Can you really be happy?

When I hear the word “happy,” I immediately think of a happy face. That round, yellow, smiley icon is such a positive symbol, intended to spark a feel-good reaction. But it’s not as easy as that, is it? Just because we “see” a happy face doesn’t make us happy. We’re increasingly learning that happiness is about the state of our internal thoughts and feelings, not external appearance or expression.

After all, happy people can cry a lot and sad people –Robin Williams comes to mind – can smile a lot. It’s hard to process that a man who spent his life making other people smile was not smiling for himself. And there are many other people out there just like Robin.

With depression, stress-related disease, suicide, and mental illness on the rise it’s obvious that happiness is not as easy as just turning on a switch. Happiness is a journey, and that becoming happier takes work (it’s true and it’s worth it). The principles of happiness are not complicated, in fact the steps can be considered pretty basic. However people don’t always do the work. Learning skillful ways to navigate life helps us to reach our potential, helps us to thrive. To master the art of happiness takes awareness, education, choice, action, and regular practice.

In life, we are all either in a crisis, coming out of a crisis or about to go into a crisis, and in between we have to navigate a series of challenges. If we don’t find ways to manage the negative mindset that comes with those crises and challenges, we start to rob ourselves of our potential to be happy. Sadness can start to settle in.

But feeling sad can be a good thing. It builds character, and helps us to dig deep and to really feel our feelings. And we need to do that – to understand that our feelings are valid. Happiness is not about the absence of negative feelings; happiness is about believing that there is something you can do about those feelings. Honoring the negative feelings is the first step towards a happier mind. It’s unresolved sadness that is so dangerous because it leads us down a path toward discontent, loneliness, isolation, and illness.

Our brain is naturally programed to believe negative thoughts first – that’s our fight-or-flight response, and it’s the way nature intended us to be hard wired. But unless you’re hunting a saber-tooth tiger or need an adrenaline rush to help lift a car off someone, that wiring is no longer serving us. In fact, it can affect our ability to be happy. To overcome our genetic make-up, to feel happy, we must train our brains to think in new ways.

Work problems, health issues, family struggles, financial challenges and all the other everyday stressors put our mind and body into the flight-or-fight response. That bypasses our rational mind, which is where we create our positive thoughts and feelings. And positive outcomes is where we’ll find our happiness.

The good news is that academic research is now revealing solutions – including that we have more control over our minds than we may think. That we can take steps to stay in a rationally optimistic state, and thus create the right conditions to see possibilities and opportunities instead of challenges and conflicts.

Life can be hard – I get it. Experiencing my own crisis several years ago set me on a journey to learn more about the science of happiness. I lost my mother, my father, and my sister, in a short period of time. I had estates to settle, a business to run, bills to pay, all while trying to raise a teenage son and maintain a marriage.

Add to the mix a serious car accident, lost relationships and managing my grief, there were many days when pulling the covers over my head felt more appealing than getting out of bed. But I never allowed myself to stay in bed (OK, I’ll ‘fess up: maybe once….but that’s human; what you need to avoid is lying in bed day after day).

Finding your new normal, including new ways to live happy, after a crisis, is crucial. Many people get stuck in the overwhelming thoughts that happen during difficult times or struggles. In order to move forward, to continue to grow, and to be able to put the past behind us, we need tools to get us back to life.

The world will go on with or without us. To me, living life to the fullest is about choosing to go on with it. Every one of us has a story, and everyone’s level of happiness is going to be challenged at some point in their lives. When your happiness is challenged, which methods or tools do you have in place to help you move forward?

I have studied Positive Psychology, I’m a Mental Health 1st Aider and Peer Support trained, and have learned from some of the top happiness gurus (Shawn Achor, of The Happiness Advantage, is my top mentor). Through all my education, life experiences and research I have designed a road map to happiness – a road I will drive for the rest of my life. And now I dedicate my work to helping other people create their own road maps to happiness.

Life isn’t always easy, but life is a gift. You matter! And you deserve to live happy.

Please join me in becoming a happy ambassador @ ahappiermind. com; together, we can share a journey toward a healthier and happier life.

***If you have been struggling with your level of happiness lately know my heart goes out to you! Living in isolation, silence, pain is a journey I don’t wish on anyone. Reaching out to someone you trust and letting him or her know you don’t feel like yourself is the place to start. Don’t try to do this alone; getting the proper support is the best step you can take toward living your life happy. Calling 211 is a great resource toward help.

By Karen Judge, Mind Health Specialist

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