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Saturday, July 19, 2008

Happy for No Reason...Really?

Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.

-- Aristotle

Years ago, I taught a success seminar in which I asked the participants to each take a big sheet of heavy paper and write across the top "100 things to be, do, have." Then they made three long columns and began listing their dreams, big and small. When they shared their goals afterward, they were invariably all fired up: people wanted to go scuba diving in the Great Barrier Reef, own a Mercedes SL600 Roadster (cream white, with titanium silver alloy wheels), dance at the White House, fly a small plane around the world. They wanted to rise to the top of their field, end world hunger, create world peace, be on the cover of Time magazine.
Somewhere on the be list a few people wrote "Be happy," but I was surprised at how often most people overlooked that. That's what the whole page was about, wasn't it? Didn't being, doing, and having all these things equal happiness?
Over time, I've come to look back on those lists as a great example of taking the long way around. Big and wonderful as those things are, they aren't the ultimate thing we all want. If you cut to the chase, what we really want is to be happy.
The truth is that happiness is so compelling, so attractive -- so irresistible -- that whether you realize it or not, everything you do is aimed at making yourself happy. Happiness has been called the holy grail of human existence, the be-all and end-all of life. Aristotle called it the goal of all goals.
Studies around the world show that when peopleare asked to rank what they want from life, they put the desire to be happy at the top of the list, more important than wealth, status, a good job, fame, and sex. This is true for people of all cultures, races, religions, ages, and lifestyles. And research also shows how vital happiness is: happy people live longer, are healthier, and have better relationships. In fact, happiness leads to more success in every area of your life.
Unfortunately, many people are not experiencing much sustained, authentic happiness. Consider these sad statistics:

Less than 30 percent of people report being deeply happy.
Twenty-five percent of Americans and 27 percent of Europeans claim they are depressed.
The World Health Organization predicts that by 2020, depression will be second only to heart disease in terms of the global burden of illness.

Although our lifestyles are better than ever, we're unhappier than ever. It seems the more gadgets and goods we gather, the worse we feel.
In this book, I'm not going to show you directly how to make more money, be more successful, or have better relationships. I leave that to my friends and colleagues in the transformational world who do that all so well. What I am going to do is tell you what I would most want to know. This book answers the question I've spent the past thirty-five years studying and researching, the one that is most important to me -- and that I believe is also most important to you: How can I be truly happy?
Although this question absorbed me for most of my life, for years I didn't have much luck answering it. In fact, I spent most of that time barking up the wrong tree.
One Unhappy CamperI had imagined it all as a child: I would grow up, live in a beautiful house, have a wonderful husband and a great career. My body would be perfect and my social life fun and exciting. I would be happy!
To live that life of my dreams, I knew I'd have to work hard to get all my ducks in a row. And although I was clear about what I wanted, I wasn't sure how I'd get it. The only thing I knew for sure was that I wasn't happy. I came out of the womb filled with existential angst. I was the brooding five-year-old who was worrying about the condition of the world while everyone else was watching Romper Room. At age seven, I was grilling my wonderful, loving parents about God and spirituality and becoming frustrated that they couldn't answer my questions. When I look through family albums, I see my brother and sister beaming at the camera while I always look as though I've just lost my best friend.
Even though I wasn't a naturally happy person, something deep within me knew that I didn't have to accept that way of being. It was as if I had some kind of antenna tuned to whatever I needed to learn most. When I was eleven, I slathered myself in suntan oil and snuck into my sister's room to steal a book to read while sunbathing. I grabbed the skinniest one, since I'd always been a slow reader, and headed outside. By the time I was halfway through the book, Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha, the story of a young Indian man on a quest for enlightenment thousands of years ago, I was in tears. I recognized that I wasn't alone; someone else on the planet understood my search and shared my longing for connection and joy. That book put me on the path of seeking.
While other girls were perfecting their stag leap for cheerleading tryouts, I was taking self-development courses. When I was thirteen, I heard my first motivational speaker, Zig Ziglar. As I watched him walk back and forth across the stage, revealing the secrets of success and telling stories that gave me goosebumps, lightning struck. I realized that being a professional speaker was what I wanted to do. It was a strange career goal for a young teenage girl in the early 1970s. Even so, I pictured myself speaking in front of large audiences all over the world, inspiring people to change their lives for the better. My parents were supportive, even though my father was a dentist and they really wanted me to be a dental hygienist. Mom said, "You sure talk enough, so you might as well get paid for it."
I moved my Nancy Drew mysteries to the side to make room for every humanistic psychology book I could lay my hands on. I devoured them. At the age of sixteen, I began meditating every day, and by the time I turned twenty, I was a teacher of meditation. Though meditating had a profound impact on my life, I was still searching.
As time passed, I never lost sight of my goal of becoming a speaker. I immersed myself in success principles and did my best to put every one into practice. I tithed a percentage of my income and visualized my goals. I made vision boards to help me picture those goals and discovered I had a gift for manifesting my desires. For example, after earning my MBA, I drew to myself a wonderful job that included many qualities I had always yearned for in a career. As vice president of marketing for a company that sold Austrian crystal, I was responsible for training and inspiring employees. I loved it! I taught them everything I'd studied in my own life: the principles of the Law of Attraction, being clear about what you want, and knowing how to harness your intuition, overcome obstacles, and achieve your goals.
From there, I moved on to teaching those same principles of success as a corporate trainer for Fortune 500 companies and then for a national seminar company speaking to large audiences of women all over the country. With every new position came a bigger paycheck and more kudos. But I wasn't exactly happy. I knew there was something still missing. I just couldn't tell you what it was.
Maybe it was my subject matter, I decided. So instead of teaching success seminars, I began to teach self-esteem seminars for women. Jack Canfield, the nation's top expert on self-esteem, became my amazing mentor -- years before he created the mega-best-selling book series Chicken Soup for the Soul -- and soon I was giving keynotes to two or three hundred women a day on self-esteem. I taught on my high heels from 7:00 in the morning until late afternoon, then jumped in a car and drove three hours to the next city, day after day after day. It was exhausting but exhilarating. I loved standing in front of my audiences and watching their faces light up. Yet I still felt it wasn't quite enough -- I wanted to reach more people.
Then came my big break. It began with a decision to take care of myself. Burned out from all my traveling, I signed up for a seven-day silence retreat, a real challenge for a Chatty Cathy like me. On the fourth day, in the middle of meditation, the proverbial lightbulb clicked on. I flashed on a title: Chicken Soup for the Woman's Soul. Up to this point, only the original Chicken Soup book had been published, and I knew this idea was a colossal winner. I was so excited; I'd just had the epiphany of my career. The only problem was I had to stay silent for three more days! The minute the retreat ended, I ran to the nearest payphone and called Jack. A year and a half later, Chicken Soup for the Woman's Soul became a #1 New York Times best-seller and I went on to write five more Chicken Soup for the Soul books that have sold over 13 million copies.
There I was, on national TV and radio shows, giving speeches to huge audiences, being treated like a queen and living the whirlwind life of success. At one conference, I was picked up in a white stretch limo to speak to a crowd of 8,000. Throughout the three-day event, thousands of women stood in a line that stretched around the entire convention center waiting for me to sign their books. A massage therapist rubbed my hands every hour as I autographed copy after copy after copy -- so many they had to be airlifted from every corner of the country to meet the demand. Many women in the autograph line told me my books had changed, or even saved, their lives. I was deeply moved by their stories and felt good that I had done something that made a difference. But when I went to my hotel room each night, I flopped on the bed, feeling drained and strangely flat.
You'd think I'd have been on top of the world. But I wasn't. Sure, my ego had gotten a boost, but I still had the same worries, tensions, complaints, and bad hair days as everyone else. At each step of the way, I was excited about the successes I'd achieved, but I noticed that the high never lasted. I was happy about the things in my life, but not really happy.
Yes, I know how this sounds. Cry me a river, you're thinking. Well, I too have sat through many an E! True Hollywood Story and rolled my eyes over the sad story of the celeb whose rise to fame and fortune brought only tears. Oh please, I'd tell myself, if I were in their shoes, I'd be so happy you'd have to tie me down so I wouldn't float away. But now I was having a taste of that life, and the deep happiness I craved just wasn't happening. I was meeting famous people and seeing that many of them weren't happy either.
Maybe the problem wasn't my career, but my love life. If I just found the right partner, I told myself, then I'd be happy. I approached this challenge with the same single-mindedness I'd given to pursuing success. I dated enthusiastically and had a few relationships that were close but not it. Then, one weekend, I attended a seminar at a large retreat center in upstate New York. There, in the gravel parking lot, we were introduced by friends -- and before we'd even said hello, he took me in his arms and waltzed me around, sweeping me off my feet with his European flair. Sergio, my Italian Prince Charming, had arrived. Like most romances, it had its ups and downs, but eventually we settled down together, bought a lovely house, and moved in.
Finally, I had the life I'd imagined: the house, the man, the career, and a great social life. (Okay, so I didn't have Halle Berry's body -- but four out of five isn't bad.) Still, I couldn't shoo away the thoughts of dissatisfaction that kept popping up in my head or escape the gnawing pain I felt in my heart.
I realized I had a big problem. I couldn't continue to acquire or accomplish any more thinking that would make me happy. My life until that point had proven the futility of that approach. I'd come to the end of the line. Something had to change.
I had to admit the awful truth to myself: I still felt empty. I had every reason to be happy and yet I wasn't.
Although it seems obvious in hindsight, I had believed for so long that happiness would come from what I owned, achieved, or experienced that it took me a while to finally get it. Maybe happiness didn't come from the reasons I had imagined. Maybe happiness didn't come from any reason at all.

That's when I shifted my focus to the idea of Happy for No Reason and started applying the principles I discovered through my research and interviews. As a result, my own happiness level took a quantum leap. I felt a greater sense of peace and well-being that came from deep inside. I found myself singing throughout the day and appreciating the people around me more. I knew I'd made real progress when about five years ago my friends started calling me the "joy bunny." I was as thrilled as if I had won the Nobel Prize.
Of my findings, one piece of information stood out. It completely transformed my approach to being happy and explained why, for so many years, true happiness had always been just outside my grasp.
Why Some People Are Happier Than Others
If you and I were sitting over some tea at a sidewalk café and I asked you, "Are you happy?," what would your answer be?
A few of you might say, "Absolutely -- if I were any happier, I'd be twins!" (Okay, that would be a very few of you.)
A lot of you would probably reply, "Sometimes."
But I'd bet dollars to doughnuts that at least half of you would say, "No, not really."
Some people enjoy their lives no matter what happens, while others can't find happiness no matter how hard they try. Most of us fall somewhere in between.
The reason for this puzzling disparity is the happiness set-point I mentioned in the introduction. Researchers have found that no matter what happens to you in life, you tend to return to a fixed range of happiness. Like your weight set-point, which keeps the scale hovering around the same number, your happiness set-point will remain the same unless you make a concerted effort to change it.
In fact, there was a famous study conducted that tracked people who'd won the lottery -- what many people think of as the ticket to the magic kingdom of joy. Within a year, these lucky winners returned to approximately the same level of happiness they'd experienced before their windfall. Surprisingly, the same was true for people who became paraplegic. Within a year or so of being disabled, they also returned to their original happiness level.
Whatever the experience -- positive or negative -- people return to their happiness set-point. Further research has shown only three exceptions to this phenomenon: losing a spouse, which can take more time to recover from; chronic unemployment; and extreme poverty.
Okay, you may be thinking, if my happiness level is set -- how did it get there? Dr. David Lykken, a scientist at the University of Minnesota, had the same question. To determine how much of a person's happiness comes from nature and how much from nurture, Lykken and his team, in the late 1980s, began studying thousands of sets of twins, including a number of identical twins who had been raised apart. After extensive testing they found that approximately 50 percent of our happiness set-point is genetic and the other 50 percent is learned. Half of the reason you walk around generally cheery or perennially dreary is that you were born that way, the other half is determined by your thoughts, feelings, and beliefs formed in response to your life experiences.
In a recent review of the literature and studies on happiness, positive psychology researchers Sonja Lyubomirsky, Kennon Sheldon, and David Schaade confirmed Lykken's earlier findings that 50 percent of our happiness comes from our genetics. But more exciting was the new information they uncovered about the remaining 50 percent. It appears that only 10 percent of our happiness set-point is determined by circumstances such as our level of wealth, marital status, and job. The other 40 percent is determined by our habitual thoughts, feelings, words, and actions. This is why it's possible to raise your happiness set-point. In the same way you'd crank up the thermostat to get comfortable on a chilly day, you actually have the power to reprogram your happiness set-point to a higher level of peace and well-being.
The discovery of the happiness set-point and our ability to change it turns everything we've all believed about being happy upside down. We spend our entire lives searching for happiness, yearning for it, trying to get the things we are sure will make us happy: wealth, beauty, relationships, career, and so on. But the truth is, to be truly happy, all you have to do is raise your happiness set-point.
I sure wish I'd known I was just one of those people who had a low happiness set-point before spending so much time and energy chasing after reasons to be happy. From my interviews with the Happy 100, I've come to see that genuinely happy people are Happy for No Reason.
Let's look at this phenomenon.

© 2008 by Marci Shimoff

Excerpted from

Happy for No Reason: 7 Steps to Being Happy from the Inside Out

by Marci Shimoff
Buy this book at Barnes & Noble