Saturday, April 5, 2008

checklist for happiness

A checklist for happiness-

I was sitting in the cockpit for T/O and landing and I observed the First Officer take out the T/O and landing Checklist and read it out aloud. How many times have our captains and First Officers taken off and landed planes? But every time they still refer to a checklist. Even though they probably know the procedures like the back of their hand they still have to refer to a checklist to ensure that we arrive safe and in "better Shape".

As a student of positive psychology (a branch of psychology that focuses on positive behavior and happiness and optimism), I thought to myself, how wonderful would it be to have a checklist for happiness.

Happiness is a very arbitrary term and one person’s happiness may differ from another, but having said that, I think there are a few basic tenets that could be universally applied to happiness.

Those being; good health, fulfilling relationship, satisfying work, enough money and the ability to indulge in one’s passions.

Many of us confuse feeling good with feeling happy. Recently a study was undertaken, whereby students were asked to do something that gave them pleasure and then to perform an act of selfless kindness. Most students approached the first part rather eagerly and recounted their pleasurable activities that included having sex, going out for a great meal, hanging out with friends, drinking and getting hammered and having more sex.

Interestingly, the second part of the assignment had a more lasting effect. When the students were asked about their experience, they spoke with the jubilation of a five year old. One of the students who was afraid of needles, went and gave blood. Another brought an homeless person home and fed him . Yet another left a 50$ tip for a waiter at Denny’s and one spent the whole day at a community farm covered in horse manure.

When asked to compare the two activities, almost everyone rated the second to be higher in terms of lasting happiness. This experiment was then repeated in other institutions and the findings were pretty unanimous.

So what really is happiness?

Webster’s and Oxford dictionary describe the word happiness as a state of feeling great pleasure, and contentment. Someone who is happy is said to be favored by circumstances; is lucky; fortunate etc. The thesaurus uses words like pleasure; gratification; enjoyment; fruition, oblectation ; relish; zest; gusto; well being; joy; gladness; enchantment; rapture; ecstasy; heaven; honeymoon

I once sent out an email to my friends asking them to define happiness. I got some lovely responses, some rather simple and some extremely profound and insightful (too many to list here), but most said it was appreciating what we had, living in the present, showing gratitude and giving without expectation. No one mentioned money, sex or food. Rather interesting isn’t it? We all know or at least pretend to know what happiness is but when it comes down to really being happy we forget and run after all the things that only lead to pleasure and not towards lasting happiness.

As I was having this discussion with the Captain of my flight, he gave me a brilliant idea! He suggested that I make a checklist for happiness and put it in the mail boxes of all the cockpit and cabin crew.

It is not my intention to preach, but it sure is my intention to steer you towards a more fulfilling and "HAPPY" life. So without much further ado, here is a list of things that can lead to lasting happiness.

Make happiness a worthy goal, for achieving it is entirely within your power. Abraham Lincoln noted, "Most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be." It isn’t what happens to us that determines how happy we are, it’s what and how we think about what happens to us, that determines the state of our happiness.

Let go of what you cannot change: other people, the past, the future. Reinhold Niebuhr once wrote. "Grant me the serenity to accept what I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."

Only focus on what YOU can change: your thoughts, beliefs, expectations, and behavior. There is absolutely no point in wasting your time and energy in blame or on other people and circumstances beyond your control. Rather than fume at other people’s "selfishness" and inconsiderate behavior, remind yourself that you have no control over what others choose to think or do. Simply refuse to turn into a whining child because of situations and events beyond your power to alter or fix.

Appreciate the moment. Notice the good things that are happening to you right now, whether it’s a beautiful sky, a light load on the plane, a happy child, a gorgeous passenger giving you his phone no , a lovely meal with your friends. Who knows how many years or days one has so live this moment fully. Most of us dwell on the past be it pain or pleasure. We hold on to the past, plan the future and forget the present. However the only moment of truth is this moment. Every time you feel sad or depressed, think about what is wrong with this particular moment. Very often it will be nothing wrong in the moment, only in our thoughts.

Focus on what you have and not on what you want. One of the definitions of happiness that I received said, "Happiness is wanting what you get and success is getting what you want". I read it and ignored it, but now that I am writing about it, it makes perfect sense. We have to accept that we won’t get everything that we want. So why insist on making ourselves miserable by wanting instead of enjoying what we have. Do not turn your wants into needs.

Choose to see the best in people and the world. You are the maker of your own destiny. You will always see what you choose to see. Try this- Next time you are out shopping, think of a red car and before you know it you will spot a red car somewhere on the road. Why? It’ s because now you were looking for a red car. Unhappy people choose to see the worst. They weigh themselves down with a very dim view of the world and forget the joys of appreciation. We tend to see only the "evidence" that confirms our beliefs, thereby convincing ourselves those beliefs are "facts. So choose to see the best and only the best will appear.

Be grateful and write a gratitude journal. Take stock of all the good things in your life and be grateful. Remind yourself all of the people who have less than you have, whether it is health, resources, family or friends. Every night before going to bed, remember three good things that happened and write them down. Do this exercise everyday without fail. Eventually your brain will get hard wired to appreciation and gratitude and lead to happiness.

Stop assuming you know what others think and feel. I’ve discovered that I’m a poor mind reader. Studies comparing eyewitness accounts invariably reveal that no two people see things exactly the same way, and that each of us interprets what we perceive in a different way. We all have different beliefs, which weave into a complex web or system of beliefs. Therefore we see the world differently, behave differently, and show our love differently. So don’t expect others to behave as you would in a similar situation.

Remember that other people’s actions are almost always about them, not about you. I remember meeting a passenger on the plane the other day, who was the most obnoxious, ill-tempered woman I had ever met. She was out right rude and nasty. Eventually I gathered courage and asked her if we had done something to upset her. At first she was being rather evasive and deigned to talk, but eventually came out with her whole life story about her impending divorce and her children’s custody and her new lovers inability to provide a comfortable home. All her anger was basically self directed and she had no clue how to handle it.

Lower your expectations. High expectations set us up for constant disappointment. I would much rather be surprised and delighted by things turning out better than I expected, instead of expecting more than I get, and being disappointed. I remember dating this one guy who would talk about bringing the moon and the stars and leaving me rather disappointed due to his inability to fulfill even the most basic phone call need. On the other hand I met someone who would send me flowers even when he was flying in the air (thanks to airphones). Obviously, I was flattered as I least expected it.

Always remember that "being human" means being imperfect and making mistakes. And that’s all right. Rather than becoming critical and angry at yourself try to be gentle. Remember what Einstein said, "Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new."

Take chances. Be bold and take a stand. In interviews with nursing home residents, a study found that people’s biggest regrets were not things they did, but things they didn’t do. Susan Davis says, "Joy comes from taking risks around your deepest values." So I am daring to write this checklist on Happiness even at the cost of you all making fun of me!!!!!

Live by your values. Think about what is important to you and the kind of person that you want to be. Then make everyday decisions based on which actions are most in alignment with who you want to be and what you value.

Remember to breathe. Really breathe. When you feel stressed, take a few deep breaths. Focus on filling your belly with air, then expelling all the air from my body. When you feel totally empty of air, take a new, full breath. This breathing exercise refreshes your mind and body.

Get enough sleep. Now, that one is a real bummer for me. I can only sleep well on my bed and with my pillow. Sleeping in strange hotels and at strange times plays havoc with my system, but what the hell, I am preaching right now, so I shall write because it is really important. You figure out your own way of sleeping. I did!!!!!!!!!

And most importantly, go and do something for someone without any expectation. Altruism has been described as the one most important factor leading to happiness. People who have done a good deed carry that happy feeling with them for a much longer time than they carry a feeling of pleasure.

Phew that was bloody long for a checklist. Just choose what you like and ignore the rest. Big thinking precedes big achievement. If you can dream it, you can do it. So get into the habit of being happy.