In 2000 more than 50 million Americans had tried Prozac or some other form of mood-enhancing medication. Why? 9/11 hadn't happened; Al Qaeda was mostly unknown; Hurricane Katrina wasn't on our radar screens; no one was making the hard choices among medical care, food, and gasoline; and "sub-prime" referred to cuts of meat. In hindsight, Y2K seems like a comparatively stress-free year.
But midway through 2008, the list of national stressors and anxieties is growing by the week. Polls show that more than 70% of Americans believe we're "...heading in the wrong direction," and anyone might wonder, "Can we live in this high-tension world, and still be happy?"
The answer is yes!
Happiness, and how we generate it, has been my field of study for more than fifteen years. With my partner and co-author, Greg Hicks, I've traveled the world and talked with thousands of people. We've interviewed an array of people on six continents from all walks of life - rich and poor, young and old -- and every other demographic that you can think of. What we've learned is that happiness isn't the result of economic or social circumstance, but, rather, how each of us individually chooses to react to those circumstances.
Choice is the key word here. As we discovered, there appear to be nine choices that self-identified happy people consistently make that give them a feeling of contentment and well being regardless of how stressful their lives may appear to be. We found that these same nine choices were made by people as varied in age, background and geographical location as an impoverished octogenarian in Vietnam, a bell hop in New York City, a restaurateur in rural Mississippi, and a teenager in the south of France.
We wrote about these nine choices in our first book, How We Choose to Be Happy. After publication of that book in 1999, we found ourselves coincidentally working with health organizations and it was the doctors and nurses who attended our lectures who began to draw the parallels between the nine choices that happy people make and the choices made by patients who were most successful in dealing with their health issues. These aha moments became the basis for our future work with such organizations as the Mayo Clinic and for our collaboration with Dr. Jen Seda on Choosing Brilliant Health.
What became clear is that the choices we make have a significant effect on our physical well-being. This connection comes as no surprise to those in the field of positive psychology but, for the first time, we were able to codify these choices and relate them directly to people trying to live their lives to the fullest potential, no matter what their current state of health.
When adopted and practiced, these nine practical choices become the means for anyone to navigate through our stressed-out world:
1. Having the intention to react differently to circumstances. The instant we make the choice to relax when we're paying exorbitant prices at the gas pump, or we cool our rage and decide to laugh at talk radio, we leave behind the heavily stressed flight-fight-freeze reactions of our "victim brain." We feel a lot happier -- and it's biochemically a good choice for our health. We may not be able to choose our circumstances or the events around us, but we do have the power to choose our reactions. And happy people take that special power and choose wisely. And, by the way, this is not denial - it's the choice to not let external circumstances over which we have no control guide our reactions.
2. Accountability requires taking ownership of that part of your life over which you do have control. It's the opposite of blaming others. Happy people take life by the horns and take action where they can. When you're in a state of blaming, you're back in that "victim brain" mode and it's not a happy place to be - nor a healthy one. You're much better off if you focus on what you can do to make your own life and the lives of others better, rather than stewing about the international oil cartel.
3 & 4: Identifying your passions and centralizing them in your life are crucial to overriding your political angst. Happy people purposefully envision what they love and care about and focus their energies on these things--family, friends, health, community, work. And in so doing they achieve a happy sense of proportion about the world. All is not bleak when we engage with people dear to our hearts and do meaningful things for our communities. From a stress management standpoint, political and economic woes pale in comparison to good work. And, let's keep in mind that your activities don't have to be fueled by money. In years of asking people what makes them happiest, costly experiences and consumer durables aren't normally on the list. Family, friends, reading, walking on the beach, giving of ourselves (more on this one later), or cooking a great meal are some of the most frequent low-stress entries.
5. Recasting may sound like a psychological jargon but it is a simple concept that we witnessed all over the world. Recasting has three steps. First, whatever the setback may be, we allow ourselves to acknowledge our emotions -- we don't bury them. Second, we analyze what this setback means and what we can learn from it. And, third, we look for the opportunities that arise from our understanding of the meaning and lessons learned. The process can take a few minutes, or it can take years, depending on the depth of the problem. But however long it takes, recasting enables us to convert unhealthy stress and anxiety into hopefulness, healthfulness, and personal growth.
6. Extremely happy people approach the world by opening up options, not closing them off. There is always more than one way to do something, more than one possible outcome. By doing this they avoid being trapped - and they avoid developing the unhealthy, heart-pounding biochemistry shared by all trapped animals. This isn't flexibility for the fun of it. Having options is synonymous with having hope; lack of options leads to depression and despair. If you want to get rid of that despair, create new ways to travel through your life. Find new ways to do things and new approaches to everyday problems. Don't let the Department of Homeland Security scare you into staying home. Happy people analyze problems by opening up a maximum number of options and solutions and then choose from among them.
7. All the stress-inducing horrors of the evening news can be mitigated with a dose of appreciation. It may seem simple-minded at first, but extremely happy people use appreciation to keep themselves rooted in the present moment. In the instant we remind ourselves of what we have to appreciate in our lives, worries about the past fade and so do anxieties about the future. We're energized, and creating a feeling of appreciation makes us all the more able to take action, to live well, and to be happy in spite of the news.
8. Nothing lifts us from negative emotions more effectively than giving. The happiest people will tell you that if you feel put-upon -- give. If you're angry -- give. If you're disappointed -- give. If the world is making you feel burned out, remember how much you have to give. Share your intelligence, community-centeredness, problem-solving skills. Giving will energize you.
9. Truth and truth-telling are hallmarks of extremely happy people, organizations, and cultures. Nothing frees us like the truth, and nothing elevates us above the anxieties and unhappiness of our everyday circumstances like truth. The happiest among us tell us that truth, however disturbing it might sometimes be. And, it may sound paradoxical, but all emotions -- even anger, sadness and fear -- go well with happiness, so long as they are grounded in emotional truth. Believe it or not, it's a happiness practice to feel angry and frustrated about what's happening in our world, and it's completely desirable to tell the truth about it. It is depression that is the killer.
2008 is stacking up as a politically and socially stressful year. People and events are acting on us. But even though the cause of this stress is often way out of our control, we might consider Aristotle's words: "Happiness depends upon ourselves."