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Don't Chase Your Happiness - Let it Land on You

By Yvette Vignando - 17th May 2012

First a note: How generous is this? Kids Business, a marketing and PR company offered me (and some other bloggers) a sponsorship of $120 to write a post about happiness. Now, before you click away thinking this is a sponsored post, or a promotion of a PR company, I quote from the last email I received: "You are under no expectation or obligation to promote Kids Business". So simply, I just write about this topic and they give me $120 to use for happiness. It's a no-brainer for me. And I choose to donate that money to a family that I know with a sick child who both needs and deserves happiness as much as we all do. if you like the sound of that opportunity, you will have no trouble finding Kids Business online for the next time they generously offer this to bloggers.

It was a little difficult for me to compose a blogpost mainly about happiness because I don’t believe in chasing it. This might seem ironic coming from the publisher of a website called happychild. But happiness is just one of many rich feelings that give me, and I think most people, a feeling of humanity and a sense of living a full and meaningful life. 

When happiness is absent in our daily lives or is fleeting, that’s a sign that something is more seriously wrong – and it’s the time to get support from experts,  not the time to chase happiness. Because if you run after happiness you may never catch it.

Happiness lands on you when you are in the right place, doing the right thing, with the right people, pursuing the right goals – ‘right’, because it’s right for you.  Tal Ben-Shahar, a Harvard Professor expresses it best with one piece of advice “Give yourself permission to be human : When we accept emotions - such as fear, sadness, or anxiety - as natural, we are more likely to overcome them. Rejecting our emotions, positive or negative, leads to frustration and unhappiness. ”  I’ll get back to Ben-Shahar in a moment, because it’s worth using his advice if you want happiness to land on you more often. But for now, let me give you two examples from a household with children:

-    You are expecting friends for morning tea and a play with the kids – you’re feeling anxious about your house being a total mess.  Telling yourself “Just be happy, relax - think of things that make you happy...” doesn’t help – you’ll probably feel more anxious. Accepting and noticing that you feel worried about how your friends might judge you, focusing on the fun you are about to have with your friends, and inviting them in with a welcoming smile and some cake is much more likely to lead to happiness just landing on you, as you gradually relax and enjoy the morning.

-    You are tired, you’re grumpy, you don’t feel like reading a book to your child before he goes to bed.  Telling yourself “Reading is important, you should love this time with your child, reading is fabulous, smile and carry on”  will probably just exhaust you, and you’ll be no happier. Accepting and noticing that you are more tired than usual and offering to play a simple game instead, or look at picture books together, or watch a favourite television show, will probably leave you feeling more relaxed – you can read a book tomorrow.

So back to Ben-Shahar, here are my interpretations of the rest of his tips for letting happiness land on you more often:

Keep things simple:  do less each day, do less each week, stop trying to squeeze in so much into so little time. For parents: can your child go to one less organised activity per week? Perhaps she can do dancing next term? Can you shop fortnightly instead of weekly? Did you make sure you had at least half an hour per day just for you – perhaps alone with a book, or some music, or out walking?

Practice being grateful:   research clearly shows that if we make a point of noticing what we are grateful for in our lives, we feel happier. In fact, when we are feeling grateful, there are even noticeable changes in our heart rate variability that make positive contributions to our immune system and our hormonal balance. Look up Heartmath on Google if you want to know more.   

A healthy body contributes to a healthy mind:  you’ve probably heard that when you exercise, your body produces hormones that can make you feel more positive – this is why regular exercise is one of many strategies used to help people with depression.  No matter how busy you are with your family, try to make time to sleep more, exercise more, and eat as well as you can – if you feel healthier, happiness will land on you more often.

Happiness is not caused by financial wealth: sure, paying off your credit cards and your mortgage would make things a lot easier – let’s not be unrealistic here – it’s stressful raising a family with debt hanging over you.  But research shows that our feelings of wellbeing are more closely related to how we interpret things that happen to us – whether we are more optimistic, or more pessimistic about events. Positive psychology tells us that if we practice a 'glass half full' approach to more of our lives, we are better able to recover from setbacks and more likely to see those setbacks as opportunities to learn.  Don’t chase money as a path to happiness, chase meaningful experiences and time with people that make you feel good about yourself…which leads us to the last of Ben-Shahar’s tips -

Happiness lies at the intersection of pleasure and meaning:  Dr Martin Seligman, guru of positive psychology says exactly the same thing. Try to spend more of your week, and time with your kids doing things that are both fun and personally meaningful or significant for you – so if being outside in nature and appreciating natural beauty is your thing, do more of this with your kids. Or perhaps volunteering for a charity gives you meaning – some of the charities in Australia focus on kids – examples would be UNICEF, the Starlight Children’s Foundation and Save the Children.  You’ll probably find that the more of these activities you do, the more happiness will land on you.

P.S. You can read another version of Ben-Shahar's and Seligman's tips here: 6 Parent Tips - Building Happiness in Children's Lives

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