Happiness Is an Action

03/30/2015 10:33 am ET | Updated May 30, 2015

It takes courage and focus to turn your face to the sun. Getting happy is an action and an act of revolution.

It takes practice to stay inspired. Real life is an opponent that won't quit. We are barraged with facts and influences that attack our confidence. Peace of mind is not an opiate. It's an act of heroic self-love and dedicated concentration.

But most of us have been conditioned to believe that happiness is an indulgence, like doughnuts. It's not the main course, and it's definitely not as virtuous as "working hard," the kale of life choices. My father, a self-made business man who had a high-strung temperament and the ethnic mandate to be a "good provider for his family," looked down on people who seemed relaxed. "Look at that guy," he'd grumble in the tone of a backwards awe reserved for a nasty train wreck, pointing at a man smiling, casually sitting on a bench, "nothing on his mind." My father's message weighed heavy on my mind. Be worried, cynical, constantly in motion, and judgmental, all the days of your life. This meant you were responsible and likely going to achieve great things.

Yet these days I know how imperative it is to remain calm in a world of frenzy. As a career and success coach, I know that buoyancy takes focus. I work with creative individuals, meaning seekers, and people on fire with a mission. They must face the brunt of uncertainty daily. And I know that the power to make yourself feel centered and confident, no matter what, is one of the most important skills I can offer them. Often it's the difference between those who can stay focused on creating their dreams -- and those who can't.

It takes action to be happy, but not the kind of action our culture often suggests. It's the action of paying attention to your mood and nurturing your soul. This isn't "fluff" work. It's the real work. It's lifting a kajillion-pound weight over your head. This is not the luck of a simpleton. It's the feat of a ninja.

I'm not talking about being unconscious or ignoring human suffering or the needs and demands of the world. I'm talking about choosing how you show up for yourself and your life in any situation.

I remember when I lived in the mountains writing my first book. I was good and depressed, like every other stereotypical writer on the planet. I was ambling around the house smothered by a matted gray woolen blanket, only I didn't really have a blanket on me; the self-inflicted shame just felt that way.

I was in a mood. Heading down the drain. I had decided that I was a terrible writer and an incompetent entrepreneur. I could never wrangle the purple octopus of all my creative ideas into a coherent book or seminar. I'd never "get there," and I wouldn't make a living. I'd definitely screwed up my whole life by leaving my law career. My God, I had to eat everything in the refrigerator just to stay sane.

But that day something uncanny happened. I did a meditation or journaling exercise or both and I changed the direction of my thoughts. Like a school of fish they started swimming in a new direction. I started feeling hope, maybe even conviction. I held my own brave little hand in the middle of the day. I felt amazed. I had changed my own mood. I hadn't paid a therapist. Or chanted with a guru. Or swallowed some white capsule. I had control over my own mind. This was fantastic news. Because I damn well knew my mind controlled my life.

To take yourself from misery to comfort or hope is a miracle, and I know you know what I mean. It was as though I'd launched a rocket or discovered water in the desert. I felt as though I'd brought peace to the Middle East just by humming inside myself until a million voices were now singing along, "We can work it out." I wasn't just a pair of empty boots or some neglected goat cheese. I was Madame Curie, Nelson Mandela, Lady Gaga and Cheryl Sandberg all rolled into one super-hero in the middle of a Wednesday afternoon. My small worn couch was as holy as a sacred cave on the highest hill in Nepal.

But later that day, a quasi-friend called. Susan was rapid firing through tasks at the office, Conqueror of the To Do List. "Wha'd ya do today?" she chirped, computer keys clicking in the background. Believe me, I understood the menu of acceptable answers. Long gap. "I changed a thought," I wanted to whisper with holy reverence. I changed the neuroplasticity of my brain and opened up 10,000 new opportunities in my life.

"Nothing," I demurred instead. Because I had done nothing she would recognize.

She was looking to hear that I'd cleaned the pantry and hauled out three full garbage bags of trash. Or attended a webinar on logo design. Or maybe made a million dollars by day trading. To her and most everyone else in my life at that time, it was far more productive to organize your shoe closet than to organize your mind. She wanted nuts and bolts. I had stardust on my tongue.

There's a cultural bias toward doing. It's the cult of action. But don't be fooled. You will not win yourself certainty by ignoring the status of your mind.

I see this with many of my coaching clients. They are embarking on a career transition or new business and they're scared and quaking with newness. So they "do" a thousand things. And as any entrepreneur or visionary will tell you:

You can never take enough actions to feel safe. Because it's not action that makes you feel safe or gets results. It's mental focus. It's learning how to use your mindset appropriately. Otherwise you're the sock puppet of fear. You're a chicken without a head and every step is blind.

We live in the culture of doing. We live in the culture of staying busy. But an inspired life will ask you to look at what part of you is coming up with the tasks. Is it your strength that motivates you? Or is it your desperation? Where you come from is where you'll go. It takes daring work to be in your strength and happy. I'm here to tell you this month, go ahead and take more spiritual workshops or personal development programs. Read more books. Meditate. Pay attention to the intangible power you possess. It will yield you tangible results. Your mindset is your most powerful resource. It's the best career and life advice I have.

You are not bobble-headed because you are choosing to be level-headed when there are alligators circling your feet. The masses will tell you to get out of the danger, that only an idiot remains calm in dangerous waters. But you know that the shore is a more dangerous place for you. You are not oblivious. You are awake.

Ignoring statistics and choosing to believe in what you cannot see is not a popular choice. If you're choosing to be happy believing in your dreams, you may be considered "unrealistic." But everyone who has ever moved beyond the status quo, the ordinary bulk trajectory of the "real world," has been considered unrealistic. Those who make a difference, will always be different. It takes work to safeguard your difference. It demands courage, focus and choice.

It takes little faith or courage to clean the kitchen or manage a meeting when that's what others expect of you. The rat will always push the lever where the pellets are. But it takes human consciousness and choice, the strength of a thousand warriors, to stay true to yourself, to paint in the middle of the day, let go of an image or behavior that brought you security, or tell your lover what you really want. There are no guaranteed pellets in these actions. Yet some of us have discovered that pellets leave us hungry. We are hunting for more.

The times are changing. The signs are everywhere. For example, the New York Times recently did an article on mantras and mindfulness at work. It talked about Aetna's maverick CEO Mark Bertolini, who has brought meditation and yoga into the work place. The company, of course, now has measurably greater productivity, employee retention, employee health, and profitability.

Maybe someday, someday soon, we can tell most anyone, "I changed a thought," and they will bow down before us like the heroes that we are.