Confession: I’m not a naturally happy person. My inner circle knows this, but to less intimate friends, casual acquaintances, and the clerk at the grocery store this might come as a surprise. I regularly dole out smiles and on the outside seem to be a happy — some might even say as bubbly as a glass of champagne — kind of person. Most are unaware of my struggles with depression, an eating disorder, and a type of perfectionism that crushes more than it inspires.
My parents, on the other hand, probably had some idea of my “the-glass-is-sadly-half-empty” mentality when, as a young child, I fell in love with Pooh’s Eeyore and his gloomy epigrams. Pooh and Piglet were sweet. Tigger was playful and energetic. Rabbit was clean. But Eeyore was deep, brooding, and saw the world as I did: a place full of blessings but hard to live in nonetheless.
We all want to be happy, and some people are born with more of a glee gene. My oldest daughter, for example, is happy 99 percent of the time; when she’s sad or angry, the feelings are short-lived and easily forgotten. My mom and younger brother are both tenacious optimists and always have been. My dad is more of a worrier — my Eeyore tendencies came from him. (Nobody’s perfect, especially dear Dad and me, says Eeyore’s voice in my head.) But what I am slowly learning in this beautiful, messy, and at times heartbreaking life of mine is that happiness isn’t really something you chase; it’s not something you have or don’t have. Instead, being happy — like having a fit body, a sharp mind, or a healthy relationship — requires work and discipline.
“Since I’m not naturally a happy person, it has taken years of attitude adjustments to retrain myself to make lemonade out of life’s lemons,” says Lyndie Miller, a mom of two. “Now that I’m a mom and wife, I feel like I have people depending on me to bring a positive outlook. I sure don’t want my negative thoughts to rub off on my girls. I cope and make the lemonade by focusing on Jesus and his love. I have to believe that God is good, and he is in control, and he loves me.”
Lyndie’s attitude is admirable, and cultivating happiness is definitely worth the effort. Not only are Pollyannas, well, happier, but a growing body of research suggests that smiling more and experiencing feelings of contentment just might be the prescription for a longer, healthier life.
Here are five ways to help you feel happier every day:
Ditch the cynicism
Lyndie happens to be a dear friend with whom I’ve covered many miles during long weekend runs, and she has always struck me as both a happy and faithful person. It’s no surprise, then, that I approached her for this article and asked her to share her happiness secrets. But to my surprise, she admitted that, like me, she is not an innately happy person.
“My mom was always correcting me for having a negative attitude while growing up,” she says, “and I actually struggle with being overly critical, which can quickly steal happiness.”
Lyndie is one of the most generous, giving people I know, but her admission provides further evidence that it takes work to block out some of the more negative forces in our lives. Whereas cynicism and being critical are happiness sappers, grace, she says, is what fills you with joy.
“Show grace to yourself and others. No one is perfect, and when we hold ourselves and others to that standard, we will be robbed of joy and happiness,” Lyndie explains. “God has shown grace to us in loving us in our sin and sending Jesus to redeem us. We therefore get to show that same grace to the people in our lives. I don’t think I became a person with more joy until I really understood grace and God’s love for me. It is freeing.”
Opening yourself to grace isn’t just good for your soul — it’s good for your mind and body as well. People with high levels of cynical distrust may be more likely to develop dementia, according to a recent study published in an online issue of Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.
Cynical distrust, which is defined as the belief that others are mainly motivated by selfish concerns, has also been associated with other health issues, such as heart disease. Instead of expecting the worse, give people the benefit of the doubt, see the good in them, and extend grace generously.
Invest in relationships and experiences, not things
A wellspring of happiness for Lyndie is found in spending time with her family.
“My family is such a source of joy in my life. We also have an amazing community of friends that we love like family. Spending time over the table with good food, good drink, good conversation, and laughter [does] my heart so much good,” she says. “We weren’t created to live on an island, and we need people to make us smile, pick up our kids, bring us food when we’re sick, pray for us, and help carry our burdens. I believe we also receive happiness when we’re serving others in that way. It isn’t just about receiving help — it’s about giving it, too!”
What’s more, people who are materialistic are more likely to be depressed and unsatisfied, in part because they find it harder to be grateful for what they have, according to a study by Baylor University and business researchers.
People who surround themselves with community and friends and spend money on things like good food or travel, on the contrary, are more likely to report feelings of contentment and happiness.
Count your blessings instead of collecting grievances
Sometimes the Eeyore in me is tempted to focus on all that I lack or all that I can’t do instead of all that I have and all that I can do through Christ. But as cliché as it sounds, simply being mindful of my blessings — and even writing them down — goes a long way to help me accept my setbacks, see the silver lining, and make lemonade out of life’s lemons.
Nicci Taylor, a busy mom of four, agrees.
“I have days where I’m pulled in a million different directions, and my happiness seems so far away. I feel like all mothers juggling schedules, school dropoff and pickup, after-school activities, and bedtime routine can feel a little crazy and depleted,” she says. “These are the times I have to take a step back and just be thankful.”
My own mother has a debilitating disease called atypical trigeminal neuralgia. It is known as the “suicide disease” because a significant number of people who struggle with it attempt suicide. My mom will admit that it’s sometimes difficult to remain optimistic, but she always reminds herself of how much worse it could be and how good she has it, and she continually looks for ways to serve others in order to shift the focus away from herself. She’s a beautiful example of the suffering servant.
Like St. Paul taught us, she has learned to be content when life is easy and when it’s tough because God is bigger than any cross we bear. He reminds us in Philippians to be grateful for what we have — not miserable about what we want or what we once had.
“I have learned, in whatever state I am, to be content. I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound; in any and all circumstances, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and want. I can do all things in him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:11–13).
Don’t sweat the small stuff, but definitely notice it
Contentment isn’t as elusive as we might think. It’s also not found in great, mystical teachings that take years of study, the latest pharmaceuticals, or big, flashy things. Instead it’s found in the little things. I’ve spent a big chunk of my life embracing the “chicken little syndrome,” worrying the sky is going to fall down rather than noticing just how beautiful the sky actually is.
My husband has a wonderful way of not sweating the small stuff — such as being occasionally late to something — and he says almost all of it is small stuff. But at the same time, I’ve realized that noticing the little things adds up to a big, beautiful life. Happiness is right in front of us — in the cotton-candy clouds at sunset, dogwood blossoms in my own backyard, spontaneous hugs from my children, kitchen redolent with the aroma of roasting chicken at dinnertime as my daughter recounts her day, the quiet of the evening when my husband and I sit side-by-side, knees grazing, after the kids are asleep. We can’t spend a lifetime pursuing happiness by chasing some big goal we may or may not ever achieve — the slimmer waistline, the job promotion, the bigger house.
To start appreciating the small stuff, make a list of what moves you. What do you love? Make sure your own list includes some small things that are easy to do — such as decorating your home with fresh flowers — as well as things that might take more time to execute, such as living an authentic life or planning a family beach trip.
In the secular world, the holy grail of happiness might be physical beauty, good health, wealth, and success. But as Christians, we know this kind of happiness is fleeting, ephemeral, and never guaranteed. But joy — this is something different, something rooted in God’s unconditional and lasting love for us, and it’s ours for the taking.
Health, money, good skin — all of these can go away — but joy is a choice we can make every single day.
“I absolutely distinguish between joy and happiness, and I tend to focus on cultivating joy rather than happiness,” Lyndie explains. “We can have joy no matter the circumstances. I believe our joy is sourced through the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, and he is faithful and more powerful than our circumstances. When we rest in the fact that we deserved death — the worst that can happen — but Jesus took our place, we are free to live lives of joy and gratitude. I forget this often, which is why I need to be in church every week to be reminded of God’s grace and love for me!”
When life hurts
As someone who has struggled with clinical depression, I know firsthand how hard it can be to feel happy and choose joy. I also know that, as a Christian, it’s easy to feel like a faith failure and think if I just prayed more or harder, I could change the way I feel. However, clinical depression is a serious and very real health problem that demands medical attention, and sometimes no amount of prayer or “natural” remedies (such as exercise) can assuage the feelings of despair. I had to swallow my pride and get the help I needed. I felt ashamed at first, but my husband reminded me that in the same way someone who has diabetes needs insulin, people with depression or other mental health diseases might need medical intervention to live a healthy, whole life. This doesn’t make them weak; it makes them strong for realizing they need help.
“Depression is a spectrum, and full-on depression is when you experience things like impaired appetite, disrupted sleep, lack of concentration, and ruminative thoughts,” says Diane Tucker, professor of psychology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “People are different in terms of biology and the way our brains work; some people are prone to depression, and others are prone to high blood pressure. If it becomes a chronic problem, most cases can be helped by medication or psychotherapy.”
Organizations such as To Write Love on Her Arms, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and Freedom From Fear provide lists of resources and ways to find help. In addition, you can find a list of Catholic therapists at CatholicTherapists.com.
During his passion, Christ fell physically. But Jesus kept his faith and accepted help. When a Simon of Cyrene — whom you might find in the form of a supportive spouse, a therapist, or even medication — comes to your aid, accept that help.
The Happiness Project (Revised Edition) by Gretchen Rubin (HarperCollins Publishers, 2009, 2015)
Surviving Depression: A Catholic Approach by Kathryn J. Hermes, FSP (Pauline Books & Media, 2012)
Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love) by Pope Francis (text available at Vatican.va, 2016)