Last week, in the Atlanta airport, I had enough time for a real meal (vs. something grabbed from the food court). So I went into a TGIF and was greeted by the hostess. As she led me to my table, she asked, “How are you today?”
I said, “I’m fantastically good (which was true). How about you?”
She turned and smiled at me, completely genuine, and said, “If I were any happier, I’d have to be twins.” Then she gestured me to my table and told me that my waitress would be right with me, and walked away.
My first thought: What a great line — I’m stealing that; so happy, one body can barely contain it! My second thought: How wonderful that she feels that way.
My third thought: Yet again, I’m reminded that happiness and contentment are independent of circumstances. And I decided to write something to you about that.
I believe that most people who are unhappy or discontented think that it’s because of their circumstances. If I only had a better job, they say to themselves, I’d be happy. Or maybe it’s if I were only better looking, or younger, or richer, or more famous, or married.
In fact, I bet there are a lot of people working as hostesses at TGIFs around the country thinking to themselves, If it weren’t for this crappy job, I’d be happy. And yet, here is this lovely woman in Atlanta, hostessing at a TGIF, so happy she shares her happiness with perfect strangers.
What if happiness is not primarily a function of creating some magical set of circumstances (right home, car, job, spouse, weight, shoes, etc…) that “makes you happy,” but is rather largely independent of circumstances? If that’s true, it’s actually very liberating. It means you can be happy by virtue of managing your internal mental and emotional landscape — over which you have almost total control. In the beautifully simple words of Abraham Lincoln:
“Most folks are as happy as they make up their minds to be.”
Easier said than done, you might be thinking. If I’m not happy, how can I just “make up my mind to be happy”? As it turns out, there are a couple of simple, practical, things you can do to get happier. And one of them you can start doing right this minute.
Folks who study the sources of happiness have done a great deal of research over the past decade or so that points to the conclusion that people who are grateful are happy. That’s right, gratitude pretty much equals happiness. So, how do you feel more grateful?
Start by thinking of something — a person, a possession, a capability, a situation — that you feel thankful for having in your life. Think about why you’re glad you have that thing in your life. For example, maybe you’re grateful for you best friend because she’s such a good listener. Or maybe you’re glad that your apartment is in a quiet building. Or you’re thankful that your health is good. Now, one at a time, think of four other things you’re grateful for. Reflect on each one for a few moments: think about what it brings to your life. Let yourself feel thankful for it.
When people do this kind of ‘gratitude training,’ researchers often have them fill out questionnaires, before and after the training, designed to measure their overall levels of happiness and contentment. They don’t tell the subjects that the gratitude training is supposed to make them more happy. And yet, almost without exception, the test subjects report that they are happier after completing the training than before — independent of whether any of the circumstances in their lives have changed.
I love the idea that we are the masters of our own happiness; I’ve experienced it largely to be true. And I’ve also seen that being happy is the best place to begin, no matter what you’re trying to accomplish in your life. If you’re happy, you’ll be clearer, more hopeful, more resilient, more collaborative, and more focused.
So, rather than assuming you’ll be happy if you get that bigger job, or house, or paycheck — be happy now, and you’ll be better able to accomplish whatever is truly important to you.