By Elizabeth Exline
When it comes to finding happiness, there’s no shortage of articles, products and regimens that promise to deliver. But the very prolificacy suggests nothing quite hits the mark — and Lt. Col. (ret.) Samantha Dutton, PhD, LCSW, has a theory why.
“Happiness is within you. It’s not somebody else providing it, or Amazon providing it, or TikTok. … It’s a mindset,” says Dutton, who is the associate dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at University of Phoenix.
In some ways, that’s good news. It frees you from chasing external sources of happiness, after all. But if you fail to find happiness when it’s essentially a choice, does that mean you’re a failure? Or, worse, that you’re not meant to be happy?
The short answer is no. The longer answer is read on.
“Happiness is not defined the same way by all people,” Dutton explains. “And you shouldn’t confuse it with excitement or joy. Those are ingredients for happiness, but they’re not [actually] happiness.”
If this sounds like a game of semantics, consider this: Happiness is an umbrella that includes contentment, excitement, joy and euphoria. All those feelings contribute to feeling happy, but none encapsulates happiness completely.
Instead, happiness stems from finding and living according to your sense of purpose. “It’s defined by what makes you get out of bed in the morning,” Dutton says.
Between daily distractions and a general disconnect from our evolving sense of what we want in life, it can be easy to lose our way when it comes to finding happiness. Here’s a road map for rediscovering it.
Likening mindset to an AI algorithm, Dutton says that one’s mindset is self-perpetuating. If on social media, you click on a couple of cat videos, the platform’s algorithm will keep on feeding you cat videos. Pretty soon, you’ll have a sense that all cats are capable of quirky, acrobatic feats.
The same goes for how you view yourself. If you consider yourself unlucky or somehow “less than,” you tend to find reinforcement in the external world. What was once a fear or opinion becomes validated, reinforced and perpetuated to where you eventually are the thing you don’t necessarily want to be.
Or, to put it another way, you are the gatekeeper of what you think and believe. Be discriminating about what you let into your mind.
Narcissism is never a good look, but confidence is. Unfortunately, a lot of people struggle to find the latter and end up erring on the side of low self-esteem.
“Negative self-talk is easy,” Dutton acknowledges. Any misstep — forgetting someone’s birthday or not doing well on an exam — can be cause for becoming your own worst detractor if you let it.
Instead, Dutton recommends checking in with yourself each morning and evening and engaging in a positive pep talk. This doesn’t have to be embarrassing or over the top but simply a moment to create a framework for the day and your accomplishments at the end of it.
For example, when you wake up, take a minute to think about what you’re looking forward to doing that day, whether it’s finishing your dissertation or just getting the kids to school on time. Then, before bed, think about something you’re grateful for, whether that’s good health or getting the laundry done.
This, in effect, rewires your mind to think and feel better. “Your brain starts thinking positively, and that positivity blossoms in [your] umbrella of happiness,” Dutton explains.
Life is largely written by little moments. Yes, big life events (marriage, kids, owning a home) are the punctuation marks, but what fills in the bulk of your story? How do you lend meaning to each day?
For many people, purpose can be found in work, relationships and how they as individuals contribute to the world. This doesn’t mean running for office or becoming a celebrity. It does mean lifting up your co-workers, making eye contact with your baristas and servers when you thank them and being courteous to people you come in contact with.
One analogy is the emerging “slow travel” trend in which visitors eschew the “Insta-worthy” approach of showcasing their vacations and embrace the idea of really discovering a place, engaging with the culture and contributing to it in some way.
So, ask yourself this question: How can you make the world a better place for having been in it? Your answer to that is very likely your life’s purpose.
“Whenever I go through a drive-through, I always pay for the car behind me,” Dutton says. “It makes me feel good. I want them to know somebody thought about them.”
This is an example of an attitude more than a prescription for activity. Thinking of others can look many different ways, and it doesn’t have to cost a cent. Yes, donating to good causes is admirable and necessary. Yes, it’s a generous and wonderful thing to treat someone to lunch or buy coffee for a stranger. But with the current economy making everyone’s disposable income a little dearer, it may be more doable — and arguably more meaningful — to find ways to recognize people around you.
Dutton, for example, will send a handwritten note of thanks to faculty who have gone above and beyond. Doing the same for a friend or colleague, even over email, creates a similar positive effect. Checking in on friends who are going through a tough time, calling someone out in a meeting for a job well done or carving out time to spend with a loved one are all gifts that effectively put others first.
“Just helping out your fellow human beings will add to your happiness,” Dutton says. “It makes them have a good feeling, and maybe that will cause a ripple effect on other people.”
Feeling happy is tough to achieve when you don’t feel well. Getting enough sleep each night (roughly seven hours, although this varies by person) and eating well help you feel your best. Building in time each day to recharge is also a good idea. Think reading, going for a walk, meditating or devoting uninterrupted time to playing with your kids.
The other part of this self-care equation is exercise: Dutton says 20 minutes of movement each day is ideal. “That doesn’t mean a marathon or 100 lunges,” she explains. “It could mean a walk or cleaning the house or dancing around with some music.”
At the end of the day, taking care of yourself is always a cost-benefit analysis. Does doing the work of exercising, unplugging and eating well pay off? “We’re always judging whether it’s worth it or not,” Dutton concedes. The answer is up to you.
One of the greatest thieves of happiness is probably stress.
“There’s stress of getting married, and there’s stress of getting divorced,” Dutton observes. “They’re both stress, and they do the same thing to your body.”
Hint: Stress is not good for your body.
Yet the mental connection to stress is key. All events, Dutton says, are neutral. It’s the meaning we ascribe to them that causes stress or not.
To recalibrate your response, Dutton suggests the following:
Admittedly, this isn’t easy. “It’s taken me a long time to think like that, and I’ve been educated in it,” Dutton says.
By way of example, she points to when she decided to leave the military. The decision was one she second-guessed a lot in the aftermath, and what she experienced was akin to grieving. “But when I look back now, I’m so happy I did it. I’m so happy I’m where I am today. I’m happy with the work I do,” Dutton says.
In the end, managing stress and finding happiness is a process, and being patient with yourself can go a long way toward navigating it. “I think you just have to take a moment and give yourself grace,” Dutton says. “Give yourself some grace and take a breath.”
If you are experiencing ongoing sadness or depression, please seek professional help. If you are in crisis or have thoughts of suicide or self-harm, call or text the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988.
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