Is it possible to be happy when life isn't going our way?
I'm not talking about minor annoyances -- a traffic jam, sour milk, spending 30 minutes on hold to get one stupid question answered. Rather, I mean the major disruptions that turn lives upside down. Job loss, divorce, bankruptcy -- you get the idea.
In The Happiness Project -- which shot to the No. 1 slot on The New York Times bestseller list -- lawyer-turned-writer Gretchen Rubin chronicled a year focused on trying to be happier. At the start, she acknowledged that some might find her quest a bit odd, as her life was already picture perfect: happy marriage, healthy kids, fulfilling work and "plenty of money to do what we wanted -- even enough to feel secure, the toughest and most precious thing money can buy." In essence, Rubin's goal was to savor her life, not to transform it.
By contrast, when I launched my Plan B Nation blog las November, I sometimes jokingly referred to it as "a Happiness Project for the rest of us" -- for those of us struggling with work or money, often both at once. While Rubin grappled with the feeling that she was not as happy as she should be, many of us face the inverse challenge: How can we be happier than we "should" be? How can we be happy despite uncertainty and loss?
Last weekend, I reread The Happiness Project with these questions in mind. I wanted to see how Rubin's strategies lined up against the ones that have worked for me. As it turned out, I found multiple points of overlap, but I also noted that my own techniques had a marked Plan B Nation twist. I decided to follow Rubin's lead and frame my techniques as resolutions. Here are three that have turbocharged my pursuit of happiness.
1. Choose your people wisely. In hard times, we may be especially vulnerable to upward comparison -- to feeling worse about our own lives when compared with those of seemingly better-off friends. This is because our desires are shaped by what sociologists call our reference groups -- by the people we admire and want to be like. I first encountered this concept in Boston College professor Juliet B. Schor's The Overspent American and have found it incredibly useful in navigating Plan B Nation. As I previously wrote here, changing my personal reference groups has made me far happier.
2. Make your environment work for you. Behavioral economists talk about creating good "choice architecture" -- external conditions that support us in acting on our own behalf. This is another concept that has made a real difference in my life. One example: I discovered that I became far happier -- as well as more productive -- when I moved my home office away from home, to a shared workspace populated by other freelancers and entrepreneurs. Similarly, I'm much more likely to get to the gym now that I'm taking a class with friends, and going to the gym, in turn, makes me happier and more productive. For me, instituting good choice architecture often feels akin to removing a set of weights. Life in Plan B Nation is hard enough. Why make it harder?
3. Give back. Research suggests [pdf] that the money we spend on others may actually make us happier than the money we spend on ourselves. At the core of this finding is the notion that doing nice things for others gives us pleasure, and luckily, there are countless ways to do this without depleting our wallets.
[Related: To Buy or Not to Buy]
Without quite realizing it, this has become something of a habit for me -- and one well worth maintaining. This morning, I surprised a work friend with an iced coffee. (I knew she wanted one.) A few minutes later, I did a Facebook shout out for a friend's reading at a local bookstore. These small gestures gave me a warm feeling of connecting to people I care about. In other words, they made me happy.
Reflecting on her decision to embark on The Happiness Project, Rubin writes that she wanted to be better prepared for adversity when it struck. For those of us smack dab in the middle of adversity, this may not resonate. But whatever our individual starting points, we all yearn to be happy -- and we all can be happier. We may need to try many tactics before finding some that work. But the fact that the path ahead is hard to see doesn't mean it's not there.
Do you have a happiness resolution that works for you? If so, please share it below.
Read more: Welcome to Plan B Nation