What I’ve Learned from 43 Days of Practicing Happiness

First published in The Ascent
Feb 15, 2018 · 5 min read

I made myself just one resolution for 2018, to be happier. I chose this goal because research by Shawn Achor (author of The Happiness Advantage) has found that happy people experience:

  • 23% reduction in stress
  • 31% increase in productivity
  • 39% better health
  • 34% more positive social interaction

Little did I realise that setting a goal of ‘being happier’ is far more challenging than I’d anticipated. Since January 1st, I’ve had more happy days than not but I’ve also been far more aware of my cranky or ‘off’ days. It’s been a challenge to sustain happiness but I’m plowing through, determined to grow happier by the day.

Here’s what I’ve learned from 43 days of practicing happiness:

1. It’s hard. Habits help.

My goal is as challenging as a new diet or exercise regime. I have had to change my attitude, activities, behaviour and focus in order to be happier. I started strong – every morning I did fifteen minutes of yoga which included affirmations. This habit was key. When I started the day off with yoga, it put me in a positive state. I spent my days bathed in gratitude — feeling fortunate for the simplest things — a perfectly crisp apple in January, my kids clearing their dishes after meals. I ended each day doing loving-kindness meditation as I was lying with my kids waiting for them to fall asleep (this replaced lying there feeling annoyed that they were taking so long to fall asleep and thinking of the laundry and dishes that were waiting for me downstairs).

Photo Credit: Igor Ovsyannykov

In short, I was really happy for about two weeks. Then I got lazy. And busy. Work got busier, the kids’ school got busier, my husband had a few weeks of travel. It wasn’t easy to squeeze in those fifteen minutes of yoga. It seems ridiculous when I write it now — I was really happy but then I felt too lazy to do yoga and a little bit of gratitude? But yes, it’s true. I fell off the happiness wagon, sliding back to periods of content, moments of happiness and moments of extreme irritability. I’m starting the yoga habit again this week because I can see that starting the day with this habit sets the tone for happiness.

I have always known that happiness is a result of what we choose to focus on rather than any of our external circumstances. I have learned this through living through some very challenging life circumstances and finding a place of happiness within myself in spite of the difficulties I was experiencing. I’ve always been conscious of choosing where I focus my thoughts and energy and generally, I’m a pretty happy person.

2. Happiness is an inside game.

But this month I noticed that I’m also a bit of a complainer. My four-year-old daughter has stopped sleeping through the night. For the past six weeks, I’ve been woken up between 11 pm and 3 am and haven’t been able to sleep after that. And every day, I’ve complained about it. I haven’t done anything to try to change her sleep patterns or mine, I’ve just complained. Complaining and being negative does not contribute to happiness. This sounds obvious but if I want to experience consistent happiness, I need to notice where my energy is going — what do I think and talk about the most? Am I solution focused or problem-focused? It’s been really valuable to pay more attention to where my focus is and catch myself draining my own happiness by complaining.

3. Experiencing and expressing all your feelings leads to genuine happiness.

I think it’s unrealistic to be happy all the time — that’s not a true reflection of our experience of life. For the past month, I’ve been working on a personal essay about my younger brother who died thirteen years ago. It has been emotional and I have had a few good cries while doing my writing. Allowing myself to feel and express my tears has allowed me to release the sadness and come back to balance. To be truly happy, we must allow ourselves all of our feelings. We have to be real, with ourselves and others. That realness and the expressing of our feelings allows us to feel true happiness, rather than a layer of superficial happiness spread overtop of many layers of unexpressed feelings.

4. Feeling happiness is way more powerful than thinking it 

 I have found that when I’m thinking happy thoughts, whether they are gratitude, affirmations or loving-kindness meditation, it has a slight impact on my mood. In order to get the full impact, I need to take an extra minute and consciously feel the gratitude, breathe it in and feel it in my whole body. Then I am way happier. I’ve also found that doing yoga, dancing to happy music and going for walks has helped deepen the happiness I feel, primarily because the physical activity gets the happiness into my whole body. I’ve learned how intentional I need to be about my choices and what I focus on. I woke up this morning feeling exhausted and cranky after another difficult night with my daughter. While I was making lunches for the kids (a task I despise), I put on my ‘happy’ playlist and within a few minutes, the kids and I were dancing around the kitchen to ‘Don’t You Worry About a Thing’ and ‘Happy’ and ‘Shut up and Dance.’ Because I made a conscious choice to take action to improve my mood, we all started the day off happier.

So, what did all this effort to be happier produce, other than more awareness and a few happier days? I’d say my results reflect what the research says. Over the past 43 days, I have:

  • written 70 pages of my novel
  • written 1 blog post
  • written 3 drafts of a five page personal essay
  • gained 1 new coaching client (who I love working with)
  • stayed healthy while everyone in the city seems to have either the flu or a cold
  • strengthened my relationship with my husband
  • laughed and danced and played more with my kids
  • seen my friends more and strengthened those friendships

It’s a work in progress, this happiness goal, like so many things in life. But I’m learning and growing and getting happier and feeling better so something is working. How about you? What’s making you happy these days?

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