I Choose Happiness

by Renée Peterson Trudeau

I was having dinner with friends late last year. Most of us were experiencing various stages of disequilibrium in our lives - my husband had just gotten laid off from his tech job, my friend was navigating a divorce, and my neighbor's house was being foreclosed.

My friend Susan asked me, So, how are you? I paused for a minute, then replied, Actually, I'm great. I'm feeling really good. She looked at me with confusion. She didn't understand how I could be doing well when I was navigating so many personal challenges.

I think happiness is a choice, and in this moment, this day, this is how I'm choosing to feel, I replied.

I didn't always make this choice. Three of my immediate family members died unexpectedly between my twenty-sixth and thirty-fourth birthdays. Throughout most of my twenties and into my early thirties, I let those losses dictate how much, how often, and when I could experience joy. For years, anytime I started to feel light, free, or happy, the old feeling of waiting for the other shoe to drop would creep in.

We all want to be happy, but where does happiness come from? To be happy, do we need things to be perfect, so that the feeling flutters down upon us like a butterfly on a sun-drenched, perfect-temperature, not-a-cloud-in-the-sky day? Or can we learn to be happy despite our imperfections and old wounds? Haven't we all played the I'll be happy when... game? I'll be happy when I've finished my project, have a new job, graduated school, finalized my divorce, gotten paid, figured out my life purpose...and on and on and on. Can you only be happy if things are going your way and all the stars are aligned in your favor?

In recent years, there's been a lot of focus on the psychology of happiness, and one thing is clear: happiness isn't something that happens to us; it's something we create. At an international coaching conference, I heard author and teacher Tal Ben-Shahar discuss how much power we have over our ability to be happy. We create our happiness when we help others express gratitude, live more in the present, and take time for soul-nourishing, deeply absorbing work and activities. Conversely - surprise, surprise - true happiness is not derived from the accumulation of stuff or the typical pleasures and gratifications we often pursue.

I believe that we're born with the innate capacity to experience emotional well-being and joy; it's our birthright to feel good. God wants us to feel good. Most of us just forget this as we head out into the wooded forest to search for Pandora's box, certain that the secret to happiness has to be out there...somewhere.

On my son's last day of third grade, we hosted an end-of-year school party. Moments after everyone had arrived, my husband called to let me know he'd just been laid off from his tech job. Summer is my favorite time of year. I love the fresh peaches and basil, I love cold swims in our local rivers, I love reading and more reading, and I love enjoying a slower pace with my family. I wanted to be supportive of my partner and fully on board to take over as the primary provider for my family for a while, but if I spent the entire summer preoccupied with worry and going into a spin cycle over our finances, summer would pass me by. I'd wake up on Labor Day having missed some of the best days of the year!

So I consciously decided that just because life had thrown us a curve ball didn't mean we had to stop living. That summer of unemployment included some challenges, but it also included making frozen blueberry-banana smoothies on a stick (my son's invention), late-evening picnics, refreshing swims in Texas's natural springs, and some of the most tender, connected, joyful moments my family has ever experienced. It helped that we'd been through a layoff one time before, and we knew this was merely a bump in the road.

Happiness bubbles up from our spring of well-being (which needs tending to flow). We're wired for happiness. We just have to remember to choose this and consciously return here moment to moment. I was once challenged by my friend Erin, a leadership coach, to think a better thought! When we can see how our negative thoughts and our state of being are contributing to our unhappiness - shifts can occur.

Grab a piece of paper and a pen and write out the top five things that bring you back to a state of joy or happiness. While we feel satisfaction after completing a successful project or we enjoy the momentary high that comes from a promotion or from doing something new and exciting, these things fade and aren't always within our reach. In fact, if we are too focused on pursuing them, they could adversely affect our joy and well-being - such as if they impact our relationships and the amount of time we enjoy with our family.

More and more, I'm realizing that the less I feel I have to do, and the simpler my life is, the happier I am. The quickest and easiest route to happiness is choosing to reconnect with that inner well of happiness and joy that resides within me.

Excerpted from the excellent new book Nurturing the Soul of Your Family, ©2013 Renée Peterson Trudeau. Printed here with the permission of the publisher, New World Library.