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Happiness: skill or a lucky break?

Feb. 1, 2008
When our YOUNGEST GRANDDAUGHTER was four years old, Marlyn called her one day and asked, “Riley, what did you do today?” Her reply was, “I went to a birthday party for one of my friends.

When our YOUNGEST GRANDDAUGHTER was four years old, Marlyn called her one day and asked, “Riley, what did you do today?” Her reply was, “I went to a birthday party for one of my friends.” Marlyn then asked, “Well, did you have fun?” Riley started laughing and in a voice that radiated happiness, she giggled, “Oh, Nana, I always have fun!” Riley was and still is a wonderful example of a happy person, someone who consistently finds the joy in life. But not all of us are like that, are we? Happiness is something that everyone seeks, but for some, it’s an elusive target.

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A state of mind

Happiness can be defined in many ways. It involves a range of feelings from intense joy to pleasure and contentment. But happiness is more than just experiencing these emotions. It is a state of mind that signifies well-being, and at its best, this state of mind is not transitory, but long-term and enduring.

Through his work on emotional intelligence, psychologist Dana Ackley defines happiness as the ability to feel satisfied with your life, to enjoy yourself and others, and to have fun. He sees happiness as a skill, not a lucky break of birth or circumstance. What is most encouraging is his belief that we can learn to make ourselves happy. This is a highly empowering message, don’t you think? The word ability is particularly striking. Along with so many other challenging elements that determine what it takes to be a well-functioning human being, happiness is within our control. One of my favorite writers on personal development, John Powell, S.J., nailed it when he said, “Happiness is an inside job!”

Rather than focusing inward however, too many people look outward as they search for the answers to happiness, and for most, this search is unsuccessful. Wealthy people do not rate themselves significantly happier than the middle class. Winning a lottery may bring initial happiness, but it often fails to last. Research does not indicate differences in happiness based on sex, race, or age. We don’t seem to be doing well with this inward journey, and as Powell says, “Our mistake begins when we expect things and other people to assume responsibility for our happiness.” But does it really matter? Is happiness all that important? I think so.

From quality to creativity

Isn’t the quality of our lives important to us all? Although we may have different definitions of what quality means, it is certainly dominated by our emotions and happiness is the foundation. With happiness in place, so many other aspects of life are more positive.

Consider our relationships. Given a choice, I would prefer to spend time with happy people, wouldn’t you? I’m more comfortable and at ease around them. I value the spark that they bring to my life. Therefore, it follows that when we are happy, our family relationships and friendships are better.

So is our performance at work because teamwork and cooperation with others comes more naturally. How about leadership? When we are in a position to lead, the way we present ourselves emotionally either attracts or repels followers. Have you noticed?

Happiness is linked to both physical and emotional health. It enables us to deal more effectively with the stresses and inevitable challenges of life. Wouldn’t you agree that your energy levels go up when you’re happy? How about creativity? Unless you’re the next Hank Williams and the tragedies of life will inspire you to write memorably sad country songs, I’d say that happiness is more likely to unleash your creative spirit than unhappiness. The list of benefits goes on, so if happiness is desirable, what can we do to have more of it?

Accept yourself

How about starting with self-acceptance? No, you are not perfect. You have limitations, and yes, you probably want to improve in at least a few areas of your life. But you have strengths and positive qualities that are worthy of acknowledgment. Have you made mistakes? Of course! But you have also accomplished things that are to be celebrated.

The most powerful personal growth exercise I have ever experienced was one in which I was asked to tell the others in my learning group about 12 successes in my life. When I finished, I left the room, and the group wrote a definition of what success was for me. Thinking through my life in such a positive way and gaining the perspective of others about what this all meant was a turning point for me. I became much more willing to accept myself as I was, warts and all. Over time, I gained a growing sense of self-respect and my happiness meter went up accordingly. What can you do to give yourself the gift of greater self-acceptance?

Take control

In my November 2005 column, I discussed the difficulties in balancing life’s competing priorities. I concluded that in today’s world of busyness and overload, true balance is unlikely. What is possible is control – your ability to make conscious choices about how to spend your time and energy. Control also is a major contributor to happiness, even when your challenges are great and your choices are complicated. Researchers at the University of Michigan discovered that “having a strong sense of controlling one’s life is a more dependable predictor of positive feelings of well-being than any of the objective conditions of life we have considered.” Studies show that people who believe that “what happens to me is my own doing” experience higher morale, less stress, and fewer health issues. What is your first step to taking better control of your life?

Serve others

Dr. Albert Schweitzer shared some valuable wisdom when he said, “I don’t know what your destiny will be, but one thing I know: The only ones among you who will be really happy are those who will have sought and found how to serve.” We don’t have to look very hard to find endless opportunities to serve, and every one of us has something to offer – time, talent, encouragement, hope, and friendship are only the start of a very long list. Interesting, isn’t it? When our purpose is to unconditionally contribute to the happiness of others, we receive so much more than we give.

A worthy pursuit

Riley is now 13 years old, and when I was gathering material for this column, I told her what she had said when she was four about always having fun. Then I asked her why she thought it was important to be happy. Her answer was, “You will probably have more success if you’re happy.” Why? I asked. “Because you’ll be more motivated.” Then I asked her to define success. “Doing the best you can do” was her reply. She didn’t say it directly, but I interpret this to mean that happiness is an important factor in unleashing your potential. Even if happiness is an elusive target for you, the pursuit is worthy, and any price you pay during the search is a great investment in yourself. I’m ready for some fun! How about you?

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Doug Young, MBA, and his spouse Marlyn, MCC, have a professional speaking and executive/team coaching business in Parker, Colo. They co-author this column and share an interest in leading-edge business concepts, achieving personal and professional potential, serving patients, and improving how people work together. Marlyn’s insights into people and relationships and her coaching skills complement Doug’s motivating and mind-expanding presentations. Contact them by e-mail at [email protected], by phone at 877-DMYOUNG, or visit their Web site at

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