Chasing Happiness

Before I dive in, I have a favor to ask. Please remember that my opinions, my experiences, and resources I mention are not meant as cures or treatment. If you’re in a moment of your life when most efforts feel huge, consider finding a mental health professional to support you.[i]  If you’re considering ending your life or if you are in crisis, please reach out to emergency services (9-1-1) or a crisis hotline.[ii] You deserve support and to know someone has your back.

When Autumn arrives, somehow it feels as if the world takes a pause and starts to look back, tentatively, and forward, expectantly, full of hope for the future and often with a touch of regret about the imperfection of the past three-quarters of a year that slipped through our fingers. By New Years Eve, a lot of us will have a list of things we want to accomplish in the next year, though most of us suspect,  based on statistics and our previous history, we won’t attack our “resolutions” as vigorously as we imagined we would.

Thanksgiving decorations have started appearing and it reminds me the holiday (in the U.S.) originated to encourage appreciation for one another and our history. Whether we imagine a history as simple and flawless as the stories taught in our early school years or hold to a more realistic and imperfect version that many have grown to accept,[iii] the present seems the perfect time to re-envision our personal future. Every adjustment we make now, will change what we feel when we look back next Fall or Winter. In a sense, each moment of the present gives us a chance to write a new history, a little at a time. To help along the way, I’m bringing into the conversation three books, one per week, that I’ve found extra-helpful in my self-care journey.

The first book, in plenty of time to request it from the local library or to order from your favorite retailer and dig in soon, is The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want by Sonja Lyubomirsky. This book wandered into my life a few years ago during a course called “The Science of Happiness” that I completed (twice) online through www.edx.org. I picked the book back up for a second read recently, and I’m so glad I did.

The happiness myths I grew up sorting through seem alive and well today, decades later. I thought when I found the right person, got the great job, and made enough money, happiness would find me, or I’d find it. If I didn’t find it, I thought, it was because it resided outside my circumstances or my genetics. The book addresses these myths with science and clear explanations. The author points out about 50% of our happiness seems tied to a “set point” that appears genetic (we used to call this “hard wired”). Another 10% relates to life circumstances. However, a whopping 40% can be changed through intentional activity. 

With all the self-care materials on the planet, this book really delivered a lot of info and some excellent tools. This book offers a good explanation of the theoretical framework and then provides a lot of tools. Not only are there options, they can be based on just picking ones that click for you or you can select recommended options that seem most in sync with your values by completing the included 12-question Oxford Happiness Questionnaire. (To complete the Questionnaire without the book, go to this link.[iv])

The tools, called “happiness activities” in the book, cover 12 areas and offer different options within each area. The general areas are Expressing gratitude, Cultivating optimism, Avoiding comparison and overthinking, Practicing acts of kindness, Nurturing relationships, Developing strategies for coping, Learning to forgive, Increasing “flow” experiences, Savoring joy, Committing to goals, Practicing Spirituality, and Taking care of your body. The Questionnaire helps score and select areas of focus.

Per the Questionnaire, Expressing gratitude scored as one of my highest-interest areas. Since I’m already using a tool related to gratitude and consider it quite important, I’m impressed with the questionnaire. In addition, it helped me narrow down my broad interests to a few options. And though I feel I’ve progressed a lot with gratitude, from the book I learned more about ways to cultivate an optimistic attitude. Honestly, I hadn’t linked the two.

Growing up among adults who often outdid one another to the point if one had a “cold coming on” the other self-diagnosed with pneumonia, I witnessed a lot of negative thinking. My personalized definition of optimism in my teenage years included having the ability to recognize when something awful happened (friendship fell apart), accept any role I had in the disaster (didn’t pick up the cues someone was deceiving me), and acknowledging other circumstances (intentional cover-up by folks who knew what was happening). To my surprise, the book’s definition of “optimistic” states a person who relegates their failures to causes “that were external, transient, and specific” as opposed to causes that are internal and long-lasting. Suddenly, I felt a bit more like Pollyanna.

The tool I felt most drawn to in the section on cultivating optimism suggests writing about “your best possible selves.” This involves pondering deeply important goals and picturing them as achieved, then writing about that. It’s suitable for people of all ages and employs my imagination.

To find a second example, I closed my eyes and opened the book to a random page. Well, perhaps it wasn’t quite so random. The pages I opened to nestled in the section entitled “Managing Stress, Hardship and Trauma” and the tool was “Learning to Forgive.” Yikes! Although this wasn’t one of my top scoring areas, I realized almost everyone I know (including myself) has gotten bogged down at some time after we have been wronged or perceived we have been. The page I opened to has two activities/tools. One is to “Imagine forgiveness.” The other is “Write a letter of forgiveness.”

  • Imagine forgiveness suggests thinking of a particular person “you blame for mistreating or offending you.” You then imagine feeling empathy for the person, take time to consider their perspective, view them as a complete human being, and forgive them. Note that this does not mean excusing or putting up with poor behavior! It’s about letting go of the pain around the incident(s) and weaving through it thoughtfully and completely, imaging what you would say, how you would feel, and, in the end, reducing your stress.
  • Write a letter of forgiveness seeks to help us let go of anger and resentment by writing out our feelings in a letter, but not sending the letter (so it doesn’t matter if this person lives next-door or is no longer alive).  The activity suggest one method is to write about the offense, how it hurt you, how it still hurts you, what you wish they would have done, and ending with a clear statement of forgiveness. Again, this is not meant to be sent/mailed to anyone, but to help you find some peace and, perhaps, understanding.

While these may not resonate with you at all (and that’s absolutely fine), there are many other great examples in the book that might interest you. I consider the book one of those that touched me in a most lovely and uplifting way. To be clear, my preference is for information that wraps itself into or around practical tips – things I can use in my own life. The How of Happiness does that so well that I have to add it to my small personal library (and remove a book to make room for it because I have limited space).

Above all else, the book reminded me that we all have the power to make our lives happier, not by magic, but through chasing happiness in the right way: with an internal focus. To me, the potential life-long happiness upgrade makes it well worth the attempt.

Next week, book 2 of my top 3 “self-care” books. Until then, may you be happy, healthy, safe, and strong.

Copyright D.R. deLuis 2020


[i] Most areas in the U.S. offer a “2-1-1” service that can provide information about local resources. In addition, one website (there are many) with info about finding an affordable therapist is Open Counseling at www.opencounseling.com .

[ii] National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255; to reach the Crisis Text Line in the US and Canada text “HOME” to 741741; in the UK text 85258; in Ireland text 2050808.

[i] Most areas in the U.S. offer a “2-1-1” service that can provide information about local resources. In addition, one website (there are many) with info about finding an affordable therapist is Open Counseling at www.opencounseling.com .

[ii] National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255; to reach the Crisis Text Line in the US and Canada text “HOME” to 741741; in the UK text 85258; in Ireland text 2050808.

[iii] For U.S. history, as a start consider Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram Kendi or sources that respect the perspective of indigenous people and those kidnapped humans who were brought to this country enslaved. For me, loving a country means knowing the country’s authentic ups and downs, accepting the past, and working toward a more equitable future.

[iv] If you’re waiting for the book and would like to try the Happiness Questionnaire, here’s an article that includes the questionnaire along with guidance: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2014/nov/03/take-the-oxford-happiness-questionnaire

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