How to be happy
This morning, I read a short post on another blog about how life would be so much easier if Google could just tell you how to be happy. As more people who were brought up on the Internet and search engines come of age, I expect we’ll start seeing an increasing amount of that sentiment. Last term, I had some of my students read a text from a reading strategies book on how the generation that is currently in college prefers the authority of online searches to that of lecturers and books. If these latter things say something they don’t like, don’t understand, or disagree with, they go off to Google. If Google says something other than the lecturer or book, they have a tendency to go with what the Internet claims – or so the article said. I think to a degree this is true – at least to the degree that we (because yes, I count myself among this particular generation) will Google before we ask. Perhaps with the rise of Siri this will change; maybe we’ll ask, but we’ll still be asking questions to software, to code.
If this is how our current under-30′s operate, then it seems only fair to give them an answer to that pressing question about how to be happy. I’ve often heard people say that being happy is a choice, and I think to a degree that’s true. If you don’t have any major problems in your life (money, family illness, depression, insecurity, body image issues, oppression, racism, dead-end jobs, abuse, I could keep going) and you still find yourself unable to be happy, a resolution to be happy – or at least content – may be in order. However, I believe people who live such blessedly problem-free lives are few and far between. I think all most of us can do is make a real attempt at being happy with what we got, trying to change the things we’re unhappy with, and living with the things we can’t (man, I just realized I pretty much plagiarized the Serenity Prayer. Whatever. It works).
So here it is, my guide to happiness:
- Dance parties. Solo or with friends, dance parties are the very best way to get a mental boost. Look up your favorite jams on YouTube, Grooveshark, iTunes or Spotify and rock out for a few minutes.
- Cat pictures. Trust me on this. Use power of Google.
- Don’t read the comments. Anywhere on the Internet. Just… don’t.
- Exercise. Take it in whatever form you can get it. The aforementioned dance parties totally count. I know most of us have a general aversion to the gym. If that is true for you, then for heaven’s sake, DON’T GO TO THE GYM. You’ll just feel resentful and inadequate, which does not lead to happiness. Go for a walk during your lunch break. Ride your bike on the weekend. Play with your dog in the park. Dance around the house with your cat. Take a bhangra class. Don’t do it because you feel like you need to burn calories or because people tell you to do it (see what I did there?), but because it’s something you enjoy.
- Be creative. The great thing about doing something creative is that you end up with a finished product: evidence of something you accomplished. You don’t have to be crafty in the strictest sense of the word. Most of us will never be artists (I still draw stick-figure people). Writing blog posts, attempting some simple nail art, cooking a nice meal, writing your gran a nice card, taking pictures in your neighborhood, baking cupcakes with your friends, and fixing up your bike are all things in which you use your creativity. You can also try to reconnect with something you did and enjoyed when you were younger. Last year, I took up embroidery, which I used to do with my grandmother when I was in primary school. Working on cross-stitching projects allowed me to focus on a single thing for a few hours rather than have all manner of thoughts swirling through my brain. It also gave me a unique way to cheer up friends, like I did when I cross-stitched a quote from Rent (“put on a tight skirt / and flirt / with a stranger” from “Out Tonight”) for a friend who was recently single.
- Be happy with your friends. Maybe you’re on of those people who has 1,000 Facebook friends and gets along with everyone, maybe you just have 2 people you would call friends. The number doesn’t matter, only the quality of your interaction with them. Make sure you see them or talk to them regularly. If you don’t see them as often as you’d like, maybe because you’re both really busy, make an effort to meet up anyway, even if it’s just to do something that’s also useful and part of your already packed schedule, like visiting the farmer’s market, going to the library, taking the dogs or kids for a walk, or studying together. If you feel unhappy with your friendships, try to figure out why that is. Do you feel like you put more effort into the relationship than the other person? Tell them! They’re not mind readers. Maybe you just have a different idea of how often you need to see each other to have a good relationship than they do. Maybe they have a lot on their plate right now. Do you have any regrets about lost friendships, people you’re no longer in touch with for no good reason? Try to reconnect. No one will laugh at you for saying “hey, I’ve been thinking about you and I really miss you” (and if they do, you don’t want to be friends with them anyway). If they’re unresponsive, then at least you know, and you know you tried (which, in the end, is all you can do). Try to let go. Don’t have a lot of friends? I know it’s hard, but try to reach out to someone with similar interests or just someone who seems friendly. That nice girl from the office? Ask her to go for a drink after work or for a walk on your lunch break. Make small talk with that cool person who sits next to you in yoga. Go to small events that interest you, like readings a your local independent bookstore. Join a club! Though new groups of people can be intimidating, chances are more people are there to make new friends.
- Stay in touch with your family. Your family doesn’t have to be related to you by blood. Maybe the group of friends you had in college are more family to you than your biological family. If so, treat them as such, even if you’re scattered across the country or world. Send a Facebook message, plan Skype sessions, save money to fly “home” to meet up next year, tell them about big events in your life. Connecting with people who share a history with you will help you feel grounded.
- Have goals. They don’t have to be big ones (though those are always helpful). Maybe you want to read 50 books this year or stop using plastic water bottles or volunteer for a rape crisis center or balance your budget. Some of these take more work than others, but they can all be accomplished by vocalizing your exact goal, listing the things you need to do to accomplish it, and then putting the necessary work in. This last bit is where most of us fail, if we fail. Either we don’t try hard enough or something gets in our way. If this happens, don’t beat yourself up. Maybe this goal wasn’t right for you. If you still believe it is, you need to figure out what you can do differently. But remember that goals are guidelines more than fixed points in time and space. And remember that you won’t be perfectly happy for the rest of your life as soon as you achieve them. Just remember to be proud of yourself when you do and put them in your Win Column. But set those goals, big and small, because they give your life direction.
- Stop trying to “get it together.” The biggest lie we’re told when we’re growing up is that soon as we’re adults, as soon as we’re in college, finish college, get that job, have that steady income, find that someone special, “find ourselves,” find that perfect house, get that retirement fund, have those children, everything will fall into place. Here’s a secret: it won’t. Every new development in your life, good or bad, big or small, will come with its own very special set of challenges. The sooner you accept that, the better off you’ll be. But the myth is perpetuated throughout life, perhaps now more than ever with happy status updates on Facebook and blushing bride/happy multi-tasking mommy blog posts. What these success stories don’t tell you is what is going on behind closed doors. They don’t tell you that your friend who is so over the moon with her new baby had to apply for food stamps. They don’t tell you that your fantastic, involved professor struggles with depression. They don’t tell you that your happily married friend still has nightmares about her abusive ex. They don’t tell you the cousin who just got that jealousy-inducing job opportunity is thinking of breaking up with his boyfriend of 10 years. What closely interacting with people from all backgrounds on the Internet for over a decade has taught me is that no one “has it together” in the way we think they do. So stop trying to have that as your goal, because you are just setting yourself up for massive failure.
- Try to be a good person. Only you can define what that means to you. You may follow certain codes from a religion or philosophy or you may cobble together your own code. For me, it means being hospitable, generous with my time and money, and critical of myself and my environment. It means I try to speak up when I see or hear things I believe are wrong. It also means I think hard about when to speak up and when to take a seat and just listen to what another person has to say. Again, being realistic is key here. You may believe that a good person means doing things like volunteering every Saturday. But if that is not something you can do, either because you just don’t have the time or because, in the end, that is not how you want to spend your time (because Saturday is your only day off and you need it to save your own sanity, for instance), you are once again setting yourself up to fail. Don’t do that. Just don’t.
- Listen to Stephen Fry. This is always good advice, but particularly take to heart the letter he wrote to a woman who asked him how to cope with her depression. It’s not only applicable to depression, I think, but to all those days when life just seems a little too much to handle.
I’ve found that it’s of some help to think of one’s moods and feelings about the world as being similar to weather:
Here are some obvious things about the weather:
You can’t change it by wishing it away.
If it’s dark and rainy it really is dark and rainy and you can’t alter it.
It might be dark and rainy for two weeks in a row.
It will be sunny one day.
It isn’t under one’s control as to when the sun comes out, but come out it will.
It really is the same with one’s moods, I think. The wrong approach is to believe that they are illusions. They are real. Depression, anxiety, listlessness – these are as real as the weather – AND EQUALLY NOT UNDER ONE’S CONTROL. Not one’s fault.
They will pass: they really will.
In the same way that one has to accept the weather, so one has to accept how one feels about life sometimes. “Today’s a crap day,” is a perfectly realistic approach. It’s all about finding a kind of mental umbrella. “Hey-ho, it’s raining inside: it isn’t my fault and there’s nothing I can do about it, but sit it out. But the sun may well come out tomorrow and when it does, I shall take full advantage.”
So there it is, my recipe for happiness. Will you be perfectly happy if you do these things? I’m sorry to say, no, you won’t. But hopefully they’ll serve as a reminder that with a bit of resolve, a dash of luck, and a whole lot of dance parties, you can be happier than you are now.