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Real Life Lessons

Happiness Hinges On How High You Set Your Hurdles

Who decides if you're happy? You do, of course. But have you ever examined what criteria you set for yourself in order to proclaim, "I am happy?" In other words, what exactly are the rules you've established for yourself to be happy? Must you achieve a particular state of mind, status, or certain possessions? Must you reach a specific income level? Must you have a "significant other" who treats you a certain way? Make yourself a list. Go ahead, find a pen and paper or get on your computer, and start now.

Notice what you're thinking about right now. Do you look at happiness as one big continuing "state of emotion" where you will always be happy if certain things "just happen" (you lose weight, get more money, find true love, etc.)?

Lasting happiness comes from a deep sense of fulfillment, satisfaction or celebration when we experience the "things" (values) that feed our spirit. What feeds our spirit will differ, however, depending on the assumptions we have adopted (or inherited) about such primary values as being loved and needed, intimate friendships, meaningful work, spiritual growth, feeling a part of something worthy and larger than ourselves, contributing to others' happiness and welfare, spiritual and intellectual growth and accomplishment, etc. That same caveat applies to "secondary" values as well, such as leisure, traveling, learning, sports, eating a fine meal, reading a great book, spending time with friends or loved ones, artistic or professional expression. What feeds my spirit may not feed yours. (In that sense, the values we are talking about here are relative, rather than "absolute.")

Take a moment now to make a list of the values that provide you with meaning and deep fulfillment. (If you can't think of any, you now have a great opportunity to "get a life"!) List the things you truly value and want more of in your life. How many items do you have? Five? Ten? Now ask yourself how many of them do you need to experience in order to be happy? How often?

In other words, what self-imposed standard will you have to reach before you can truly enjoy yourself? Most of us set our rules or "hurdles" for being happy far too high. We have to be at our goal weight right now; we have to be physically fit - now! We have to be unconditionally loved; we have to make a lot of money - now! We want to be having fun all day long; our life must be trouble free; everyone has to be consistently kind to us; we have to avoid mistakes of any kind, etc., etc.

Worse yet, we tell ourselves we will only be happy when all these things are 100 percent achieved. In other words, I won't be happy if I'm just fit or if I'm just at my ideal weight, unless I'm also loved, or I'm making $100,000 a year. Or, I won't be happy if I reach my career goal, make $100,000 a year, but I'm still overweight.

The fact is, we are never going to achieve all of our goals simultaneously in life. At no time will everything in our life be 100 percent perfect-ever! At least 10 percent of your goals or desires will always be out of whack, and if everything has to be 100 percent for you to be happy, you will never be happy. Examine your unwritten rules: What level of success, at what endeavors, must you maintain to be successful and allow yourself to be happy?

Another great way to stay un happy is if your rules dictate you must totally complete each individual quest before you can be satisfied (e.g., be at your ideal weight). Not only do you rob yourself of joy in the long process of achieving your goals; you also will miss the opportunity to positively reinforce your progress-which, after all, initially comes in small steps, not all at once.

Let's say it takes you ten months to lose that extra 30 pounds. Do you really want to limit your joy only to the 300th day of achievement? What about the other 299 days when you successfully disciplined yourself to shed a quarter-pound? You weren't happy any of those days because you hadn't "reached" your ideal weight yet?

The key to consistent happiness is to identify your values (i.e., losing weight, making more money, being a kinder person), and then congratulate yourself whenever you experience the progress to any degree (I watched my diet today , I lost 1 pound this week , I was nicer today at work, I made a little more money this month , I had a great talk with a friend - rather than waiting until you've reached your desired state of "perfection."

If you want to experience joy on a daily basis, make a list of your values that bring you pleasure whenever you experience them. No one can reasonably expect to be happy 24 hours a day! (Let's face it-life happens!) But, you can expect to experience pleasure as you tap into each one of your values-even for only a few minutes. For instance, your new rule for feeling happy might look like this:

I will feel happy whenever...

  • I grow spiritually
  • I help someone
  • Someone smiles at me
  • I perform my work with excellence
  • I work at my hobby
  • I receive a compliment
  • I give a compliment
  • I exercise wisdom, discretion, patience or discipline
  • I learn something important
  • I listen to great music
  • I read a good book
  • I have a great meal with friends
  • I pray or mediate
  • I volunteer time or money
  • I help a good cause
  • I play with my children
  • I have a creative idea
  • I work out
  • I make good diet decisions
  • I talk with friends
  • I improve my mind
  • I make a plan to improve the quality of my life
  • I work on my plan to improve the quality of my life

The key is to alter your standard to allow you to feel joy or contentment whenever you experience, even briefly, any of the values from your list.

To increase your "happiness quotient" and to live a deeply satisfying and fulfilling life, try noticing (and appreciating) every time you experience your values, whether large or small, for even a few moments in your day.

As psychologist and author Barbara DeAngelis notes, to be happy you must take the time out of your too-crowded life to truly appreciate the satisfying and fulfilling moments (yes, like playing with your pet) that occur daily.