Chasing Happiness: 7 Steps to a Happier and Less Anxious Life (Part One)

This post is part one of the three-part “Chasing Happiness” series.  Click here to view the rest of the series.

Anxiety may be a part of your life, but it does not have to be a huge, permanent and perpetual part. It’s not like your height or your age where you’re stuck with it forever. It’s more like your hair color or your weight that can be changed as you see fit with hair dye and a healthy eating plan. Likewise, you have a number of ways to switch your focus from thoughts or situations that bring anxiety to those that can bring joy.

This three-part series, “Chasing Happiness,” will show you seven steps you can start to take TODAY to help bring relaxed happiness and confidence back into your life. While you cannot simply quash out parts of life that make you anxious, you can actively fill the other parts with activities, situations, thoughts and other good things that make you happy. Filling your lives with more joy will leave less room for anxiety, fear, depression and those other nagging feelings that can leave you staring terrorized at the ceiling all night.

Let’s start with three quick tips that can help alleviate anxiety from your life.

1) Focus on the positives.

Focusing on the positive, rather than the negative, may take a little mental training, but with enough practice it can become second nature Let’s use the morning rush-hour traffic jam an example. You’re once again stuck in a slow-moving stream of cars on your way to work and you immediately start glancing at the clock, fidgeting with the radio, and reviewing all the crap piled up on your desk waiting for you. You then start to imagine your boss chiding you for being late, even though you are still running on schedule, and then tell yourself you hate the job anyway and who cares if you get fired.

Your day has suddenly become a hell hole and shall remain that way unless you switch your mode of thinking.

Rather than reacting in frustration, fear, and generating all those other negative feelings that can come with rush-hour traffic, try to look at the positive aspects of the situation. You’re still running on time, having lots of stuff in your inbox at work means you and your job are needed, and your car is fully equipped with the air conditioning and heat you need to keep you comfortable while you’re waiting in traffic.

Your car is paid off, the gas tank is full and your boss is not one to chide you when you get there. In fact, he’s always thrilled to see you. You don’t really hate your job. You’re just not a big fan of the morning commute. Nobody is.

You can even go a bit further and think of ways to make your commute less stressful and actually enjoyable. The radio always stinks, but since you know you have idle time and a CD player, why not make a music compilation of your favorite music to enjoy on the way to work or start listening to audio books or empowerment CDs? Time spent sitting at the stop lights can be an ideal time to compile a quick gratitude list.

Any given person, place, thing or situation has both positive and negative elements in it, or at least what we perceive to positive and negative. It’s up to you to choose which one gets more attention in your head. Here’s a hint: you’ll be happier focusing on the positive.

How do it:

Don’t fret; the lesson does not have to include spending your life in rush-hour traffic. Start with something as simple as asking yourself every night what you enjoyed most about your day. Get a journal and write it down, keeping a running tally on the greatest moments of each 24-hour period.

Once you make a habit of the practice and realize you’re going to need an entry every night, you will  consciously start to focus on positive things throughout the day. After all, you don’t want to leave a day blank!

Clever quote to hang on your fridge: Focus on the daisies instead of the manure. 

2) Kill off the ‘shoulds’

Nothing confuses and distresses a person more than suffering from a big slate of “shoulds.”

The “shoulds” come into play with the mindset that you “should” be thinking, feeling or doing something just because, well, you should.

You should chitchat around the work water cooler because every other employee makes it a habit. You should eat at bistros every Saturday because that’s what’s expected of upwardly mobile professionals. You should go out, get drunk, and make a fool of yourself every New Year’s Eve because that’s what everyone else does.

Do all these shoulds even make you happy? If not, then cut them out.

Here’s where you can get into even deeper trouble by engaging in an activity you believe you should be doing, hating it, but then telling yourself you should be happy doing it. Your mind can have a field day with this one, with negative thinking snaking its way into your brain.

It tells you there must be something wrong with you since you should be enjoying whatever it is you hate doing. It says you should know things you have no way of knowing. It tells you to run for help since you must be warped as you’re not “should-ing” your life in the proper manner.

Kill it swiftly. Kill it now.

How do it:

One helpful tool for killing off the shoulds is simply asking yourself: “Who says?!”

Who says you should prefer a raucous New Year’s Eve falling sideways into traffic when you’d prefer pizza, a DVD, and your couch and cocker spaniel? Who says you should water cooler pow-wows just because Linda and Tom and Sylvia enjoy them?

Exactly who came up with this ridiculous list?

Despite the zillions of shoulds that invade our world, no author has firmly stepped forward to take credit for all this mayhem born from the senseless set of “rules.” That means you do not need to follow them.

Clever quote to hang on your fridge: Discover you and then just be it.

Please note the quote comes with two caveats.

Caveat No. 1: The above quote is actually the easiest thing in the world. It can also seem dang near impossible.

Caveat No. 2: If you can pinpoint the exact origin of a particular should, chances are it either came from: a.) an advertisement that said you “should” buy something, or b.) or people who had the same shoulds drummed into their own heads generation after generation with no explanation as to why the should is a should in the first place but they mindlessly passed it down anyway. Eeek!

3) Stop grabbing for the external stuff.

Retail therapy. Working ourselves to the bone for more money to buy a bigger house, another car, a new boat. America is immersed in a black hole of materialism thinking all sorts of external possessions are what will really make us happy. We need more stuff!

Here comes the cliché example of the divorced dad who showers his children with gifts because he simply doesn’t have the time or inclination to actually spend a day with them. He thinks he can buy their love with new bicycles, strappy sandals, the latest iPod.

Even if retail therapy works for amassing quite a shoe collection and can lift spirits for a few minutes, once the thrill of the new stuff wanes, we are back exactly where we started. We’re still seeped in misery, or at least unhappy, but now we have a whopper of a credit card bill to boot.

Besides, all work and no play not only make for a dull boy, it also breeds anxiety, headaches and time away from doing things we love.

If you think back to moments that truly made you happy, chances are it was not the stuff at all. Sure, a happy outing may have involved a new boat, but it wasn’t the boat that made the activity happy per se. The joy came from time with family and friends, enjoying each other’s company and living in the moment. You could have done that for free on the shore.

How to do it:

Spending time with friends and family can always be free. You don’t need a brand new boat, a lavishly overpriced restaurant, or an expensive night on the town to enjoy the company of the ones you love. Grab your bike or take a nature walk with your best friend or sister. Plan a self-guided tour of your city’s historic or haunted areas. Play a game of cards. Bring a picnic to the park. Quality time, connections and togetherness come from your heart and soul, never from your wallet.

Clever quote to hang on your fridge: Hugs are free.

This post is part one of the three-part “Chasing Happiness” series.  Click here to view the rest of the series.