happiness

Ejo #108 – The Happiness Project: Part 1

I hope you’re happy. I honestly and sincerely hope that each and every one of you is happy. Because happiness is awesome. And the reason I know this is because… wait for it; I am happy. And let me tell you, it has been an epic journey for me to get to a place where I can, unapologetically, write those words down. So, how did I get here? Do I suddenly like living in Dubai? Have I reached my goal weight? Has my job satisfaction magically improved? Did I win the lottery? The answer to all of those questions is no. And yet still, I’m happy?? How does that compute? The ancient Greek philosopher Socrates, wisely believed that happiness was not attained from physical or external conditions, like wealth or pleasure, but rather stemmed from within. And, modern science backs him up.

There are a shitload of studies showing that “stuff” and “success” are not the be-all and end-all of happiness. For instance imagine you just won $50 million bucks in the lottery. Woohoo!!! I reckon you’d be pretty happy, right? But how long would that happiness last? Forever? Ten years? Three months? Most lottery winners, after the initial thrill, go back to their previous happiness levels in a pretty short time. Sure, their improved “life satisfaction” may last much longer, but their happiness returns to exactly where it was before the windfall. The same thing happens when you go on that holiday of a lifetime, or have that kid you’ve always wanted, or move into that amazing new dream home. All of these things do make people happier. But only temporarily.

And that’s because happiness isn’t a place you ever get to. It’s not a destination. No-one actually lives happily ever after in some enchanted Happyland. Happiness is something you pick up on your way to somewhere else. And, sorry folks, unless you’re lucky enough to be born with a naturally happy disposition (I’m looking at you Svetlana), it is not just going to fall into your lap. Another old Greek guy, Aristotle, said that happiness depends upon ourselves. And what that means is that it’s your job to make yourself happy. And yeah, it is a job. That might seem contradictory, but if you can’t tell me that you are happy right now, with everything in your life exactly the way it is, then maybe it’s time to roll up your sleeves and get to work.

I recently completed a three month course called The Happiness Project run by my second favourite person in Dubai; my long suffering friend and therapist Zimmy Khan. I’ve known Zimmy for almost nine years. I first met her at a very low point in my life. I was gravely unhappy, bordering on depressed and absolutely desperate for help. It might sound like a cliché but she saved my life. Certainly, I owe her the life that I have today. Over the years she has transformed me into someone who can honestly say that regardless of what is happening around me, or even happening to me – I am happy. So when Zimmy announced that she was conducting a project specifically designed to make people happier I jumped at the chance to do it, even though I was already doing pretty good in that department. And I’m so glad that I did. My growth from misery to happiness occurred incrementally, over nine years. It happened so slowly that I can’t even really put my finger on how it occurred. It was a process. But doing this course gave me the chance to experience a distilled infusion of happiness training.

And before I go on, I just want to clarify that happiness (as I’m talking about it here) is not the same as joy. Or pleasure. Being happy doesn’t mean walking around with a demented smile plastered on your face. And it’s not the same as being chirpy all the time either. Happiness has been defined as living a life that fulfils your needs. That doesn’t mean you can’t have a bad day, or moments of sadness. It just means that those blips slide on by without sticking and without having the huge impact they used to. Yesterday afternoon I had an argument with my tower husband (you might know him better as Dangerous Doug) which made me feel really blue for a couple of hours afterwards. But (and I still haven’t quite figured out how this is possible), I could still say that I was happy. And you know what else? The temporary sadness was OK too. I didn’t try to ignore it, or try to squash it – because it was an appropriate, healthy response to something that had upset me. And this morning I woke up feeling amazing again. True happiness is not fleeting. It’s not fickle, or vulnerable to outside forces. It’s something that protects you from the storms.

So how does a happiness project even work? Essentially, it’s about rewiring your life, by rewiring your thoughts and actions. It’s about creating new habits that are scientifically geared towards increasing happiness. The project was conducted online, which means that you don’t need to live in Dubai to participate. And Zimmy was always available to answer questions or to have a chat via email or WhatsApp. Part of the deal was that she also made herself available in person (or Skype etc.) to do one-on-one sessions at the end of each of the three months of the project. To me, that was the most valuable part of the whole thing. Yes, we were learning how to rewire our lives to become happier, but Zimmy was there to make sure we were on the right track, guiding us the whole way. And for me, that personalised attention alone was worth the price of participating.

The crux of the course was centred around 24 action and thought rewirements, and the project was structured around introducing them, two per week, followed by consolidation in the form of daily homework, research, reading and discussion.  Like I said, you have to put in the work. Very generously, Zimmy has allowed me to share the rewirements here with you (as I have interpreted them), though I haven’t included any of the actual course content. Please feel free to take on board whatever resonates with you. You might already do some of them, or maybe you just need a reminder to get back to doing something that has worked for you in the past. For others this might present entirely new ideas. I just suggest that you give it all a go. Of course you only get the full thrust and benefit of the project by signing up to do it yourself (which is something that I would really highly recommend), but I’m hoping that you do get a little something from the info below. In this ejo we’ll tackle the first five rewirements. And then next month we’ll delve into the rest. I’m also working on Part 3, an exclusive interview with Zimmy herself. Watch this space.

SHIFT NEGATIVE THOUGHTS TO POSITIVE
We all have a voice in our heads, constantly babbling in the background (and if you don’t believe me, try thinking of absolutely nothing for two minutes – it’s impossible). Sadly, research has shown that nearly 60% of the time, the voice is saying negative things. The first rewirement is to become aware of these negative thoughts as they happen, and to then consciously change them from negative to something positive. Like all the rewirements, it was a bit difficult to do in the beginning, but now I find myself doing it automatically. When you make the effort to listen to the crap rolling around your head you’ll be astonished at how often negative thoughts pop up. It’s a relatively simple fix to turn that shit around.

FULLY SAVOUR A MUNDANE DAILY TASK
The premise of this one is to pay attention, to savour something that you do automatically, on auto-pilot. Why? Because when you aren’t actually conscious of what you’re physically doing, the negative voice gets carte blanche to just ramble on. This way, you take control of your mind. One of the mundane tasks I chose to savour was making the bed. Every day now, I focus on the feel and look of the linen, on my physical movements of shaking out the sheet, of getting the angles of the blanket just right and enjoying the end result of a beautifully made bed! It takes me all of about two or three minutes, but I’ve really come to see this time as a luxury, a time be mindful and to savour the present moment.

EVERY DAY SHARE FIVE THINGS WITH A GRATITUDE PARTNER
This is the big one for me. Gratitude has been proven over and over again to be the biggest predictor of happiness. The first part of this rewirement is to find five things to be grateful for, every single damn day. And actually, this is easier than it might sound. If you have all your limbs, you have something to be grateful for. If you have a car that runs, you have something to be grateful for. If you breathe fresh air, you should be grateful. Running water, grateful. Health, grateful. See what I mean? Gratitude is such a powerful tool in learning how to be happy. Anyone reading this ejo already has so much. We just need to train ourselves to see it. And if you focus on what you already do have, on a daily basis (rather than on what you don’t), you’ll find yourself becoming happier. The second part of this rewirement is actually sharing your gratitude with someone else. Yes, it is enough to be grateful. And it’s perfectly fine to just write it in a journal. But when you share your gratitude with someone else, the benefit multiplies exponentially.

This rewirement involved finding a partner, someone willing to exchange daily gratitudes for three months. And I was so lucky (and eternally grateful) that my sister Mari also chose to take part in this course. For three months we sent each other gratitude videos every single day, and I can’t tell you how much I loved that. Sharing my life with my sister, who lives so far away from me, hearing about her day, seeing her face and hearing her voice was extraordinary, and my life was so enriched by the experience. So much so that when the project finished, we both agreed to continue the daily gratitudes, in text form. This rewirement would be my number one recommendation if you were to choose just one. And hey, if you need someone to share your daily gratitudes with, then hit me up. I seriously mean that. I’m pretty confident I could represent Australia at the Gratitude Olympics, because I’ve been doing this for a while. Nearly four years ago my friend Melinda and I started emailing each other daily gratitudes. In that time I’ve seen both of us experience massive improvements in resilience, happiness and fortitude. It’s like a muscle – if you go to the gym regularly, you’ll get stronger. Practice daily gratitude and you will become happier. I promise.

GRATITUDE FOR THE DAY THAT JUST PASSED, AND FOR THE DAY AHEAD
Another gratitude rewirement. Seriously though, this shit works – too much gratitude is literally never enough. So, as well as sharing your five daily gratitudes with a partner, it’s great practice, right before you go to sleep, to review the day that you’ve just lived and take the time to savour every little thing you can think of that made a positive difference. The added bonus of doing this is that it can really help the transition into sleep. Your gratitudes can be as monumental as appreciating your partner, or as trivial as getting a great parking spot at work. As huge as giving birth to a healthy baby or as inconsequential as enjoying popping the cork out of a wine bottle (which, I’m sure you’ll agree is an extremely satisfying sound). When you start noticing all the little things you have to be grateful for, it will change your life. You’ll get into the habit of spending the day actually looking for things to be thankful about. And the shit things that do happen in the normal course of life will have a lot less power to ruin your day. In addition to looking back, it’s an awesome habit to express gratitude in advance. To basically set a positive intention for the day ahead. Be grateful in advance for waking up tomorrow morning feeling rested and refreshed, for a great cup of coffee in the morning, for a seat on a packed train, for the sun shining during your lunch break, for your favourite song playing on the radio, for a stranger’s smile. Expecting good things to happen is such a positive way to live your life and a surefire way to increase your happiness.

DO THINGS FROM YOUR HAPPY LISTS, EVERY DAY
So, what’s a happy list? Actually, it’s three lists. Grab a piece of paper and a pen – go ahead, I’ll wait. OK, so in the first list write down some things you like doing by yourself that make you happy (one of my examples was taking a bath). In the second list, write down a few things you like doing with other people that make you happy (for this one I chose having sex with my husband). And in the third list, write down some stuff that you think might make you happy if you did give them a go (gardening was one of mine). Now start doing things from all three lists. And I mean every day. Coz… why wouldn’t you do the things that you know (or hope could) make you happy? Make the time and create the space you need to do it. Because it won’t happen by itself. You have to make it happen. So go and do it, right now. Then come back and write to me and tell me how you feel.

The answer I’m hoping for? Happy.