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The hard work of happiness - Burke County Notebook
Burke County Notebook

The hard work of happiness - Burke County Notebook

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A few years ago, as I prepared to retire from Western Piedmont Community College, I was honored to deliver the commencement address to the 2018 graduating class. My 20-minute talk, titled “Be Happy,” consisted of reflections and recommendations and presented a few “hacks” to help maintain peace of mind. Fast-forward to 2020 with COVID-19, racial unrest, political upheaval, and climate shift. After what was a fundamentally exhausting year, I decided to take a fresh look at my recommendations to see how they bear up in 2021.

Whenever we approach a new year, a new decade or a new century, we generally identify the calendar shift with positive change and better circumstances. Jan. 1 is seen as the magic reset button that gives us a “do-over,” but personal and social resets aren’t automatic like calendar changes. Surely the future will show us that 2021 brought some good things to pass, but as we live through the year one day at a time, it becomes ever more apparent that for most of us, happiness takes work. These days, virtually everyone is talking about what can make us happier.

In April of last year, The Atlantic published “The Three Equations for a Happy Life, Even During a Pandemic.” August’s edition of The Oprah Magazine presented “How to be Happy in 14 Little Steps.” In November, The World Economic Forum presented the results of a global survey titled, “This is What Makes People Around the World Happy Right Now.”

The New York Times, the American Association of Retired People, the American Heart Association, USA Today, National Public Radio and Forbes are only a few of the many organizations or publications that have weighed in on a growing crisis of emotional health. There’s even an academic publication called the “Journal of Happiness Studies” that presents peer-reviewed, scholarly research on “subjective well-being.”

In preparing for my commencement speech nearly three years ago, I did some research. I identified four themes, which I called “happiness hacks,” along with some of the behaviors and mindsets that describe them.

  1. Realistic optimism: Happy people acknowledge difficulties and hardships, but they believe that situations can improve and focus on how they can contribute toward that improvement. They don’t expect to feel the emotions associated with happiness all the time. They focus on clarifying and evaluating problems and making adjustments that move toward solutions. Realistic optimists understand that they may influence others, but the only persons they can consistently control are themselves. They intentionally practice gratitude and deliberately find things and people to be thankful for, even in the face of hardship.
  2. Healthy relationships: Happy people recognize that their personal connections have a profound effect on their well-being, so they work on significant relationships and limit association with negative influencers. Research shows that people who participate in small group activities such as lunch groups, book clubs and sports or church teams identify themselves as happy at significantly higher rates. In a global pandemic, it can take some ingenuity to make these connections work, but research also suggests that the effort pays off.
  3. Practicing presence: Happy people are task-selective and try to focus on one activity at a time instead of multi-tasking. This focus allows them to engage fully with the activity and minimize the stresses of mental code-switching. They set goals, realizing that they may need to revise them as situations shift, and find new ways to hold themselves accountable to moving forward.
  4. Positive habits: Happy people make effort to focus on a single person, space or moment at a time, not allowing themselves to delay their happiness until some condition is met. They often identify with spiritual awareness, connect to something bigger than themselves, find meaning in their lives, and practice acts of kindness and generosity. They establish a work-life balance, make ample time for sleep and rest, and emphasize activities that create positive memories. They evaluate their own thinking, behaviors, habits and attitudes more than those of others.

Long after my commencement address had passed into that invisible world where old speeches go, Laurie Santos, a psychology professor at Yale University, wrote a Dec. 20, 2020 Newsweek article titled, “Five Things That Will Make You Happier.” In this article, she posed a happiness framework with five simple tenets: 1) get social, 2) give thanks, 3) be in the moment, 4) rest and move, and 5) be kind. As compared to the four “happiness hacks” I spoke of in 2018, Dr. Santos’ framework looks like a pretty close match. She teaches about happiness in a free online course called “The Science of Well-Being.”

Today we live in a reality that could not have been fully anticipated in 2018 -- before doom-scrolling, social distancing, and ecoanxiety were even “a thing.” With emotional well-being in shorter supply these days, one might just imagine how different the world might be if more happy people lived in it.

Leslie McKesson is a local author and a member of the Morganton Writers' Group.

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