Every fair-sized group has a person or two who stands out like a ray of sunlight. They’re good-natured. Their happiness is visible and contagious. When you’re near them, you feel a little better, too.
Yet, you know these people have suffered illnesses, losses, disappointments, limitations, reversals, and obstacles like everyone else. It makes you wonder if happiness is a learnable skill.
Some people come to it more naturally, but most happiness skills are within everyone’s reach. Here are four that make a good start.
1. An Affirmative Perspective—Putting Gratitude in Focus. One of the most common “rules” for finding happiness is to practice gratitude.
It’s good advice, especially when you expand on it. The key here is that “practicing” gratitude can turn into little islands of unconnected positivity. Real happiness is not occasional. It’s continuing.
To use an example, imagine an old grump muttering, “I’m grateful for the ride to the store” and meaning it, and then muttering, “I know they’re going to be out of eggplant again. They always are.”
Happier people have a gratitude switch that’s almost always turned on. This kind of person would think “I was grateful for the ride when I needed it. The store was out of eggplant, too bad, maybe next trip. So I got some zucchini that will work, and everything else on my list. Enjoyed talking to my favorite clerk. Plus I got some beautiful strawberries, and can’t wait to make shortcake. And my friend will be over later, so we can share, and the weather is really nice today…”
Though we all have our tragedies and disappointments, people with the knack for happiness have an ability to believe those low spots are low spots. Just that, nothing more.
2. Measured Expectations—Keeping Contentment in Motion. Both happy and unhappy people can seem to be content if that word implies accepting how things are without a lot of weeping and wailing.
But contentment does not mean that you can’t have desires or expectations. There’s a world of difference between complaining that you can’t go on a cruise unless you hit the lottery and setting aside some money every week for a phenomenal dream trip you could afford with some planning and patience.
Have your desires, dream your dreams. Then ask yourself what your plan is for getting them.
If there’s no way you can plan, train, save, or set yourself up to achieve your wishes, then your desires aren’t likely to make you feel contented now or happy later.
That’s not much fun, but you may be able to find happiness with a well-considered piece of a dream. If you can’t own a horse, you can go for a ride sometimes. If you can’t get into Harvard, you can take a Harvard class in extension.
3. Emotional Generosity—Feeling Joy for Others. When a friend wins something great—whether it’s a new Bass boat or a trip to Paris—that you’d love to have too, how you react says a lot about your happiness quotient.
Happy people say, “Wow. I’m so glad for you!” People with less talent for joy say, “Wow, lucky you. Nothing like that ever happens to me.”
This is one of the main reasons people like to be around happy people. When you have something exciting and happy to share, you can go to a regularly happy person and celebrate. They won’t grouse, grumble, find fault, or take the shine off of your happiness.
Even if you don’t actually have that generous reaction spontaneously, it’s not a fatal flaw. It’s pretty common. But you can practice a new way of reacting and enjoying the joy of others.
Ironically, celebrating for others will make you feel better than concentrating on what you didn’t get. You may even catch a little jolt of joy yourself.
4. Criticism and Blaming—Withholding Your Opinion Can Be Good. Think about the last time you made a mistake. You probably knew it. Knew you did something you weren’t supposed to or didn’t mean to. Felt bad…
If someone came along and criticized you for it, what happened next?
Nothing good! You already felt bad. They only made you feel worse and maybe angry as well. It didn’t fix anything.
You already knew what was wrong. They didn’t enlighten anything.
And for sure, you did not feel an extra dose of loving-kindness toward the person who took it upon himself to point out your mistakes.
Criticism and blame are easy. A kid bumps a table and breaks something, we shout, “Johnny what were you doing running around like that!”
What happy people do is different. Blaming and criticism are forms of judgment. Negative forms.
TED speaker Julian Treasure put this beautifully when he recounted his own wake-up call:
“I was taught this exercise many years ago by a wise old friend named Charlie. I was bemoaning someone being in my way and Charlie put his hand on my arm. “You know, resentment is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die,” he said. “If you go through life silently blaming, judging and condemning other people, your insides will be a mess. Why don’t you try this instead: think ‘Bless you’ towards everyone you meet.”
I tried it, and the results were remarkable."