THE BLOG

How to Build An Empire of Happiness

08/30/2013 03:47 pm ET | Updated Oct 30, 2013

I'm going to be honest. There was a time in my life where I wasn't so happy. I was satisfied, because I really did have everything I needed, but I wasn't happy. And I'm not sure if there was even a life-shattering event that took place which made me become a truly happy person. But I do know this -- I am the happiest now I have ever been.

For the past five years, I have seemed to build an empire of happiness around me. I have surrounded myself with happy people, which means selectively choosing my friends and acquaintances. I don't allow negativity into my space -- whether that is my mental space, my physical space or my emotional space. I have learned how to be so in tune with myself that when something is making me unhappy, I take time to reflect on it, meditate and explore the circumstances surrounding the emotion, instead of pushing it aside and burying it. And above all, I have learned to be present and find joy in the smallest aspects of life, from a cicada that made a racket outside my window this week to the elderly man I say hello to while walking past his Brooklyn stoop each morning. (He doesn't ever respond, but I know he hears me, as he gives me the slightest head nod.)

When I sat down to write this article though, I became stuck in the writing journey because I had never thought about how I had built this empire of happiness. So, I laced up my running shoes and went for a run, because running is what gets me unstuck when I have a writing project that just doesn't seem to be flowing.

I took off around the block and headed toward my neighborhood park. I decided in mid-stride that I would take some time to reflect on this topic underneath my favorite tree in Brooklyn. It is an oak tree which is about 80 years old, with a thick curved branch perfect for sitting on or hanging from. And when I arrived at the tree for my mid-run stretch, I said aloud, "How do you build an empire of happiness?"

As I did a few sun salutations, focusing on my breath, I became really quiet within, and I listened for the answer. Within a few moments, the answer was revealed. It was as if the tree had spoken to me. It said, "You build an empire of happiness by first knowing what you stand for, second, nourishing your roots, and third, weathering life's storms with grace and dignity."

A Three-Step Framework for Building an Empire of Happiness:

1. Know What You Stand For
Do you know the very principles in life that you are going to live by, day in and day out? Honesty? Kindness to every stranger you meet (regardless of how they treat you)? Taking time to honor your body with healthy food and exercise? Putting in a day's honest work?

My father used to say, "Shannon, if you don't stand for something, you will fall for anything." And he's right. Knowing what you will (and will not) stand for in life (that is, the set of guiding standards you are going to live your life by) will help you build your empire of happiness. You set the precedent for how others will treat you, based on how you treat yourself. Think about that statement for minute, as it is a powerful one.

I'd like to illustrate this with an example. My husband knows a guy who is one of the most negative people I have ever met. He's not only negative, but he's a know-it-all, constantly telling everyone around him how to do this and how to do that, when he hasn't done any of it himself. This gentleman is not allowed in my house, because my house is our sacred safe zone, a sure place where I can control the happiness factor and the energy that is emitted into the space. On the rare occasion that my husband needs to interact with this man, he arranges to meet him somewhere where I am not, and never in our home. I stand firm in this principle, because I am not going to allow someone to cause me unhappiness.

2. Nourish Your Roots
What happens to a tree when its roots rot, are damaged, or become weak from lack of nourishing minerals? It's simple: the tree dies. And generally speaking, it doesn't die quickly. It may take years to fully die, but little by little, the tree loses at life each day.

We are no different as humans. If we don't take care of ourselves by nourishing our roots, our lives are going to end sooner, rather than later. Nourishing our roots means doing the things that keep us emotionally, physically, and spiritually happy each and every day.

Have you taken an inventory lately of what activities nourish your roots and truly make you happy each and every day? Is it spending time with loved ones, backpacking, cooking new meals, painting, birdwatching or taking a trip to an exotic location? What is is that makes you feel alive and awake and at your best?

Once you have identified these aspects, it becomes rather easy to work them into your schedule. And if you are thinking you don't have time, then you should read back through the first section which focuses on knowing what you stand for. How important to you is it that you make time for that 30-minute yoga session each day? If this is what truly makes you happy, then it absolutely can not be omitted from your average day.

3. Weather Life's Storms With Grace and Dignity
Being happy doesn't mean that I don't have storms that shake my foundation. What it means is that my foundation might be shaken, but it will not be destroyed and crumble. This is a mindset that is necessary for building an empire of happiness.

Recently, my father-in-law was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, and he was given less than two months to live. The news was shocking and heartbreaking, as you can imagine. After a few days of tears and sorrow, I decided that it was time to "dig deep" and help him to make the last few months of his life the best they could possibly be.

I organized a "Celebration of Life Party," with the help of friends and family. Eighty people showed up that day to share with my father-in-law what he meant to them. It was one of the most beautiful things I have ever organized, and my father-in-law was so happy to be able to hear kind words spoken from loved ones. In addition to the party, my husband and I have helped him fulfill some of his last wishes, such as eating pizza at his favorite spot and a walking tour through his old stomping ground, Greenpoint Ave. in Brooklyn. Above all, we are helping my father-in-law live in the moment of each and every day he has left to live, to be present in those moments, and to seek happiness in his remaining days.

Some times it's not easy, for him, nor us. But, we know where we stand and what we believe in, and we are taking time to nourish our own roots when it gets too difficult to handle emotionally. Taking a little time away allows us to recharge our batteries and start in again the next day.

How Important is Your Personal Happiness?
It is my sincere hope that you too desire to build an empire of happiness around you. The initial process of knowing what you stand for, figuring out what nourishes your roots, and learning to weather life's storms with grace and dignity can take some time. But I promise you, if you do the difficult work now, a lifetime of happiness is awaiting you.

For more by M. Shannon Hernandez, click here.

For more on happiness, click here.