Visions. Namely, hooks insists that love is not abusive but is centered on supporting a person to be the best that he or she can be. hooks argues that as soon as someone who says that he loves you abuses you, he has moved away from love. Someone who is abusive can care about you, but he cannot love you, hooks asserts.

hooks defines love as “a willful act to facilitate the growth of oneself or another person.” Somewhat ironically, hooks’ definition echoes the definition of love put forth by psychiatrist M. Scott Peck, whose own book, the famous and infamous The Road Less Traveled, was published some 20 years before hooks’. In his writing on the attributes of a fulfilled life, Peck defines love as “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.”

Peck describes love in fairly humanistic terms as the extension of one’s self in the pursuit of growth or progress.

While hooks and Peck make strange bedfellows, their writings on love are fused in my mind. I was reminded of them while reading the magazine article that inspired this blog series.

The idea for the topic of healing love originated with a piece entitled “Primal Reverence” by Kendyl Gibbons in the Summer 2012 issue of UU World. Gibbons advocates in that article for a lifestyle and spiritual practice that is grounded and connected to a world community and a recognition of the wonder and mystery of all life that she terms “reverence.”

One of the many examples of primal reverence that Gibbons cites is “the life of a radical Jewish peasant who called for a community of love and justice that took no account of Roman authority and [who] followed his scorn for oppressive power to the cross.”

As the story goes, Jesus embodied his Father’s love, the type of love spoken of in the well-known and oft-quoted passage John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.” God’s love is freely given to anyone willing to accept it.

I am a social worker and a therapist who treats people dealing with serious mental health and personal issues. I sometimes speak in my work of believing in people before they have believed in themselves, or loving people even when they consider themselves to be unlovable. You might say that I practice Despite Love on a regular basis. In my field, we sometimes call this unconditional positive regard.

The Judeo-Christian concept of God is like this. God loves creation not because it is worthy, not because it measures up, but because God is love.

Later in the book of John, John 15:12, the writer continues the theme of love begun in the “For God so loved” scripture. He writes, “Love one another as I have loved you.” In the words of a daily devotional entry from a website called “My Utmost for His Highest,” God is saying in this scripture, “I will bring a number of people around you whom you cannot respect, [who are disagreeable or difficult,] but you must exhibit my love to them, just as I have exhibited it to you.”

The crazy, strange thing about exhibiting love toward people who are disagreeable and not particularly deserving of our love – of practicing Despite Love instead of Because Love – is that we actually improve ourselves and grow in the process. When we put forth our love for the people around us and for the world of which we are a part, we demonstrate profound patience and grandness of character. We demonstrate that we are the bigger person.

Love is about growing ourself and giving to another by being the bigger person.

To read the other blogs in this series:
Part 1
Part 3