The gauntlet that Trevor threw down was to define happiness in 100 words or less. While I can do it for myself in 31, it probably would need a little bit more context for anyone else.
I am not an eternal optimist. Part of this comes from years of training to focus on identifying and managing risks; part of this is personality. So setting myself the task of spending 30 days exploring what happiness means to me was fairly daunting but probably long overdue.
My happiness project was simple: every day, I had to write down at least three things that made me happy that day. I set myself two rules:
1. They had to be things that made me happy not things I felt I should be grateful for.
2. They could not be the phrased as the opposite of something negative.
Here’s what I learned:
Happiness is not a zero-sum game. When you live in a country where you are surrounded by want and deprivation, it's easy to start defining happiness in terms of things you have that others don't. "I'm happy for a warm bed when that homeless guy by the train station will be sleeping on a stack of bricks tonight", for example. While there is a lot of gratitude in that statement, there is also a lot of guilt. And guilt and happiness are poor bedfellows. Defining my happiness relative to someone else’s want was simply not an option for me.
A double-negative doesn't make a positive. Happiness is not the opposite of unhappiness. Avoiding the negative, at best, will simply secure a neutral result. By only recording the happy moments in my days I learned that true happiness cannot be neutralised by a negative event, or even a series of them. Realising this meant that suddenly the things that used to cause me a huge amount of stress, didn't really matter anymore. Landing up in the emergency room with a banged up shoulder after falling off a step became much less of an issue when I could focus on the gorgeous sunset I saw. Smashing a glass bottle of parsley on my kitchen floor wasn't great but it didn't detract from the happiness I felt from the song playing in my head when I woke up.
You can hold on to happiness. Somewhere in my life I must have stumbled on some sort of motivational poster telling me that the more you try to hold on to happiness, the more it will elude you. In my mind, happiness was fleeting. However, the fact that I had to consciously record the happy events in my day meant that I spent most of the day with them tumbling around my subconscious or recounting them. This alone made me considerably happier.
Happiness is surprising. I didn't limit myself to writing down new things every day, but there was still surprisingly little repetition in my lists. In some cases, there was a novelty element: the shadow my orchids cast on the wall when I was opening my curtains in the morning made my heart sing for all of two days. Sometimes I was just more aware of certain things than others. I'm a creature of habit. I make myself the same breakfast every morning, but it was only a handful of times that my breakfast made me happy even though I'm fairly sure I do a good job of it every day. Being surprised by happiness on a daily basis has itself been a wonderful experience.
You can make your own. The happiness project taught me how simple it can be to make my own life significantly happier. I used to think that I hated being cold, but three weeks into the project I realised how happy having warm hands made me. Being in the depths of winter in a country that admittedly has a mild winter but where indoor heating is not at all common meant that I was often in rooms for extended periods of time where the temperature was 10-15 degrees. The solution was to carry gloves in my handbag. Having warm hands continued to make me happy even though it was a conscious effort on my part.
Happiness is to be continued. I found the whole project so worthwhile that two weeks after it was meant to end, I'm still doing it. I’m still being surprised, and yes, still happy.
Other Guest Posts by Meg