The secret to happiness: love, lattes and Danish


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.

From chicken to champ



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.


Table for One



I travel a lot.  I mean a lot — sometimes as often as once or twice a week.  My father was a merchant marine, for years travelling to various parts and ports of the world, and some of his wanderlust filtered down to me.  As a kid, I bussed tables at a restaurant to save money, not for a car at 16 but for a plane ticket to a far away locale in Europe or Australia.  As an adult, one of the considerations for which job I will take includes the potential to travel to some of my favourite places.

As much as I love travelling, and as antsy as I get when I am home for too long between trips, there is one major downside to it all:  I often eat alone.

People exclaim when they find out:  “You eat in restaurants by yourself?!?!!  You are so brave!”  But it’s not really bravery that drives me to eat alone in restaurants; it is the soul-crushing thought of eating alone in a hotel room that spurs me out into the public.  Room service is meant for lovers having a tete-a-tete who can’t bear to leave the hotel; it is not meant for the solo traveler to be holed up alone, with only the TV for companionship.

So, I often eat alone. In restaurants.  In public.

I hate eating alone.  There.  I admit it.

Man (and woman) was not meant to eat alone.  Eating is a social act, a way to bind friends, family and community together.  Food is not just for sustenance and survival but serves to build community and bond relationships.  The word “companion” derives from the Latin words for “with” and “bread” — in other words, companions are those with whom we eat bread.

Every week, a fellow in Paris hosts Sunday dinner at his place for the first 50 or 60 people who call or email him, with the goal of encouraging people from all parts of the world to meet, to talk, to break bread and to become friends.  He has been doing this for almost 30 years, for free.  Here is a man who understands of the concept of “companion” and opens his home to anyone who would like to come, in an effort to build community among strangers.

Some restaurants offer communal tables where single patrons can sit together for companionship and conversation, reducing the awkwardness that solo diners often feel when sitting conspicuously at a table for one.

There are times when a person might crave or relish the thought of eating alone: when trying to get away from the noise and pressures of too many people at home or the office; when time is needed for introspection.  But if anyone tells you they enjoy eating alone in restaurants, especially on a regular basis, well….don’t believe them.  Trust me. Solitude is often aligned with spending time with nature or meditating, not for eating out alone in public.

Eating with others changes the feeling from “me” to “we”.  So here are some suggestions for those of us who want to establish connections and community with others rather than bury our faces in our books and our Blackberries:

1. Use social networks such as Facebook and Twitter to find friends and acquaintances in places you’re travelling to, and invite them to join you for dinner.

2. Research restaurants with communal tables and venture beyond your comfort zone to talk to strangers.  Who knows — you may make a new friend.

3. Strike up a conversation with others sitting at tables around you or, if that feels awkward, with your server and the restaurant’s chef.

As for me, next time I’m in Paris, I’m having dinner at Jim’s place.

Live with purpose



In the 2013 movie “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”, the title character’s main crush tells Walter that the secret to writing mystery novels is to figure out the ending first, then work backwards and scatter clues throughout the story.

A lot of articles counsel that we do the same with our lives: figure out how we want our eulogy to read and then live our life towards that ending.

For some people, that advice translates to identifying a profession or a calling and then making it happen. But is it a profession specifically that we should be pursuing? Many professions that exist today weren’t even a gleam in anyone’s eye 20 years ago.  Who knows what professions will be popular 20 years from now. The danger with defining your life by a profession is that it limits you to the possibilities as yet imagined.

So is it a calling, then, that we should be pursuing in order to end towards our desired eulogy?  “Calling” denotes something divine, a higher summons to do something profound.  The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a calling as “a strong inner impulse toward a particular course of action especially when accompanied by conviction of divine influence.”

Let’s face it.  Many of us still don’t know what we want to be when we grow up even years after leaving school, and even fewer of us live our lives the Merriam-Webster way.  So if it’s not a specific profession that we should be pursuing, then, or if we have not felt the “strong inner impulse toward a particular course of action”, how do we live our lives towards the eulogy we envision for ourselves?

Sometimes the answer to that question is found by paying attention to what is happening around us.  There was a period in my life, some years back, when three different people told me over the course of a couple months that I had (unwittingly) inspired each of them to do something better in their lives.   After the third time I heard that, I thought to myself, “maybe my purpose in life is to inspire others to achieve their best potential.”  Now, that hasn’t necessarily resulted in a specific career for me, nor am I certain that the revelation was due to divine influence, but the idea of this purpose in my life has informed many of the things I do, or how I do them.

Whether we know it or not, we all serve a purpose for one another and for this world.  We are brought into people’s lives for a reason.   It may be to inspire others to reach their best potential; it may be to help someone through a challenging period; it may be to teach someone something they wouldn’t otherwise discover on their own.

Sometimes the purpose does not reveal itself for years, if at all.  We may never know exactly what purpose we serve for another, but you can be certain that you have one.  How can you help yourself discover what that is?

1. With every interaction you have, including with strangers, ask yourself, “What is this person getting out if this?”  What the other is getting out of the interaction is your purpose at that moment.

2. Pay attention to recurring themes that come up when people talk to you . Do people describe you often as “helpful ” or “connecting” or ” funny”?  Maybe your purpose in a broader sense is described in these themes.

3.  Acknowledge that your purpose will change frequently depending on the circumstances you are in.  Your life does not have just one purpose, but many.

Rather than spend your time in pursuit of a profession, a calling, or an answer to “what do I want to be when I grow up”, live your life with deliberate acknowledgement in the moment so that, at the end of your life, your eulogy will read “She lived her life with purpose.”  Unless you’re male.  In which case, having a eulogy that refers to “she” will just confuse people.  And I don’t know the purpose in that.


A lighter load



I have an obsession with purses.  I use the word obsession because I couldn’t think of a stronger word for what this is.  Uber-obsession, perhaps?  In any event, with a mania bordering on addiction, I am wild about them.  I will wear the same pair of shoes until there are holes in the soles, but purses?  *sigh*  I would buy one a week if I had space for them all.

If you ask which one is my favourite, I’d have to say the purple patent leather Kate Spade tote which, for some reason, reminds me of Spring and hope.  Or maybe it’s the blue Danier Leather satchel, which makes me think of the deepest part of the Aegean sea.  Or maybe it’s the pink Dooney & Burke crossbody purse, so perfect for travel and walking through the streets of a new city in style.

Oh, who am I kidding?  Like a cat who has birthed a litter of 64 kittens, I love them all equally.

Because I have so many purses, I tend to switch them out every couple days to match my outfit or my mood.  You’d think that, with the frequency of purse changes, I’d have the system down pat.  But this morning, as I was uncharacteristically late leaving for work, I was focusing on how long it was taking me to transfer my things from one purse to another.  Why do I have so much stuff in there?  Do I really need to carry 8 pens with me?  What’s with the  value-sized bottle of ibuprofen?  Why do I have two different business card holders?  Like circus clowns coming out of one of those teeny tiny cars, the items just kept coming and coming.  No wonder my purse always feels so heavy.

We tend to carry many heavy things with us, things that hurt our arms, our shoulders, our hearts.  Some of them we pick up ourselves and refuse to put down; others are things imposed on us through life and circumstances.  To live life with a lighter heart, we would do well to put down those things which are actually within our control.  Here are some suggestions on how to lighten your load:

1. Get rid of the “shoulds” in your life that make your stomach tighten So many times, we agree to things we’d rather not do or bind ourselves needlessly to tasks and things and people because we feel we should, even though, subconsciously, the belief weights us down.   “I should call her,” when we really would rather not maintain that relationship.  “I should volunteer for that school fundraiser,” when the thought of it makes us break out into hives.  Do you find yourself procrastinating when thinking about that one thing you “should” do?  Does your jaw start to clench?  Next time you think, “I should [fill in the blank]”, stop and ask yourself what you’re feeling and why, and what you’d rather do instead.

2.  Deal with guilt you have about past issues.  Unresolved guilt can eat at you and leave you emotionally drained.  Like anger, however, guilt is a helpful emotion only if it compels or propels you to do something positive, either to rectify the grievance or to avoid doing it again.  Guilt is our inner cue that we may have done something wrong or offended someone.  Do you have an opportunity to ask for forgiveness, to set something right, or to make something better?  If yes, do it and absolve yourself of the guilt.  If the guilt you are feeling cannot possibly make a situation better or help you to become a better person, let it go and move on.

3.  Repair or throw out the things in your home which are broken or torn Living with broken items, appliances which don’t work, or things that you trip over can drain the energy out of you and weigh you down.  Repair those items, replace them or remove them from your home entirely.  The philosophy of feng shui believes that, when you fix broken things, you set an intention in your life of abundance and harmony, thereby reducing the load in your life.

Sometimes life hands us a burden that we need to learn to deal with.  Oftentimes, though, the load that weighs us down is within our control to lighten.  Look around and see what is weighing you down in your life, and ask what you can do about it.  Your arms, your shoulders and your heart will thank you.




Invisible woman

I recently ran into a woman I’d worked with over 10 years ago.  We had worked together in a 50-person office for almost 2 years…and she had no recollection of me.  While that in itself is not surprising — it had been several years, after all — I realized during our conversation that she didn’t remember me because, at the time I worked with her, I was in an entry-level role in my company and she was a manager.  Even though I interacted with her every single day for almost two years, I had been invisible.

That led me to think about all the people who pass through our lives invisibly day after day:  the mailroom assistants; janitors; coffee baristas.

People yearn for connection and to feel significant in some way.  We want to feel that we matter to others.  People who have deeper connections with others enjoy better health and well-being.   The need to belong is a basic human need, and what better way to belong than to be known by those around you?   Our propensity to treat people as invisible as we go through our day means that we may miss those moments of belonging and deep connection.   A happy life is made up of small moments of joy.  Who knows what joy we miss out on by not making eye contact with the people around us, by not bothering to learn the names of people who serve us, by rendering people invisible.

What can we do to establish connections with those around us?

  • Make a point of noticing others.  Have you ever eaten in a restaurant and realized your water glass had been re-filled, but you had no recollection of it?  Next time, turn your head and look at the waiter who is pouring your drink; thank him for his service to you.  Make note of his name.


  • Put the smartphone away, for just a moment, and be present.  Too often, we have our eyes on our phones, reading texts, emails, messages from friends who are not with us, while ignoring the people standing right beside us.  We do it while standing in line at the grocery store, while ordering a coffee, or even while having dinner with friends.  Put the phone away, and pay attention to those around you.  Be present.


  • Learn the names of those who come into contact with regularly.  The mailroom assistant, the lady who walks her dog by your house each morning, the drycleaner.  Each person can add to your daily moments of joy and help you feel more connected to others.

Not only will making connections help to strengthen your own life and improve your health, but it will prevent others from being and feeling invisible so that, 10 years from now, when you run into someone who says, “Remember me?”, you can say with joyful certainty, “Why of course I do!  You haven’t changed a bit.”

By the way, the mailroom assistant in our office is named Leanne.

This is not the winter of our discontent


I bought my first magazine when I was twelve – the April edition of Glamour. I’d never read it before and I thought it was so grown up and sophisticated and, despite the fact that I. Did. Not. Look. Like. Those. Girls (except maybe the Glamour Don’t girls on the last page), it started me on my lifelong addiction to magazines. Every magazine since then has created wants in me. Architectural Digest – why can’t I have a house like that? Shape – why can’t I have a body like that? Fortune – why can’t I have a job like that? Leisure & Travel – why can’t I go on a vacation like that? Cosmo – why can’t I have sex like that?

But despite this love/loathe relationship, in which I am teased by everything I see and yet cannot get enough of what’s between the pages, I still read the articles hoping for some epiphany on how to get my house/body/face/job/vacation looking like that.

With so many images and messages bombarding us — in magazines, on TV, even on our friends’ Facebook statuses – it’s easy to start to feel discontented with our lives.  We start to feel envious of other people, to feel somehow inadequate to all the seeming perfection around us.  What we don’t do is question the images and messages with a critical and objective eye.  We may not acknowledge that the beautiful model in the advertisement has been airbrushed to unrealistic perfection.  We may not know that the gorgeous house in the magazine spread has been staged by a team of 12 professionals to look so stunning.  We may not appreciate that our friends post their most glamorous vacation photos but suffered from sunburn or lost their wallet while on holidays.

So how do we tame the envy and discontent that threatens to overtake us?

1.  Put it in perspective.  There will always be people who are better off in life than you are and there will always be people who are worse off in life than you are.  You may not know what lies behind the envious life that our friends or neighbours may lead, and there may be people looking in on your life and envying you.

2.  Adopt an “attitude of gratitude”.    Studies show that happiness is related to feeling grateful for what we already have.  People who keep a gratitude journal, writing down 3 things a day or a week that they are grateful for,  feel better and tend to be more optimistic about their lives as a whole .  They also tend to be more spiritual or religious, forgiving, empathetic and helpful, while being less depressed, envious or neurotic.

3.  Borrow an idea to improve your circumstances.  If, like me, you aspire to the “better” house/body/face/job/vacation that you see in magazines, on TV or even in your neighbor, ask yourself what one idea you can take from that source and apply it to improving your life.  Can you try a new exercise routine featured in a fitness magazine?  (Hello, sexy body!)  Can you re-arrange your furniture to make your house function better?  (There’s no place like home!)  Can you try a new, local Italian eatery to emulate the feeling of a Roman getaway?  (Staycation, anyone?)

4.  Borrow an idea to help others.  This is perhaps the most significant point to help us overcome envy and to build happiness.  Ask yourself what idea you can take from that source and help others.  If you are decorating your home, are there any household goods that you no longer use or love that could be donated to charity?  If you are adding new accessories to jazz up your look, are there any clothes you can give away to people who may need them?  If you are looking for a new job, can you share your knowledge and mentor someone who is more junior while you pursue your own dream?  People who do good for others enjoy greater well-being, health and overall happiness (as long as they are not overwhelmed by helping tasks).

Rather than allow the barrage of images to create discontent in our lives, we can use it to inspire good in ourselves and to help others.  Hmmm, maybe those magazine articles are on to something after all.