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Have A "Happy New Year" By Avoiding Fixation On Happiness!

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Hurray, it's a new year and a new decade! At least symbolically this change is a great relief, for 2009 was a year that seems to have left its mark on many people still trying to come out of its abyss. Although the recognizable signs of the Spring season are not yet in the air, at least not in terms of the weather conditions (and yes, I know that the month of March is still down the road a bit), the emergence of 2010 portends Spring-like conditions ahead as we wave good-bye to last year's trials and tribulations. In any event, this is how I prefer to look at this milestone change in the calendar and hope that you do too. Otherwise, the positive, inspiring words, "Happy New Year" sound pretty hollow as we ring in the new opportunities and challenges that await us.

Spring, as we know, is seen as a time of new life (both plant and animal) being born, as well as a time of growth and renewal. More generally, however, the Spring season is perceived as a metaphor for the start of better times. So let me suggest that we begin "Spring" early this year! And let's proclaim that "tis the season" to be happy and truly optimistic about the future. By the looks on the happy faces of those who celebrated and watched the ball drop in Times Square on New Year's Eve, there does appear to be a Spring-like optimism in the air as we begin 2010. Let's hope that this positive attitude is contagious and sticks around!

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I've noticed that "happiness" has become sort of a buzzword these days. The happiness theme, for instance, can be observed in many advertising campaigns by companies intent on squeezing out as many dollars as possible from reluctant consumers during the economic downturn. It is as if buying a particular product or service will make people "happy" as a result, no matter what their personal circumstances. Now don't get me wrong, I would like very much to see people be (and remain) happy. And, yes, I'm a true believer that the key to authentic happiness lies within all of us, and therefore is within reach. I just don't believe that true happiness is a commodity that can be purchased, no matter what the price. Nor do I believe that happiness comes from simply embracing the lyrics of the 1988 Grammy Award-winning song, "Don't Worry, Be Happy," by musician, Bobby McFerrin. I think that here is more to it than that. Much more.

To be sure, the US and global economies have not yet bounced back to where most people would like and there are still warning signs on the horizon that warrant serious concern. There is also evidence that people who are fortunate enough to be employed at a time when one in 10 of their American compatriots are not, are growing increasingly unhappy! Indeed, in a just-released report by The Conference Board, job satisfaction in the US is at its lowest level in over two decades! Importantly, these data show that job satisfaction has been on a "consistent downward trend" through both periods of economic boom and bust.

Yet not all is gloom and doom by any means. At least this is the case if we exercise, in an authentic way, the ultimate human freedom to choose our attitude and view our circumstances through the lens of a "true optimist." You might recall that this is a notion that I introduced on HuffPo before. Taking a passage from my book, Prisoners of Our Thoughts, let me remind you that:

Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our happiness.

So our attitude, along the lines sung by McFerrin, definitely plays an important part in the pursuit of happiness, as well as helps to determine how well we are able to confront, i.e., respond to, life's challenges, especially those that are considered to be formidable. Put differently, our choice of attitude helps to frame our inherent and intuitive capacity to be resilient to the ebb and flow of life no matter what the "season."

Speaking of seasons, whereas the springtime offers hope and new possibilities, the winter season, on the other hand, often leaves people feeling depressed and out of sorts. I can't tell you how many people--family members, friends, clients, and even acquaintances--tell me that they suffer from "Seasonal Affective Disorder" (SAD), also known as winter depression or seasonal mood disorder. Recent weather reports forecasting the coldest winter in 25 years in parts of the nation won't help these poor folks! Thankfully, while the symptoms of SAD can be severe, they usually clear up with time.

However, it still is important to acknowledge that there are people who do experience a serious mood change when the seasons change. Among other things, these people may sleep too much, have little energy, crave sweets and starchy foods, and importantly, feel depressed. These symptoms, moreover, can and frequently do take their toll on those around the person afflicted with SAD and, therefore, can play havoc on the person's personal life and work life. It is also not uncommon to see people suffering from SAD to perceive their life as unhappy and devoid of meaning, oftentimes not even recognizing that their predicament is "situational" rather than permanent.

To other SAD sufferers, relief is just around the corner and their start of better times will be guaranteed by the "official" coming of Spring. Spring to these folks is a time of rebirth, growth, renewal, and true happiness. Having experienced the dark (and cold) side of winter, they are now committed to, fixated on, and/or obsessed with proving that happiness comes with Spring!

In point of fact, a person's fixation on the pursuit of happiness--at any time of year, I should add--may actually backfire! You may also recall from reading my previous posts that the world-renown psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl, referred to this phenomenon as "paradoxical intention." And while it may appear to be counter-intuitive, Dr. Frankl observed the following about the human quest for both happiness and success:

Don't aim at success--the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one's dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one's surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. (Emphasis added)

So even when the "official" signs of Spring eventually are in the air (and we can begin counting the days!), don't be fooled into thinking that your happiness is too. The new season, like the New Year and New Decade, offers us all new opportunities to let happiness happen by not caring about it. True happiness, in this context, comes from relating and being directed to something greater than or someone other than yourself--a principle known also as "self-transcendence." Indeed, even for SAD sufferers and those who think that SAD may be the cause of their winter depression or mood swing, this can be the start of better times if they let happiness ensue (in a self-transcendent way) rather than try to pursue it.

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You can find out more about Dr. Alex Pattakos, author of Prisoners of Our Thoughts, in his HuffPost Bio and at http://www.prisonersofourthoughts.com. You can contact Alex at: alex@prisonersofourthoughts.com.

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