As I learn to improve myself, I’ve been learning to unpack the idea of happiness. We use happiness in at least three ways: the emotion, the attitude, and the state.
When we’re in the state of happiness, we feel happy all the time. This is the dream world we’ll live in after we’ve won the lottery: a big home, a fast car or two, and lots of pleasurable activity. In this world, we fulfill every need. This is bliss.
Unfortunately, I don’t think this state exists for more than an hour. I don’t think anyone on this planet lives in a perpetual state of happiness, because everyone has to deal with rude people, the grimy sides of culture, and their own insecurities.
Moreover, humans recalibrate their baselines for contentment. Once you have food, you want flavorful food. And you want healthy food, because you want to live as long as possible, and you can afford it. Then you want food that’s healthy, flavorful, and an exact match to your current mood. Repeat for every other aspect of our lives.
The emotion of happiness often surprises us. We enter this state when we sit at a nice restaurant at the end of a fine meal, or as we walk around an amusement park on a thrill high. It’s that warm, expansive feeling we get when we realize we’re comfortable and content. C.S. Lewis chronicles this in his autobiography, and labels it joy. Buddhism encourages this feeling through prayer and exercises in mindfulness.
This emotion fades. While we can increase its frequency, it cannot turn into a state. It’s a burst of pleasure, like a mouthful of cheesecake, but we can’t eat cheesecake all day. Other emotions crowd in.
Then there’s the attitude of happiness. I had a co-worker who was always awake and attentive, with a ready smile to her face. She was quick to joke and ready to get down to work. I call this cheerfulness.
Cheerful people are occasionally stressed and sometimes sad. However, they separate their emotions from their attitude.
This relates to the topic of recovery. When someone wrongs you, how quickly do you return to normal? That return should not be instantaneous; feelings help us deal with the many facets of a situation. Neither should that return take so long that it robs us of other opportunities.
A cheerful person, upon feeling sadness or anger, learns to move away from those emotions towards happiness. A cheerful person seeks contentment and even joy throughout the day.
Which leads us down the road to the question: How do we build an attitude of happiness? One method I’ve been using lately is a daily reading of Just For Today, which was written by Sybil Partridge about a hundred years ago. I’ve placed this at the beginning of my daily journal, so I see it as I start every day:
- Just for today I will be happy. This assumes what Abraham Lincoln said is true: “Most folks are about as happy as they make their mind up to be.” Happiness comes from within; it is not a matter of externals.
- Just for today I will try to adjust myself to what is; not try to adjust everything to my own desires. I will take my family, my business, and my luck as they come and fit myself to them.
- Just for today I will take care of my body. I will exercise it, care for it, nourish it, not abuse or neglect it, so that it will be a perfect machine for my bidding.
- Just for today I will try to strengthen my mind. I will learn something useful. I will not be a mental loafer. I will read something that requires effort, thought, and concentration.
- Just for today I will exercise my soul in three ways: I will do someone a good turn and not get found out. I will do at least two chores I don’t want to do, as William James suggests, just for exercise.
- Just for today I will be agreeable. I will look as well as I can, speak diplomatically, act courteously, be liberal with praise, criticize not at all, nor find fault with anything, and not try to regulate or improve anyone.
- Just for today I will try to live through this day only, not tackle my whole life problem at once. I can do things for twelve hours that would appall me if I had to keep them up for a lifetime.
- Just for today I will have a program. I will write down what I expect to do every hour. I may not follow it exactly, but I will have it. It will eliminate two pests: hurrying and indecision.
- Just for today I will have a quiet half hour by myself and relax. In this half hour sometimes I will think of God, so as to get a little more perspective into my life.
- Just for today I will be unafraid. Particularly, I will be unafraid to be happy; to enjoy what is beautiful; to love; and to believe that those I love, love me.