Happiness… it used to be a bit elusive, a bit mysterious.
I knew it existed but we were rarely in the same room at the same time. I learned to be cagey: when the stars aligned and we bumped into each other at a barbecue or the Wednesday night antique auction, I’d avert my eyes and avoid looking at Happiness head-on (‘cause I knew if I accidentally caught her eye, she’d run like a hare and be gone before I’d fully felt into her presence.
Don’t get me wrong—I wasn’t miserable. I was simply analytic about everything.
Happiness is easily frightened by a mental volley of frantic thoughts and “practical” suggestions.
How can you think that way? She’s being so kind.
You’re in such a beautiful place. Try to be appreciative.
I’d deliver these missives to myself in a mental voice which sounded (and still sounds) freakishly like my Grandma Sarah who, while passed on, still lives a rich life in the recesses of my imagination.
You’re gonna go out dressed like that? she asks.
What are those things hanging from your ears? Chandeliers?
You can understand why even Happiness would cringe under the onslaught.
It’s taken awhile, but I’ve finally got Happiness’s number. Now that we’re on intimate terms, I know she’s not a hare at all…
But before I tell you about Happiness’s true animal archetype, let me tell you how to find Happiness and keep her by your side.
I need to warn you: what I’m suggesting is going to sound overly-simplistic and possibly nutty. But I’ve been testing this theory like mad the last couple days ‘cause I’m in Venice (as in Italy) and my luggage is still on the other side of the Atlantic.
I know, right?
And as soon as those words form in my brain, I smile.
It’s pretty chilly and I only have flip-flops and a light sweater ’cause my coat and closed-toe shoes are in my suitcase.
I smile again.
Turns out the act of smiling leads to happiness.
Crazy, right? All this time I thought berating myself was gonna do the trick.
I’ve been doing the smiling thing for a couple years but I’ve been actively putting it through its paces this trip. As each negative thought rises into my consciousness, I smile.
And why shouldn’t I? I’m in Venice for cripes’ sake.
Yeah, I’m a little cold (smile) and footsore (smile) and I’m hand-washing my underwear every night (big smile).
All this is true.
And smiling allows me to acknowledge these truths while still actively choosing happiness. Smiling gives me the space to remember the (gluten-free!) pasta and salmon I had last night while watching the gondolas and water taxis cruise the canal. Smiling lets the ah-mazing wooden sculptures of life-sized t-shirts and shorts (hanging on a clothes line!) feel more important than my chilly fingers.
Heck: there were even life-sized wooden work gloves. And they effortlessly made me smile.
Smiling releases stress-reducing neuropeptides as well as the happiness neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin. Plus you get a nice hit of endorphins with each smile you deliver.
As if this wasn’t enough, smiling actually makes you more attractive to other people… and to yourself.
All of which leads to—you got it—happiness.
“Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.”
~ Thich Nhat Hanh
So, it turns out Happiness isn’t a hare after all. She’s something much easier to snuggle down with and hold to. I’ll give you a hint: four legs, wagging tail, and big goofy grin. I’m thinking we call them (wo)man’s best friend for a reason!
(And, strangely, there are dogs all over Venice.)
Let me know how you reconnect with your happiness.
I tend to be a striver, an achiever, a “what’s next?” kinda gal.
For me, gratitude has to be a ritual, otherwise it only happens on the rare occasion when something completely out of the ordinary whacks me over the head with the wonderfulness of this world.
So, as a Thanksgiving treat, I thought I’d share my super-easy gratitude practices (the ones I actually do.)
But before we get into the doing of it, let’s talk about why gratitude matters anyway.
It’s pretty easy to put gratitude practices in the trendy column and move on with your cynical life. But gratitude is a trend for a reason: your thoughts are rewiring your brain all the time.
This is important, so, one more time:
Your thoughts are rewiring your brain all the time.
Don’t believe me? Hear it from a Harvard-trained psychologist (this dude must take stand-up comedy courses because he is super-funny!):
Gratitude literally causes chemical changes in your brain, which causes a positivity chain reaction. Gratitude:
increases dopamine, the feel-good chemical;
dopamine increases your level of happiness (this begins a positive feedback loop);
dopamine turns on the learning centers in your brain, so happier = smarter.
My family started saying what we were thankful for as a way of beginning the Thanksgiving meal many decades ago. We’ve since added to family dinner “best of the day” and “best of the week.” But I don’t have large family gatherings on a daily basis, so I’ve come up with some daily rituals (that I can actually stick with!) to keep my dopamine flowing:
1. Three Gratitudes Before Bed
I don’t speak these out loud or write them down. I just say them quietly within my own brain when I get into bed at night. Easy-peasy.
2. Giving with Both Hands
When I was traveling in Thailand, I was told that it’s considered rude to give or receive with one hand. This has stuck with me. When I pay my hairdresser or massage therapist, I use both hands and consciously remember to be grateful for the service and care they provided.
3. Remembering Happiness
This is cool: remembering a happy moment creates happiness. My moment was coming up over the mountains on I-84 in New York and seeing the sunset blazing over the Hudson River. My heart opened wide. I relive that moment a few times a week and can feel the radiating joy (and dopamine!) for hours after.
4. An Essential Pick Me Up
We all have scents that make us happy because smell is connected to our hind-brain, the most primitive part of us, where emotions are triggered.
For me, the scent is jasmine. An under-note of citrus (like bergamot or lime) makes it even better! When I need to go to my happy place, I put a drop on my hand, rub my hands together, and hold them over my nose or I put a few drops in my diffuser and scent the whole room.
It’s important to have a toolkit for happiness.
Life’s gonna throw you curve balls. It’s what life does.
Having a gratitude practice puts you in the driver’s seat. You can’t control the world around you, but you can control how ready and resilient you are to receiving it.
Do you know how smart, beautiful, and fearless you are?
Have you given yourself a cheeky wink and a thumbs up in the mirror lately?
If you haven’t, make kissy faces at your beautiful-being the next time you pass the looking glass.
Because being grateful actually has a neuro-chemical effect on the brain. Which is why I have my clients start every session by telling me what’s new and good… especially when things are horrible and crappy.
Gratitude increases activity in the hypothalamus, which controls things like metabolism and sleep and stress. Which means that your decision to notice the good in your life affects your weight, your rest, and your relaxation.
Studies are showing that gratitude actually affects dopamine levels in the brain (read more here), which means being grateful makes your brain a happier place to live… and puts you in a positive feedback loop that makes it easier to be happy.
We tend to think of happiness as a fleeting feeling over which we have little control. But what happens if you think of happiness as a practice?
I suspect, if you are like many of my clients, it’s a practice that might be particularly relevant right now; at this time of year, when winter is beginning to soften but spring has not yet pushed through, aggravation can quickly become a dominant emotion.
The best antidote for aggravation is a little gratitude.
There are many ways to have a gratitude practice and you might have to experiment to find the one that flows for you:
* Keep a gratitude journal.
* Share something you are grateful for with your partner before bed.
* Use the camera on your phone to record moments of gratitude during the day (this is especially useful if you, like me, find gratitude in things you can see).
* Use essential oils to remind you of things you are grateful for (pine to remind you of Christmas with your family or clove to reminisce about Thanksgivings past).
What difference would it make in your life if gratitude became a practice and happiness a habit?
How do you practice gratitude and happiness? Share with us below!