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  • by Jaclyn Foster

How to Get Happy Now

High school friends Mary and Jan both have careers they've dedicated themselves to, both are married with two children. They have many of the same, “things” in their lives – a comfortable home to return to each day, a reliable car, and the time and money to take vacations with their families.

But Mary rolls over each morning to her alarm, sighing with the knowledge that she must push through another day so she can get home, take care of housework and do her best to relax a few minutes before bed. Jan wakes up to the awareness of the soft sheets on her bed and the joy of being able to wake up next to her partner while connecting with what she’s looking forward to that day.

Two women, the same pursuits, the same “stuff.” What makes one happier than the other?

We Do it All for the Sake of Happiness

Happiness is the underlying driver of everything we do. If we asked ourselves “why” we do anything we do, sooner or later we all get to the knowledge that, “Well, I think it will make me happier.”

So how can it be that we are so often in pursuit of happiness instead of being happy now.

In doing some research, major depressive disorder affects approximately 17.3 million American adults, or about 7.1% of the U.S. population age 18 and older, in a given year.[1] And depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide.[2] In addition, an estimated 19.1% of U.S. adults had any anxiety disorder in 2017, and my thoughts are that that number has probably only gone up.[3]

That’s a lot of people!

Why are so many of us depressed and anxious? And how can we turn this around to experience more happiness?

Not What But How

So much of it comes down to not necessarily what we pursue, but how we pursue it.

A common habit of those of us living in the United States is to focus on endless pursuit. To live with belief that happiness will come when we have achieved more and more. The challenge with this is, we never get there. There is and will always be something else to achieve.

As human we will always be noticing things we’d like to improve upon and change so it can be easy to get lost in the focus of pursuit over happiness. It’s reminds me of the story of the rabbit chasing the dangling carrot, that's always out of reach, baited by thought of, "if I could just complete this one other thing..."

It's seductive thought process.

Pushing harder doesn’t get us to the carrot, it just keeps focused on something or someone being in the way of getting there. If we could only complete the check list, resolve that conflict, make that thing happen...maybe we’d experience some relief and a glimpse of happiness.

I can think of many times I’ve sat at my desk working on projects, trying to complete a to-do list, only to feel increasingly tired and burnt out, trying to talk myself into getting one more thing done, only to be reminded at the end of the day that there were just as many things to tackle tomorrow and I wasn’t feeling any better than I was yesterday.

Our Present State of Well-being Matters

All of this to say, happiness is not found when we sacrifice our present state of well-being for hope of a future benefit. We are often rewarded culturally and socially in our western world for these habits, but very rarely if ever, do they lead to true internal satisfaction and happiness.

So, what if we were to throw in the towel of hard work and any effort at all and focused solely on what bring us pleasure?

This pursuit of happiness was explored and this question, among others, was investigated by Tal Ben-Shahar and written about in his book, Happier. And he has a recommendation for how to pursue happiness that I’ve found to be eye opening and worth considering.

The idea is to seek pleasure and meaning in order to access happiness, because one without the other often can keep us feeling unhappy.

All work and no play leads on the path of chasing the dangling carrot, always out of reach. But all play and no work can get old, not to mention can be quite difficult to sustain.

The question becomes, how can we allow for both what we enjoy and what gives us a sense of purpose and move in the direction of our actions meeting both those needs. To do more things that bring us joy, those things we want to do, while also keeping ourselves connected to a sense of purpose. I’ve come to think of connecting with purpose as the ways I want to contribute to my well-being and the well-being of the world at the same time!

Finding Pleasure and Meaning to Pursue Happiness

Remember, the idea is to find ways to contribute that feel good. To do the things that make you feel like you are aligned with a sense of purpose and are pleasurable. This isn’t about doing things for other people, so they are happy. As a woman who is learning to be aware of her people pleasing tendencies, this can be a very important reminder. When exploring meaning, get curious about what gives YOU a sense of meaning and purpose.

A way to tell the different is if the action aligns with what you desire, you can honestly say you want to do it. If you are telling yourself you should do something to make others happy (your partner, family, community) and you know in your heart you are sacrificing or "taking one for the team" or "just trying to help get it done." It may be worth continuing with trial and error to align more with the activities, pursuits and choices that speak to you specifically.

So, let’s get you started with a couple steps you can take to access your happiness.

List it Out: Grab a notebook and piece of paper and make two columns. One that says “Pleasure” at the top and the other that says “Meaning.” Then set a timer for 5 – 10 minutes. Once you start the timer, brainstorm and list out the activities that bring you pleasure and then that give you meaning.

A sentence start is, “What bring me pleasure and joy is…”, and “What gives me a sense of purpose, meaning and makes me feel like I’m contributing is…”

I am a huge fan of the power of writing things out. Something powerful happens when we take thoughts that are jumbled up in our brain and give them physical form through writing. We get to see them with new eyes, explore them with a new perspective, and of course can become inspired to take new actions.

Just by listing these activities out you may remember something you want to do more of or start to consider how you can make time for things that are important to you and bring you life.

Pick One: For all my dangling carrot chasers out there, I see you! I know you might write this list and start to think and plan through how you can add 10 new pleasurable activities to your life or start to pursue a project you’d like to contribute to right away, jam packing your day with action steps, but remember anything we do that becomes an endless to-do list or a push to produce (even if they are linked to what brings us pleasure and meaning) can put us right back where we started.

Allow yourself to explore one activity on your list. Think about ways you can incorporate that activity more, perhaps pencil it in on your calendar 1 day this week. In my experience, a big part of getting to happiness is remembering that there will always be more I can do and want to do, and its not a race. What’s important is to feel well along the way, and this comes from slowing down and tuning in to what we need which is an evolving process.

Would like some additional support? You are not alone and change takes time! It’s a practice and more often than not it can greatly benefit to reach out for support of a coach, friend or mentor.

If you are a Whole Health Plan Member, the Medical & Wellness Centers located in Austin, Texas and Glendale, California are available for support. Give us a call.

If you are Whole Health Plan member and have not established care with the Center for your primary care services, call us to make an appointment or learn more about the benefits available to you as a patient of the Center.

You can explore our website to learn more about us as well.

References: [1], Referencing the National Institute of Mental Health “Major Depression”, 2017

[2], referencing: (Greenberg PE, Fournier AA, Sisitsky T, Pike CT, Kessler RC. The economic burden of adults with major depressive disorder in the United States (2005 and 2010). J Clin Psychiatry. 2015;76(2):155-62. doi:10.4088/JCP.14m09298)

[3], Referencing: (Based on diagnostic interview data from the National Comorbidity Study Replication (NCS-R), Figure 1 shows past year prevalence of any anxiety disorder among U.S. adults aged 18 or older.)

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