What is it that makes some people able to maintain a sunny outlook while others seem to become mired in the negative minutia of day to day existence? Believe it or not, happiness can be a choice. This idea was first introduced to me when I was a sullen college student. “Man is master of his mood,” Dr. Ken West told a full classroom. I was dumbstruck. Until that moment I thought my hormone driven moods were the master of me.
In the book, The Conquest of Happiness, philosopher Bertrand Russell writes, “Happiness is not, except in very rare cases, something that drops into the mouth, like a ripe fruit…. Happiness must be, for most men and woman, an achievement rather than a gift from the gods, and in this achievement, effort – both inward and outward – must play a great part.”
In the 1970’s researchers followed people who had won the lottery and found that a year later, they were no happier than people who were not lottery winners. This hedonic adaptation suggests that we each have a baseline of happiness. No matter what happens, good or bad, the effect on our happiness is temporary, and we tend to revert to our baseline level. Some people naturally have a higher baseline of happiness than others. That is due to genetics, in part, but it is also largely influenced by how we think.
There are steps that can be taken to assist our nimble minds into feeling happier:
• Start each day on a good note. When you first awaken, take a moment to think some happy thoughts. Think about how warm and comfortable your bed is. Envision something that is going to happen that day that you are looking forward to. Remember something you are grateful for.
• Do something you enjoy first thing. Do you love a great cup of coffee? Have one. And take time to really appreciate it. Don’t just swill it down, waiting for the jolt of caffeine to kick start your day. Savor the scent, the flavor, the warmth of the cup under your fingers. Don’t let the little happy things in your life go unappreciated.
• Add up all the small, joyful things that happen during your day. Write them down. If you enjoyed a marvelous breakfast, saw an amazing sunset, enjoyed playing with your dog, or had a great laugh with a friend, add them up and take note of them. It will help elevate your outlook.
• Take time to feel deeply grateful for the things you have. This is a very effective way to be happy. If you feel grateful for the things you have, you not only become happier, but it also helps you bring more good things into your life. Take running water, for instance. Though I bet everyone reading my words has clean, running water, most of us do not take time to appreciate it. 750 million people around the world do not have access to safe, plentiful water. Next time you fill a glass or take a long, steamy shower, be thankful for this often ignored blessing.
• Tie acknowledging gratitude to something you already do. For instance, list things you are grateful for in your mind while you brush your teeth, or last thing as you close your eyes at night. Begin and/or end every work day with a momentary gratitude pause.
• Train yourself to view your glass as half-full instead of half-empty. Your love broke up with you? This opens an opportunity to find someone who really appreciates you. You lost your job? Think of the wonderful time this is to find a much better one. Adjust your thinking so that no matter what happens to you, there is a nugget of goodness to be found.
• Put yourself in situations where marvelous things are likely to happen to you. It is easier to remain up-beat if you set yourself up for success. Doing things like cheating on your partner or shoplifting, while temporarily thrilling, seldom end well. Before you act, ask yourself, “Am I setting myself up for failure or success?”
• Scientists studied motivation in the workplace and found that one of the most powerful causes of positive employee morale and happiness at work happened when people felt that they were moving forward and making real progress. What can you do to help you move forward in your work?
• Leonie Dawson, a famous self-help author, suggests that people have a “MIT list.” This stands for Most Important Things.
Try this: before you start each work day, write down three MIT’s you plan to accomplish. Do them. Cross them off your list. At the end of the day, look at your list and acknowledge that you made progress. It’s a little step that can help pave the road to happy.
• Be in charge of your professional growth. Ask for specific help from your employer if necessary, but march to the music of your own plan and goals. You have the most to gain from growing and the most to lose if you stay stagnant.
• Take time to say thank you to those who do normally thankless tasks. This might mean handing a roll of Lifesavers to a toll taker or thanking the local cop as he passes by for helping to keep your community safe. Try it. It feels good.
• Do what tasks you dread early in the day. Then they are done and you can focus on more pleasant things. That super matted dog? Tackle it first. The phone call you want to avoid? Do it now and get it over with.
• Learn to forgive. In a study of college students, an attitude of forgiveness contributed to better heart health. It can be said that forgiveness actually heals hearts.
• Get enough sleep. Study after study confirms it, the more sleep you get the happier you tend to be. Getting even one extra hour of sleep per night makes the average person happier than making $60,000 more in annual income!
• Eat well. Healthy foods give your body and mind the energy they need to function optimally. Some scientists speculate that unhealthy diets are responsible for brain shrinkage and certain brain diseases like depression and dementia.
• Do something kind and compassionate for someone or something. Give an unexpected gift to someone or feed a stray animal. Acts like these release dopamine, the neurotransmitter responsible for feeling happiness, and benefit all involved!
• Know what makes your heart sing, and make time for that in your life. Does a walk in the woods or along the beach elevate your mood? When was the last time you made time for activities that uplift you?
Here is the bad news. Our brains are better at remembering the negative over the positive. For example, one study found that the negative impact of setbacks at work was three times more powerful than the positive impact of making progress. We are conditioned by evolution to seek out what is wrong and focus on it. As cave people, this helped us protect ourselves from danger, but for modern humans, it makes it trickier for us to feel happy. The good news is that you can fight natural negative bias. Your brain can be trained to remember positive things, by doing some or all of the things listed above.
As professional pet groomers, one of the most challenging parts of our already difficult job is dealing with people. You can train yourself to enjoy human nature. Let’s be honest, some grooming customers do really strange things. When faced with these foibles you can choose to:
• Be irritated
• Be amused
Being irritated makes you miserable. Being amused helps you find creative ways to work around the limitations of others. For example, if Mrs. S. insists on literally measuring the length of her dog’s coat with a ruler after you have groomed it, to insure you did, indeed, leave 1.5 inches of hair all over, you can either feel totally exasperated or let your mind wander to what other quirks she might have, and how it would be to live with her. How, do you suppose, MISTER S. measures up?
Taking control of our moods can seem like a daunting task, but really, isn’t the price of happiness worth some effort? In life our days may seem long, but the years are short. Let’s make the most of the time we are allotted and be as happy as we can be.