I didn't grow up in a very happy household. My parents saw the world as a menacing place, full of people out to screw you. "Life is a battle, you've gotta give it hell every day," was my mom's rough equivalent of, "God bless you" when leaving the house in the morning. Like many Americans, my parents placed a high value on material possessions. Making money and acquiring lots of stuff was the mark of having made it and by default "happiness." I witnessed my parents exhibit fleeting moments of happiness via purchases and experiences related to all the stuff. But those moments were bursts of something that was not true happiness, just a moment that ran like water between the fingers of our otherwise unhappy home life.
For years, I didn't understand that happiness is something you create and are uniquely responsible for. I thought that was one of those bullshit ideas only highly-evolved spiritual people or fake happy people really thought (because all those bubbly, smiley types had to be fake, right? No one was actually that happy!). With no idea how to go about creating my own happiness and thinking of happiness as something life served you, I kept looking for it in things outside myself -- in moments, temporary rushes, things that would take me away or make me forget, like buying stuff, a night of partying, trips or even the rush of attaining success-oriented goals, much like my parents had done.
It took me until I was a mother to examine my own embedded beliefs about happiness -- vestiges of an era that no longer served me -- and begin to transform my own thinking. I knew I didn't want to raise my kids in the "life is a battle," motif I grew up with and also was clear that a devotion to materialism didn't serve us as a family. But when I asked myself the question of how I can raise happy children with an optimistic view of life, the answer I realized began with happy parents. And if I didn't feel consistently happy or understand the sources of my own happiness, then how could I possibly set the right example for my children and pass this on? Because I lacked the right skill set and knowledge, I set out to discover new tools that I now apply to raising my kids.
One of the first things I learned is you can actually choose to be happy (this was novel for me!). We have more control over happiness than we think and don't have to be like a buoy to life's whims--we can choose to be an anchor that doesn't get knocked around every time things get tough. But it's not quite as simple as a grandiose, "And I will be happy now," said in a loud theater voice. We need to develop habits that cultivate happiness. This allows us to set a higher baseline of happiness and be able to regain it quicker when life gets us down. One such habit I cultivate at home is a gratitude practice. Happiness starts with recognizing the value and goodness in our own lives, which is in essence gratitude.
Every night, my kids and I say what we are thankful for at lights out. Each one of us takes a turn as we go around the room recalling small things from our day to be thankful for, something as simple as "the fun conversation I had with my colleagues," or big things like family and health. I love hearing the things they say. They range from the to-be-expected kid stuff like a new toy or so-and-so coming over to the more profound: "I am thankful for Mama and Baba and my happy family and for my sweet little sister." There is only one rule, that no one can interrupt whoever is talking. And if they don't feel like participating then they don't have to, but I continue my practice out loud to set the example.
Gratitude sets the foundation of happiness as you begin to see the joy in the every day. Happiness ceases to be an experience you seek or a thing to be attained. How many times have you thought, if I just had X, then I would be happy, like more money, a house, more vacation time, a better relationship. But even if you attain X, then there is Y and the cycle repeats itself. Studies have proven more stuff doesn't make us happy, although we do need a baseline level of material comfort by way of food, clothing, shelter -- freedom from poverty -- to be happy. For many years, I didn't understand that happiness is actually there in front of you, every single day, for the taking. You just have to be able to see past your own clouded vision, false beliefs and tightly held personal histories that encumber us to grasp it.
Gratitude is one small and simple way that I believe can help us not just appreciate the everyday moments in our life and live more fully in the present, but also help us rebalance when knocked off our equilibrium as you begin to appreciate the good things versus dwelling on the negative. But it's just the beginning. Happiness, especially when you were raised as a pessimist, is a process not a destination.
I am hoping that through our daily gratitude practice, I am instilling my kids with a way of seeing the world that appreciates the good things, an embedded optimism instead of the pessimism I grew up with that took me years to identify and reverse. I hope it will become something they carry with them throughout their lives--a simple prayer of gratitude as their liner notes to life.
If you are looking for some resources on happiness, then check out one of my favorite blogs: Raising Happiness.