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  • Redefining happiness

    Redefining happiness

Sometimes when in the middle of a transition or transformation time in our lives we are anything but happy, and that has always seemed sort of backwards, since when dreaming of new futures we do so primarily out of an unending search for greater or more reliable happiness.  Even when I create the dreams I want and successfully complete such reinventions as moving half way around the world, living in a new culture or finishing my doctorate, happiness sometimes remains elusive.

Consider it personal mastery training to keep your focus on happiness and let that be your guide.  This article builds on personal action research to find happiness and increase it.

I came across a woman’s magazine the other day with “Eight pages to help you beat the blues.”  But what if the blues have become more than a once in a while occurrence?  This article certainly intimated that many people would be suffering from low spirits throughout the winter months.  Our spirits are not immune to reports of violence, crime, sinking economies or world disasters.  Man’s inhumanity to man is reported on every news channel and this news may create low spirits.  One solution then is to become mindful of where we put our attention and not to give it to things outside of our control that make us sad, nervous or depressed.

Nor does success bring happiness.  Nevertheless our spirits yearn for success (or love, freedom from debt, weight loss, world peace or any similar, seemingly unobtainable goals); not only for their own sake but because we believe they will lighten our experience of life.  I have a friend who works with young people in shanty towns in South Africa, and another who recently returned from Uganda. Their stories are similar: these very poor people, who have little security or beauty in their lives, are some of the happiest they have known, and the most generous.  Why not take a page from their book and investigate experiencing happiness directly in your life, even if the rest of your dreams are not realized?  We don’t need to achieve the first goal to have the second; we can start to work to achieve happiness right from the beginning and we can use the same PAR supportive process as we use for everything else to build it.  Once achieved the rest of our goals fall in line in correct proportion to each other and our truest desires.

As with other reinventing life processes the first step is to discover what makes us happy.   We look inward and then outward for this discovery and journaling often helps that process.  Happiness is associated with creativity and connectedness to other people.  It is supported by relaxation and leads to contentment.  I would write this formula as: Creativity/Connectedness to others + Relaxation = Contentment.  I have this on a piece of paper over my desk and when I feel anxious or driven I use it as a mantra to balance my breathing and to decide which of the elements is missing at the moment.  You will have to work out for yourself what ingredients you would include in your personal formula.  For many it includes living up to strong values.  The Irish would likely include good “craic” or fellowship, music and laughter in their definitions - you see the point.

Start by thinking back over your personal experience of life.  List four or five times you remember happiness.  Describe the memories to yourself in detail, including: who you were with, where you were, the smells or colors you remember, whether you were at home, at work, or on vacation, etc.  Are you describing an exuberant, joyful, celebratory happiness or a quiet contentment?  Try recalling some of each and comparing the differences.

The next step is to look for patterns across your memories.  As I’ve already pointed out, being creative and feeling connected to others increases the likelihood I will feel happy.  The same is true when I get a chance to use my mind creatively.  As a younger person I valued exuberant, celebratory happiness and as I have grown older I yearn for and seek out quiet contentment.  What is true for you?  This diagnosis outlines the practices that will set the standard you can incorporate in your life as you move into action.

The second half of discovering  happiness is to investigate how others increase happiness in the world, or their own lives.  What makes others happy in your community and do you want to join with them in these endeavors?  For instance, in my small town in Ireland people gain happiness by becoming involved in their community.  Others meet regularly to make music and on Friday nights participate in a drumming circle.  Even though I may have to drag myself to get started in my civic duty, I find myself consistently happy after a night of working with others picking up rubbish so that our town looks clean and tidy.  
When you examine new ideas (joining a book club, taking an art class, etc.) notice whether and to what extent they synchronize with those attributes that you have identified as part of your formula for happiness.  As an example, the local drumming circle is next on my list of possible new endeavors.  Whether it increases my happiness remains to be seen, but judging drumming against my formula I see that it contains connectedness and creativity so it is a likely candidate.
Once you have discovered your inner formula for happiness and your outer possible activities, it is time to take measurable action.  This step is the key to empowerment as we are so proud of ourselves when we move forward toward our goals and desires.   Take time to appreciate what is working in your life and then to appreciate yourself for dreaming, creating and moving forward towards your dreams.

Perhaps you have had a particularly long spell of feeling blue?  One in which you despaired in ever seeing sunlight in your Soul again?  Maybe you remember a time when a smile seemed foreign to your face?  I experienced such a period last spring.  I tackled it and turned it around (after much inner wrestling) by opening a blank two page spread in an artist’s notebook every morning.  Armed with colors, shapes, and a few stencils, as the day wore on I noticed and recorded the events that lightened my mood.  I would draw a new shape and fill it in with a description of what pleased me about my daily life.  Surprisingly, there were more of these moments that I suspected.  Over the course of a week my pages grew more flamboyant and my appreciation of my happiness increased.

This employs a truth known to all researchers: What we measure expands.  Modern culture with all of its complexities has expanded our awareness of the stresses in our lives.  Employing this PAR supportive process turns back the clock and expands our personal and group awareness of the small pleasantries that can make up the bulk of our daily routines.  As we notice them we incorporate them more often and our lives naturally become happier.

No cycle of personal exploration, nor a cycle of reinvention, is complete without reflection.  While it is always seen as the last step in the PAR cycle, reflection can be interspersed between each step as well.  Regardless of how often or how deeply we reflect it is worthwhile to take stock after we have diagnosed any element in our lives, stepped out and tried new actions and measured the results.  I might use the metaphor that reflection is the icing on the cake, but I really believe it is more like learning to appreciate the rich texture of the cake itself, whether or not there is any icing.

This is our one life.  We want to lie on our deathbeds satisfied that we experienced all the happiness that was available to us rather than allowing the complexities of our environment get us down.  The choice is ours to consciously notice and expand the small moments that make up our own personal formula for happiness.  May this satisfaction become the norm for everyone.
I hope that these thoughts are helpful, if you want to comment on any general or specific ideas that come to mind we can continue the conversation about the skills folks need to reinvent themselves.  Which ones would make your six best list?

E. Alana James, Ed.D. writes, speaks, and consults with individuals, businesses and universities on the use of action research and other scientifically based processes that engender change.