January 21st marks the beginning of “Hunt for Happiness Week”. But what is happiness and how do we hunt for it? When was the last time YOU felt genuine joy? As I looked down at my journal, I saw those words scrawled across the top of the page.
Happiness, or at least the pursuit of it, is woven into the cultural DNA. Famously included in the Declaration of Independence written by Thomas Jefferson in 1776 as part of a passage outlining the unalienable rights given to all humans by their creator, and which the government protects. While we all know that we have a protected right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…. our practical understanding of how we achieve happiness is a whole other story.
To me, happiness is more of an internal feeling. When I am happy, my life is balanced and has purpose and meaning. I feel engaged, safe, and peaceful.
As part of an exercise to help me understand what makes me happy and how I can seek more of it, I put pen to paper. Drawing a line down the page to form two concise lists. On the left side of the page – what my life looked like when I felt the happiest – what activities was I participating in? What did my routine look like? On the right, are the things I did, or didn’t do, when my life was at a low point. When I felt like happiness was beyond my grasp.
As I filled the page, I reflected as happy memories resurfaced. Even the act of recalling moments of happiness brought back those feelings. My mind was cast back to my early twenties, living on the North Shore of Boston as a newlywed. Life felt simpler then, and a bit more spontaneous. We had an active circle of friends; we hung out on weekends playing strategy games and watching movies. We took hiking trips, and day trips to the beach together. A vivid memory of my husband and I enjoying a midnight swim in the outdoor pool at our apartment complex came to mind… “Wow, I really miss swimming,” I suddenly thought. It made me question why I ever stopped. Another memory of us baking cupcakes with my daughter came into the frame. I recalled watching her cherubic little face light up as she tried to make edible cupcake toppers from colored fondant, “first you whip it, then you splat it, then…. look, a volcano.” She squeaked as she handed me a blog of red and black sugar paste.
What emerged from this list was a clear picture that it’s the little things that make all the difference when it comes to a happy life versus an unhappy one. On the right, oversleeping, not working out, isolation from friends, not enough time to enjoy my hobbies, work stress, and financial stress – and on the left, setting my alarm and getting up early, morning workout, healthy breakfast, home-cooked meals, and spending quality time hanging out with friends. It seems obvious that doing these things will make my life happier, so why then did I stop doing them?
The second part of the exercise involved writing down all the reasons, or obstacles, and challenges that stopped me from doing things that bring me joy.
Moving away from friends, changing careers, economic struggles, health issues, and marital stress – bit by bit I let these things chip away at my happiness, but also my slow loss of happiness made me less hopeful, and as my hope diminished, so did my desire to do the things I knew would help me recapture it. And so, I slowly sunk down and down from an empowered, hopeful, and happy life, into a darker more fearful one. These changes were so slow and insidious, happening so incrementally over time that I hardly noticed them until I did and then I was already in trouble.
My life right now is not unhappy, but there are a lot of things on that list of happiness that I no longer make time for, and now I am aware of this, I plan to change that. This little exercise in the hunt for happiness was more profound than I expected. I’ve found my roadmap to happiness; Now I just need to follow it.
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