Happiness is something we are all supposed to be striving for and when we don’t feel it we wonder how we can catch it, pin it down, keep it.
I think it is useful to differentiate between happiness and joy. Sometimes we can be quiet happy when other times it’s bubbles of joy floating through us. When I was looking up images for happiness on Shutterstock it seemed to be mostly photos of people with arms wide open, faces to the sky. Happiness as an open feeling is something I can connect to. It can be a giant feeling. But sometimes happiness is a quiet secret moment, a gentle glow. And happiness looks and feels different to different people.
Something I hear a lot is: ‘you’re such a positive person! how do you stay so happy all the time!”. The big secret is that I don’t. No-one can really maintain a high level of positivity constantly (if you can – get in touch and tell me how!). Like motivation, positivity and happiness need fuel – you have to put stuff in to get stuff out. I’m not always good at it either, but when I actively chase the happiness, usually I can catch it.
A good place to start is to figure out what makes you happy. And I’m not really talking about external validation here. I know, it’s amazing when other people tell you how wonderful you are (I’m a big one for words – it’s my language of love – and the cards and statements and notes make a huge difference to my mood), and relishing in the love and appreciation of others is a blessing.
But it doesn’t always happen. It’s a bonus, a cherry on top, and sometimes it is exactly what you needed at that exact moment to help you keep going. But to have a sustainable happy you need to be able to make it yourself, and not be waiting for someone else to give you validation – because they might not do so.
So what is it that makes you happy?
The last four and a half years I have kept a Happy Jar. Many of you might also use this – I’m a massive advocate of it. I have a similar place in my classroom for students to post ‘Good Things That Happen’. The Happy Jar premise is simple – you take a jar, and you put your happy in it. Easy!
Okay, what it really is: you notice the little things that bring you joy, delight you, made things easier, and you record them and keep them in a jar. I empty it on New Year’s Eve and see all the lovely things that made my year happy, rather than focusing on creating resolutions to fix all the things I think are wrong with me. What works for me about this system is, I’m not rushing around trying to ‘actively’ create happy; I’m noticing it when it happens. When I need a boost, I take them out and read them, and get to experience the happy all over again.
An added bonus? You get a collection of memories of all the little things you’d likely forget otherwise. I keep each year clipped together in chronological order and have found a nice box to put them in (ie a leftover box from a perfume gift set. Fancy hoarder styles).
The Happy Jar has helped me figure out what things bring me joy, spark delight or contentment. I know now what sorts of things to be more mindful about, or to look for.
I thought I’d use a few of my Happy Jar moments to give you an idea of the kinds of things I catch and pin down, and how they help.
First: Mindfulness. To be honest, this is probably the biggest thing for me in terms of catching the happy; allowing myself the time to slow down and notice things. This has been particularly important for me as a parent. (apologies in advance for my handwriting… It’s never been pretty.)
Other times mindfulness is noticing those moments when the world itself sparks happiness. I love stars. Love them. They give me a sense of wonder – always have. On our recent school trip I had to patrol the cabins until I was sure everyone was staying in their rooms and at least appearing to go to sleep (these are teens – they were on their phones until 2am I’m sure). This meant that at midnight, when I was exhausted, I was still walking around saying ‘Shush now. Stay in your room’. But what it also meant was that I got to see the stars. We were out in a place where there was almost no light pollution. The Milky Way was out and beautiful and it meant I didn’t mind so much being tired and waiting for kids to settle down. Other times it is flowers that make me happy. Just because.
Second: Achieving things. These don’t have to be big things – it can be having a clean house, fixing a door, tidying your desk at work, shooting a basketball and getting it through the hoop. I told a friend once about how I’d spent some time shooting some hoops and then felt much more able to face the things that had seemed insurmountable before. She told me this was because this small sense of achievement had boosted my Self-Efficacy. Self-Efficacy is where you believe in your ability to succeed at a task or activity. This belief adds to your self-esteem and therefore your happiness.
Third: Giving to Others. This can feel like an extra burden if you’re struggling yourself, although we tend to do it instinctively when we feel good. What I’ve noticed is that when I put energy into other people, make them feel good, I feel happier. It isn’t why I do it, but it’s a nice knock-on effect. I love giving compliments. I give them a lot, but only when I feel them. I once promised every staff member who came to a particular staff social event that I’d give them a personalised compliment (we were trying to encourage morale and participation). I managed to find something I genuinely wanted to compliment for every single person (and a lot came!) and I left that afternoon feeling incredibly happy. I started doing little spiels on a Friday at staff briefing, often with a positive or silly spin, and they became astonishingly looked forward to and liked. People would ask how I came up with all the happy and I admitted that were times when I felt like standing up and scowling and giving a big ‘whatever, none of it matters, I’m done’. But I never have, because a) rude, and b) acting happy and passing it on to others invariably adds to my own happiness.
But what about when you have those days, weeks, months, where you don’t seem to be able to catch the happy? When everything is difficult, and going to work is a struggle and your self-esteem takes a nose dive? Note, I’m not talking about clinical depression (that’s something that needs more help than these little tips), but about the down times we all experience. A technique I use is lists and mind-mapping. I love a good mind-map. I use colour and bad drawings too. The very process of writing down my fears, my trouble spots, the things that have been eating away at me, helps me to ease some of the negativity. I also find that that process helps me find solutions.
Sometimes I simply list ’10 Things that are Good about Right Now’. Often by focusing like this I find I need to add a few more. Sometimes it’s hard to get to 10 – but by making myself focus on what is actually okay or good about the moment/time I’m in, I help myself bring things into perspective.
These are ways I’ve found work for me to keep my happiness tank fuelled. And because that tank runs out every so often, I go back to my happy jar, to my photos of my kids and friends and moments all through my house and on my phone, and I remind myself of the things that I love, and that bring me joy.
I hope that maybe some of this can be helpful for you. Chase your happy, catch it, pin it down, relish it.