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 answering for two reasons. First, the Society is about celebrating happiness, not telling people how to be happy. Second, there isn’t a simple answer.
Of course, as a mostly happy person, who’s studied happiness for the past two decades, I have developed what I consider are the secrets to happiness — or at least, the secrets to my happiness.
Recently, 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.
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
Each week, I’ll be writing a column about all Four Practical Happiness Principles.
We all know that we aren’t going to be happy all of the time — even if we want and try to be. Life happens, and it’s not a happiness only experience. Of course, that also means we aren’t wired to be unhappy all of the time.
Studies show us that people who consider themselves mostly happy, and those who consider themselves mostly unhappy, experience a similar number of unhappy, stressful, chaotic and annoying experiences. So, what’s the difference in how happy and unhappy people rate their happiness? It’s how they react to similar happiness zapping experiences.
Therefore, our first practical happiness principle is: Happiness Zappers Zap Everyone
Identifying & Managing Happiness Zappers
The most important thing we do every day may be how we manage our happiness zappers — unhappiness, stress, chaos, and annoyances. Oftentimes one or more of these things will be part of our daily experience. Since our brain is hardwired to focus more on these experiences than the happy ones, we have to decide how we manage our happiness zappers — or they manage us.
The first thing to do when that not-so-happy feeling appears is to identify the type of happiness zapper it is:
UNHAPPINESS is created by experiences that we have little or no control over, and probably have long-term consequences. They are the experiences that hurt our hearts like:
- Serious health issues
- Loss of a loved one or pet
- Rifts with family or friends
- Loss of a job
- Financial hardships
- Rebuilding after a natural disaster
Unhappiness usually isn’t something that we can quickly fix. Oftentimes our unhappiness is the normal sadness that we experience after the loss of a person, relationship or situation. We’re often forced to find a new normal, like learning to live without someone we love, adjusting our budget or changing our lifestyle to improve our health.
Our quick-fix, selfie perfect culture doesn’t respect that sometimes it’s normal, natural and okay to feel sad. In fact, it’s actually unhealthy to never feel sad.
However, after our heart deals with its initial pain and shock it makes room for happiness even while we adjust to our new normal — even if it takes a while. Even after our new normal feels normal, a pang of sadness can still pop into our happy space, reminding us of something in our past that’s gone. Just because a wound has healed, doesn’t mean we don’t have a scar from the hurt.
When we experience unhappiness, we all have to decide if the experience is going to make us better or resentful.
We become better when we grow by becoming more empathetic or being inspired to do something to help others. We become resentful when our minds and hearts keep reliving the past over and over, therefore stopping us from healing and moving forward with new experiences.
STRESS is created when too many future unknowns occupy our minds, or we have too many to do’s. Stress is most likely part of an unhappy experience, but it can be a standalone situation like:
- Bad bosses, possible layoffs or company buyouts at work
- Communication challenges with family members, neighbors or friends
- Airport delays
- Job hunting
- Planning an event
- Waiting on health test results
Stress reduction is as varied as its causes. It can be as complicated as making a decision and taking action to change a situation. It may be having a Plan B for a situation that we have either no or minimal control over. It requires us to set boundaries by saying no to things – even some things you want to do – because practically speaking there are only 24 hours in a day. It also can be as simple as biding your time until the stressful moment naturally ends.
Not all stress is bad for us. Sometimes it’s the key to us upping our own game, like when we do a work presentation, win a tennis match or triage a chaotic situation.
Some ways to manage the physical effects of stress include deep breathing, exercise, yoga, music, and aromatherapy.
CHAOS shows up unexpectedly. It is overwhelming, but is usually short-term. Think of situations like:
- ER visit by you or someone close to you
- Dog getting lost as you’re leaving for work
- Your teenager invites the soccer team over last minute
- A neighbor pops over because they need to talk—even though you’ve got a million things to do
- Your child forgets to tell you about a major school project until the night before it’s due
- Aftermath of a natural disaster
- Your boss gives you a big project and minimal time to complete it
Chaos may be attached to unhappiness, but it can also be a fleeting moment that passes. Chaos will temporarily increase your stress, so take a little time to decompress after it’s been contained. You might need extra sleep, to talk to a best friend over a glass of wine, or watch your favorite movie.
ANNOYANCES are momentary, yet probably repeat experiences like:
- Traffic congestion
- Someone being late
- Losing your keys
- Having a cold
- Restaurant order being wrong
- Internet not working
- Dealing with customer service
- Favorite sports team losing a game
We have lots of control over if or when these moments zap our happiness. Most likely we won’t remember them a month, much less a year, after they happened. If this is the case, do they deserve to take away even a minute of your happiness? The moment we quit focusing on them is probably the moment our happiness returns.
Practicing Practical Happiness
We cannot predict when most unhappy, stressful, chaotic or annoying experience will happen to us. However, when they do we can identify and manage them most of the time. Part of managing our happiness zappers means that we allow ourselves to feel the feelings from these experiences — including the ones that hurt our hearts, make us mad, or even leave us speechless.
We are practicing practical happiness when we expect happiness zappers to zap away some of our happy. However, since we’re expecting it, we can better manage these experiences, from the ones that aren’t going away quickly, to the ones that we can eliminate almost immediately by not focusing on them.
Practical happiness allows us to embrace all of life’s emotions, including the unhappy ones, which ironically lets us experience more happiness, too.