Since I founded the Secret Society of Happy People over twenty years ago, I’ve been asked countless times, “What is the secret to happiness?”
It’s an obvious question that I’ve avoided directly answering for two reasons. First, the Society is about celebrating happiness, not telling people how to be happy. Second, there isn’t one simple answer.
Of course, as a mostly happy person who’s studied happiness for more than two decades, I have identified what I consider are the secrets to happiness—or at least the secrets to my happiness.
This year I was interviewed several times about a study by Gallup and Sharecare of 2.5 million Americans that shows, despite a robust economy, people are unhappier than they’ve been since 2009—the year that unemployment hit an all-time high during the Great Recession.
That study and the Society’s 20th Anniversary — or birthday as I think of it — has inspired me to share my Four Practical Happiness Principles – or my secrets to happiness.
First, what is practical happiness?
Practical happiness helps people discover realistic happiness.
Second, what are the Four Practical Happiness Principles?
- Happiness Zappers Zap Everyone
- Happiness is Personal
- Happiness Changes as We Change
- Happiness is Bigger Than You Think
Happiness Changes as We Change
We know that our happiness changes as we change, but we usually don’t think about happiness that way.
It’s easy to understand that the act of walking no longer gives us the same exuberance it did the first time we tried it. But imagine how happy we’d be if we valued every step we took with even half the excitement that we did when we took our first steps.
Age, experience and unexpected events are usually the catalysts that redefine what makes us happy.
Happiness In Hindsight
My mom and I had a big argument when I visited her one weekend shortly after she and my dad divorced. She’d moved about an hour away from where I lived and was working a part-time job at the VFW Hall on bingo night–which happened to be the night I arrived. She wanted me to go with her.
In hindsight, it was a simple request, and her only motive was that she wanted her friends to meet the daughter she talked about so often. But to me, in the wisdom of my early twenties, it was an evening in a smoke-filled room with old people. In my mid-twenties mind, anyone over thirty was old, and I’m allergic to smoke. Also, I never won playing bingo, so needless to say, I wasn’t stoked about Bingo Night.
I tried to explain to her that I didn’t have anything in common with anyone there – and that they didn’t have anything in common with me. I didn’t see that as a bad thing, just a truthful observation. She felt I was being pretentious. We compromised and I went for an hour or so, but I just went through the motions to appease her instead of embracing the experience.
If I had the opportunity to go to that same bingo night with my mom now, I would do it in a heartbeat. I’d cherish spending time with her, because now that’s no longer an option. I’d also happily take extra allergy medicine, sit at the bar, order a drink and talk to the vets about their experiences. At my current age, I’d appreciate the opportunity to learn, to hear the stories of the men and women who’d fought and served our country in a way that I didn’t at that moment in time.
Wisdom and experiences change our perspectives, which in turn changes what makes us happy.
Sometimes nature redefines us and our happiness, like:
- When we realize we didn’t value our skinny years, until we’d be so happy to weigh that again
- We move slower, so our happiness is measured in getting where we want to be, instead of how fast we get there
- Our forties eyes arrive and we need glasses to read, so we value actually reading
Circumstances Change Our Happiness
Sometimes circumstances change what makes us happy. One of my favorite books, Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom, is about a professor’s last teachings after he was diagnosed with ALS.
One of the passages from that story beautifully describes how circumstances change our happiness measuring stick:
“Mitch,” Morrie said, laughing along, “Even I don’t know what ‘spiritual development’ really means. But I do know we’re deficient in some way. We are too involved in materialistic things, and they don’t satisfy us. The loving relationships we have, the universe around us, we take these things for granted.”
He nodded toward the window with the sunshine streaming in. “You see that? You can go out there, outside, anytime. You can run up and down the block and go crazy. I can’t go out. I can’t run. I can’t be out there without fear of getting sick. But you know what? I appreciate that window more than you do.”
“Yes, I look out that window every day. I notice the change in the trees, how strong the wind is blowing. It’s as if I can see time actually passing through that windowpane. Because I know my time is almost done, I am drawn to nature like I’m seeing it for the first time.”
Sometimes our circumstances change in ways we wish they hadn’t, forcing us to redefine what makes us happy or simply sit in misery. People take both paths – they embrace the new, or they lament what they’ve lost.
Furthermore, our idea of happiness can change even when we don’t expect it to—and even if we change our circumstances on purpose. This could happen when:
- We graduate college and get an adult job
- We get a dog and are now responsible for his potty training, feeding, walking and behavior
- We get married and share in decisions about everything from decorating to meal times to retirement planning
- We have kids who change the very purpose of our life
- We become empty nesters, leaving a void that must be filled
Life is full of changes – some wanted and planned for, others brought to us courtesy of Mother Nature, and a few that are unwanted and unexpected.
Whatever the source of our changes, they create a choice– resist or embrace them. If we chose to embrace them — after mourning a loss if needed — we will be happy again because our happiness changes as we change.