When our culture is filled with messages that tell us we must be happy and to find a quick fix to deal with negative emotions, it can be difficult to work on cultivating genuine happiness. During the month of Adar and the holiday of Purim we are instructed to increase our joy. This might be the perfect time of year to begin a happiness practice, yet the feeling often seems elusive. Happiness is a spectrum, not a destination. Life is full of ups and downs, and these must be acknowledged. So much is out of our control: family sickness, death, unexpected loss of jobs, discrimination. So, if we can’t control these external forces, how can we control our internal happiness?
I've struggled with cultivating happiness over the years, having dealt with career exhaustion and stress, family sickness and loss—and I got married in the middle of it all! Significant highs and lows were common. I decided that I'd really like to find a way to operate more in the middle of the spectrum, so when bad things happen, I fall less hard. Conversely, when good things happen, I'm happy but not overly eager for something that will eventually fizzle out and leave me lacking bliss.
What I've learned is that it all starts with awareness—of ourselves, our surroundings, and our lives. Instead of letting the little things get to us on a daily basis, I have learned to carve out five minutes each day to sit and write down what I’m grateful for. There is no pressure to make an amazing list—I simply recognize something that brings me joy and write it down. I encourage you to try this practice. You might find gratitude in noticing the sunlight hitting the leaves at a particular time of day. Or perhaps it’s sharing a meal with your partner, sister, or parent. Be thankful you have that person in your life, and that you bring each other joy and love.
I've found that appreciating these things in life is the first step toward happiness. Writing them down helps build the habit, which has been transformational for me, as it's made my gratitude feel present on a daily basis. Writing has allowed me to look back over days, weeks, and months, and say, “Oh yeah, I forgot how much I have to be thankful for! Amen.”
Science shows that expressing gratitude on a regular basis can actually improve our mood. And by improving our mood, we see the world in a better, more positive light. I've noticed the ripple effects of this practice in my own life. It has helped me realize how much I have to be thankful for and how abundant my life is.
Maintaining this practice can be difficult at times. I use Day One, an incredible journaling app that sends me a mid-day reminder saying, "Time to express some gratitude!" as well as my end of the day "So what are you grateful for today?" Technology makes it easy to get these reminders, but carrying pen and paper also works well. You might also try keeping a “Happiness Jar,” as described by author Elizabeth Gilbert.
Over time, you'll find that gratitude will lead you toward a greater sense of happiness and freedom. Enjoy the journey!
Mike Tannenbaum is a writer, entrepreneur, and coach dedicated to helping people make work—and life!—more enjoyable through mindful practices, purpose-driven leadership, and modern workplace environments. His time is spent researching, learning, writing, speaking, facilitating workshops, and inspiring people towards creating the future of life and work in our always-connected 21st-century.