Surprised By Happiness

September 09, 2011

When you think of being happy, do you primarily think of doing fun things, getting what you want, or having your life running smoothly? Me, too—but that’s only part of the picture. Happiness is not just something that appears when you reach a goal or finally have that free time you’ve been longing for. Here are some surprising sources of happiness:

For many, work is a source of deep and lasting happiness. Ariel Gore wrote in Bluebird: Women and the New Psychology of Happiness: “ recent years I’d noticed a growing disconnect between the things I imagined would make me happy and the things that actually did. Potentially ego-boosting rites of passage in my career, for example—awards or good reviews—only seemed to cause me anxiety. Allowing myself to be absorbed in my work, on the other hand, whether it was writing or teaching or doing some familial chore I outwardly complained about, brought a quiet contentment I could feel radiate from my chest.” She continued later in the book, “When we strike a balance between the challenge of an activity and our skill at performing it, when the rhythm of the work itself feels in sync with our pulse, when we know that what we’re doing matters, we can get totally absorbed in our task. That is happiness.”

I don’t know about you, but when I need a quick shot of satisfaction, I begin cleaning and/or organizing. One of my favorite bloggers, Crazy Aunt Purl (Laurie Perry), coped with a scary and unexpected move by scrubbing grout! Perhaps putting one small area of our lives in order helps us cope with chaos elsewhere, I don’t know. All I know is a clean and organized office/refrigerator/hall closet is cause for rejoicing.

“Happy women know that no one gets to be happy all the time,” according to What Happy Women Know, by Dan Baker, Ph.D, Cathy Greenberg, Ph.D, and Ina Yalof.  As Gretchen Rubin notes in her blog post, “Negative emotions are a key part of rational thought and effective performance. Also, up to a point, they can be of great service to happiness. They’re loud, flashy signs that something isn’t right. Because they’re so unpleasant, they can sometimes prod us to take action when nothing else can.” Negative emotions are a part of life—feel them, accept them, learn from them—then let them pass.

According to Dr. George E. Vaillant of Harvard Medical School, what seems to contribute most to happiness as we get older are the coping mechanisms we develop to handle the inevitable pain of life. Coping mechanisms like humor, a positive outlook, willingness to control anger and hostility, and treating others the way we’d like to be treated, help us avoid depression and foster connections with others—both of which make our lives more enjoyable.

This makes me…happy. I see that many factors contribute to a person’s happiness—factors we can control, and ordinary things that are likely already part of our daily lives. Happiness is waiting…we just need to recognize it.

What surprising thing makes you happy?

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  1. Lots of interesting stuff in this post Kathy. Earlier this week, I was feeling really down and stressed, and I managed to do a journal page. I felt much better after that. That doesn't sound so surprising, but a few years ago I never would have thought that would make me feel better!

  2. Watering my trees brings contentment which is a gentle sort of happiness. My husband thinks I water too much (usually a couple times a week but remember I live in a desert) but he just doesn't get that its more than the water; it's a connection to earth and spirit. Water is primal and running water is soothing. Helping trees get the nourishment they need adds to it. I never had too much need to water before moving here and I find happiness doing it (not in fighting to do it though).

  3. Yes, Kathy, such interesting thoughts here. I'm like you, organizing the small things or areas in my life really helps me cope with the larger issues that might be negative or overwhelming. Maybe it's an illusion of control, but it seems that my thoughts get more organized as a parallel to the tasks I complete. I feel empowered, and thus happier.

    Freebird, I love the sound of running water as well, and feel that same connection when I water my plants during our dry periods. You become part of the nourishing cycle!

  4. Like you, and Elizabeth, sometimes cleaning is the only way I can find my way around and through a particularly complex issue. And like Cheryl, sometimes creating a page in my journal is the key. I also love the sound of moving water—the beach, the river, the shower.

    My other unexpected place of happiness is to go and work in the yard, get my hands dirty and smell the scents of the earth. Simple pleasures, all.

  5. Cheryl--Sorry to hear of your down day, but glad that you've found a new way to cheer yourself up! Art therapy :)

  6. Timaree--What a beautiful thought..."It's more than just water. It's a connection to earth and spirit." Your mindfulness while doing a "chore" is an excellent way to be surprised by happiness. Water on!

  7. Elizebeth--I also think that your brain has time to mull over things and sort through them while you are cleaning/organizing, and that also contributes to a feeling of happiness. Sometimes you need a mindless task to help your mind sort through things and become clearer.

  8. Laure--All good methods for seeking peace of mind, not just distractions from the problems at hand. I think the more of these we have, the better.

  9. Hi Kathy, what a great job you did on this post. Work does make me happy. Also, I have our house set up into "stations" like a daycare ... if I get bored or restless, I can just move to a different section and do something else for a while. Reading makes me happy, and so does going on a drive. My blog makes me very happy, and it is something that I do just for my own satisfaction; though sharing the photos with everybody seems to be a worthwhile thing too.

    My husband, family and friends make me happy ... I guess I am usually pretty content with things overall, luck for me.

    I liked the part where you discussed negative emotions prompting us to move forward. There are some situations that seem as if they are stuck and will never change, but even those eventually will, if I change. My friend taught me a very useful and powerful prayer that I have been praying over those types of situations. Short and sweet, here it is, "Lord please reveal the truth, for all eyes to see." When you get down to the bottom of things and know the truth, then acceptance or change can occur.

    God bless,

    Kathy M.

  10. Kathy--I like the idea of "stations" and of moving from one thing to another. Some of my happiest days are when I'm busy doing lots of different things, but don't feel rushed or overwhelmed. It sounds like you have lots of great things that make you happy!

  11. I've been thinking about this some more ... what I have now is time, love and security and that affords me so much happiness. It was a rocky road for a long time, but I really am blessed now and I do appreciate it. Thanks for helping me to concentrate on having an attitude of gratitude, Kathy.

  12. Kathy, you always come across as happy and content on your blog--I'm so glad that things are going well for you.