Happiness comes from what we think and do

by author Rachel Kelly.

January is the time of year when many of us, old and young, pause to reflect on the year that’s passed and make plans for the year ahead. Some of us write resolutions, others a list of goals – all with the intention of becoming that little bit happier.

But what I’ve come to learn through my work with mental health charities as well as my own experience is that happiness is not something we can attain directly. We can’t choose it, purchase it or conjure it. Rather it is a by-product of the things we do and think, from the moment we wake up each morning to the moment we go to sleep. It can be cultivated and sustained by nurturing new behaviours and thought patterns over time: small tilts of the rudder that steer us in a new direction.

In my new book Walking on Sunshine: 52 Small Steps to Happiness I give examples of the small shifts that I myself have found most useful; 52 tools and strategies – one for each week of the year.

Here are six tips for making your own sunny weather, however cold and wet it is outside:

  • Unplug. An obvious one but a challenging one. It can be so tempting to spend the day glued to one’s ‘phone – forever chasing the buzz of gratification we get from a new message or notification. But when we indulge this impulse we strain our eyes, cloud our brains and the light from LED lit screens can even disrupt our sleeping patterns. It can be liberating to leave one’s ‘phone behind for a few hours or even disable the Internet at certain times of the day.
  • Learn to love the journey. In one’s teens and early twenties there is a huge amount of emphasis placed on achieving results: grades, degrees and other qualifications that are seen as a means to an end. This perpetuates the idea that life will happen ‘in the future’ if we tick the right boxes in the present. But the reality is – all we have available to us is the present moment. Life is made up of a string of ‘present moments’: that which we can feel, touch, taste, smell, hear and see right now.
  • The joy of missing out. Sometimes it can seem as if each social gathering we go to has the power to validate us into being – as if we cannot exist outside of our friendship groups. This is especially true when we are still growing into ourselves and learning who we are. It can be easier to seek the acceptance of others rather than face the void of undefined space we feel we are carrying around inside. But once we learn to find the joy in missing out, we can experience the serenity and freedom of quiet moments and enjoy a greater sense of balance.
  • Bird by bird. It can be easy to get overwhelmed every now and again: whether it’s our homework, deadline or to-do list that we feel is holding us hostage. When I feel snowed under I like to remind myself of the American author Anne Lamott, who wrote one of my favourite books, Bird by Bird. In it, she remembers her ten-year-old brother trying to write a report on birds that he’d had three months to complete and that was now due the next day. The child is close to tears at the kitchen table, surrounded by paper and pens and unopened books on ornithology. Lamott’s father sits down beside his son, puts his arm around him and says, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’
  • Make mistakes. For many of us, life revolves around a series of big decisions, which anchor the hundreds of smaller decisions we make each day. Which A-levels to take? Which university offers to accept? Which jobs to apply to and which opportunities to seize? We often navigate these decisions motivated by the harmful misconception that there is such a thing as a good decision and a bad decision; that we are playing for failure or success. But life is more complicated than that. Good ideas can have bad results and supposedly bad ideas can lead to something good. Perceived mistakes and failures can be the stepping-stones to something wonderful if we have the right attitude. The ‘how’ is more important than the ‘what’.
  • Find your mid-point. When things go well, it’s lovely for a time. People congratulate us, wanting to know how we’ve pulled off some feat or other. Such attention and flattery can feel very welcome, and I don’t want to sound like a killjoy: of course there’s a time for celebration. But the problem with believing the ‘I’m so special’ phase that follows an accomplishment is that, when our luck changes, we are likely to believe just the opposite: ‘I’m so worthless’. In fact, neither is true. We are not more special when the world smiles on us, nor does our value diminish when things don’t work out. I’ve found it helpful therefore to find my mid-point: a steadying mind-set of valuing myself and my endeavours that is neither inflated by external successes nor punctured by worldly defeat.

Walking on Sunshine: 52 Small Steps to Happiness is published by Short Books and is available for purchase on Amazon.


About the author: Rachel gives talks and runs workshops across the country on the therapeutic value of the arts. Her memoir Black Rainbow (Hodder & Stoughton, 2014) on the healing power of the written word was a Sunday Times bestseller and won the Best First Book prize at the Spear’s Book Awards. All author proceeds from the book were donated to mental health charities – Rachel is an ambassador for SANE and Vice President of United Response and campaigns to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness. Her new book is Walking on Sunshine: 52 Small Steps to Happiness (Short Books, 2015).

For more information please follow Rachel on Twitter @RachelKellyNet or visit www.rachel-kelly.net.

Photo: Wonder... by Vern under Creative Commons license