The secret to happiness: love, lattes and Danish

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It turns out that the secret to happiness is no secret at all.

We can spend a lifetime chasing happiness, wondering why it eludes us when, really, it’s within our grasp all along.  Happiness is pretty simple, you see:  someone to love, something to do and something to look forward to.  (Thanks for that, Rita Mae Brown.)

Hang on a minute,” you’re thinking.  “I’m single.  Are you telling me I’m out of luck for finding happiness?”  No, no, not at all.  “Someone to love” isn’t limited to just romantic love, that Cinderella-meets-Prince-Charming, heroine-is-swept-off-her-feet-at-the-end-of-the-movie love known as eros.   Luckily, “someone to love” can be defined much more broadly.  There are as many different types of love as there are types of people to love.

For example, filia refers to the love between friends, an easy camaraderie that comes with years of knowing and hanging out with someone who accepts you as you are.  Storge is another type of love, usually describing the love between parents and children, or between siblings.  Think more Anna & Elsa from Frozen than Snow White & Prince Charming.  (Wait.  Snow White and Cinderella both married Prince Charming?  That’s confusing.  But I digress.)  And, finally, agape refers to the love a person can have for many people, including extended family or even strangers.

Surely you have someone to love in your life.  It may not be Prince Charming (that two-timer!  But I digress.) but it may be a parent, a child, a friend or a brother.

The second tenet of a happy life is to have something to do.  Maybe you dream of running away from your “real” life and spending idle time on a deserted island, but that would wear thin very quickly.  People need a reason to get out of bed in the morning, and work not only provides income but also gives us a reason to get out of our flannel jammies and move during the day.  Having work to do, including staying at home to raise children, guards against the withering of our brains and our bodies.

Recent surveys have been quoted that up to 70% of Americans hate their jobs or are disengaged from their work.  But people who are working, who are earning and who are contributing to their communities are happier and have lower rates of depression than those who are not working.  Perhaps we have just become accustomed to wearing our complaints about work as some badge of honour.   Maybe the 70% who hate their jobs can reframe their reality by acknowledging that it gives them a reason to get up in the morning, or that it makes them happier overall.  The Danes have got it right:  they have a word, arbejdsglæd , which means “happiness at work.”  I say, let’s be more Danish!

In areas where the economy is depressed or jobs are scarce, it is still possible to fulfill this requirement for happiness. Volunteering regularly is as effective in fulfilling a purpose as paid work.   When researchers at the London School of Economics looked at the relationship between volunteering and happiness in American adults, they found the more people volunteered, the happier they were.  So go help in a soup kitchen.  Offer your labour to a community garden.  Paint an elderly neighbour’s house.  The best part of volunteering?  It not only gives you a reason to roll out of bed, but it also adds to your work experience, adding to your resume and potentially leading to a paying job.

Too much and too frequent idle time leads to boredom, and boredom breeds unhappiness.  As a kid, whenever I said, “I’m bored,” my mom would tell me to go help someone. (And when my mom said “help someone”, she really meant “go clean the bathroom.”  I tried not to be bored too often.)  Being useful to others made me feel purposeful and suddenly, my boredom would vanish.  No paid work?  No worries.  Go help someone.  Volunteer. Contribute your time, your energy, your labour to someone or some cause that needs it.

The third requirement for a happy life is something to look forward to.  Anticipation leads to happiness.  It could be as simple as getting together with friends during the week or planning a vacation 6 months out.  A Dutch study showed that the largest boost in happiness comes from the simple act of planning a vacation, even more so than actually taking a vacation. In the study, the effect of vacation anticipation boosted happiness for eight weeks.

As for me, I look forward to my weekly splurge on coffee.  I generally limit myself to one Starbucks latte every Friday.  No matter how bad my week is, knowing that on Friday morning I can treat myself to a double tall non fat no foam equivalent of joy in a cup, I have a small skip in my step.  Actually, it’s a large skip in my step.  I look forward to that coffee with such glee that my coworkers have named the moments leading up to it as my “Friday Morning Latte Dance.”

Feeling like you need more happiness in your life?  It may already be within your grasp.  Do a quick audit of your life to determine the abundance that is yours already:

1) Do you have someone to love?  A spouse, a child, a parent, a best friend?  Love comes in many forms.  Don’t limit yourself to thinking it needs to be romantic, fairy tale, only-in-movies love to count.

2) Do you have something to do?  Work gives you a reason to get up in the morning.  Hate your job?  Think about the purpose of your work and connect your work tasks with this greater purpose.  Don’t have a job?  Volunteer and help someone who needs your ideas and energy.  Write a book.  Design jewellery.  Build a deck.  Do something.

3) Do you have something to look forward to?  If your calendar is blank, make a date with a friend for a Tuesday.  Plan a vacation.  Research upcoming local festivals that you can attend.  It doesn’t have to be grand.  You could just join me on Friday at Starbucks for a latte.

You don’t have to search far and wide to find happiness.  Have someone to love, something to do and something to look forward to, and happiness will find you.

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From chicken to champ

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Remember that kid in school who was always the last one picked to be on a team in gym class? The one who would hear groans from the team that ended up with her and cheers from the team that did not?

Well, I’m that kid. In my family, sports were not emphasized and so I never learned the skills or had the confidence to catch a ball, throw a Frisbee or kick a goal. Gym class would fill me with dread whenever the phys ed teacher instructed captains to choose classmates for yet another game of softball or dodge ball or some ball that was like an alien object to me. (To paraphrase John Bingham, I’m not sure who invented dodge ball, but I can guarantee you it wasn’t the kid in the class who couldn’t play sports well.)  Seeing a football sailing in the air would cause a paralysis of limbs, even as my teammates would shout at me to raise my arms and CATCH. THAT. BALL!

My idea to get around this embarrassment was to make friends with the jocks, the athletes most likely to be chosen as captains of these teams. The strategy was that they would be more likely to choose me out of a sense of loyalty rather than let me languish in the land of the athletically unwanted. But competitiveness and the desire to win seemed to beat out friendship every time back then. That’s OK. I didn’t take it personally.

I couldn’t wait to graduate high school so that I would never have to subject myself to the embarrassment of being picked last for a team or, worse, not being picked at all.

In one episode of The Simpsons, Bart tries to teach Santa’s Little Helper how to fetch and catch and do things that come naturally to other dogs and, in one scene, Santa’s Little Helper gets hit in the eyes with a Frisbee, garnering groans and great disappointment from the little boy who just wants to play. It’s like the writers witnessed my childhood and wrote my humiliation into a scene. I can relate to Santa’s Little Helper. I am Santa’s Little Helper.

Or, should I say, I was Santa’s Little Helper.

In university, a friend forced me outside for a quick lesson on how to catch and throw a baseball.  Within an hour, I was, well, if not great at it, at least able to hold my own during an intramural game later that afternoon.  A few years later, I was introduced to indoor rock climbing by another friend.  Scrambling up those walls made me feel strong and powerful in ways I’d never experienced in high school.  A casual invitation to play badminton one afternoon led to 4 years of league play.  Not long after that, I started running, working my way up to distances that took me through dozens of 10K races and 3 half marathons.  Suddenly, I was athletic.  Suddenly, I was an athlete.  Who knew?!  If only my classmates could see me now!

In thinking back to my earlier, uncoordinated years, I realized I’ve learned some important lessons:

1.  Athleticism, like artistic abilities, comes in many forms.  I can’t catch a ball like Calvin Johnson but I can run and jump and climb and skip and dance and turn cartwheels and swing a racket.  All of that counts.  I just had to find the right sort of athleticism that suited me.

2. The only person who set limits on my ability was me.  My friends all believed I could do it and didn’t give up on me as I tried again and again to get it right.  They were patient and willing to take their time with me.  If I focused on the fun of it, I could usually do it, at least in a way that didn’t embarrass anyone too much.

3.  I have great friends!  Throughout the years, even as I believed I couldn’t, they knew I could.  If your friends are not encouraging your heart, it’s time to find new friends.

So after years of avoiding any sport in order to avoid embarrassment, I now can’t wait to get out there and try new things.  In fact, the sun is shining and my runners are calling my name; time to go for a run.