The Choice to Be Happy

The name of this blog is “Food is Love”.  The act of cooking and preparing food is how I show love for myself and others.  It is something that makes me happy and an integral part of my self-care practice.  I believe that happiness is a daily practice and I was recently asked to speak to the class of 2019 graduating seniors at Allendale Columbia.  I thought that the topic of happiness was the most worthwhile topic I could speak about. While the speech does not touch on “food”, per se, I wanted to share it here on my blog.  Below is a general outline of what I spoke about.

I started the speech by sharing an exercise I did with the same seniors in an earlier survey. I had asked them the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I asked them to respond the question from the perspective of how they answered as little children, and how they would answer it NOW, as a graduating senior.  The answers were varied and super interesting.

Some 5 year old examples; a police officer, a Rock Star, Astronaut, lots of budding veterinarians at age 5, my grandma or a singer, a ballerina because of dance moms.

As seniors, there were some noticeable differences, the responses now sound like; a lawyer, rich, I want to be a filmmaker, detective or something with law, a museum curator, accountant, teacher, writer, a few “not sures” and one “I don’t want to grow up”.

This all led me to the first line of the United States Declaration of Independence.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The United States Declaration of Independence

This is arguably the most important text in all of American history. When you hear those words, what sticks out to you, what word doesn’t seem to belong?

To me, the word that almost seems to be an accident is the word “happiness”. It’s also the thing “we” as a culture and society seem to avoid talking about overtly. That concerns me. Why did our founding fathers include happiness? What did they mean?

I did some research, it doesn’t mean to chase happiness, to go seek it, to go after it. That’s not at all what the founding fathers meant. According to historian, Arthur Schlesinger, in his essay titled “The Lost Meaning of “The Pursuit of Happiness” written 1964, he said

“that at the time of the Declaration’s composition, “the pursuit of happiness” did not mean chasing or seeking it, but actually practicing happiness, the experience of happiness — not just chasing it but actually catching it”

So, the next question is how do you practice or experience happiness? I would like to present all of you with this core belief I have. That happiness is a choice. We have control of our own happiness. Happiness is not a destination, it’s not “when I get this, or when I get that I will be happy.” or “I will be happy if or I will be happy when”…fill in the blank.

Happiness is not conditional.

Happiness is something we need to consciously choose each and every day. And, I have a few suggestions and tips.

Tip 1:

Find some humans, a smallish group, and make an effort to deeply connect with them. Harvard is currently running the longest longitudinal study on happiness. The most significant finding in this study that started in 1938 is that deep meaningful connections, relationships, had the most impact on not just overall happiness but also with mental and physical health and life expectancy.

This is also a time when you need to leverage your power to connect when you see a friend who is pushing away or angry. It’s not a time to disengage, but a time to reach out, to lean in and be curious. Be with them, don’t attempt to fix them or whatever is going on. Just be there. Reach out and let them know you are there.

Tip 2:

Set boundaries. What does this mean? Simply put it means you decide what’s ok and not ok and that’s ok! Boundaries protect you! Boundaries keep you safe!

  • Learn to say NO, and to put your feelings first. Someone else’s feelings are not more important or valid than yours!

Tip 3:

I believe we need to rethink a few words that we say to ourselves and to others and I have some replacements to use instead.

  • Always   – Never
    • They are absolutes and nothing is ever an absolute.
    • Replace those words with “sometimes” or “most of the time”
  • Should
    • The word should feels so heavy. I should, you should. It feels judgy, and almost shame filled. Do your best to replace “should” with, “I must” or “get to” depending on the context. The words “could” or “would” also work well.
  • Sorry
    • We are a culture that over apologizes for everything. I walk around Wegmans and people are apologizing for shopping. Replace sorry with “thank you” or “excuse me”.
    • So, if you are late for something, instead of saying “sorry”, thank them for their patience. (Thank you)
    • At Wegmans, instead of apologizing that you need them to move, so you can reach the eggs, say “excuse me”. (Excuse me)
    • And, when you do actually get the opportunity to really and truly apologize, do it right. A real apology isn’t followed by the word “but” Just own it! A real apology is more than words, it’s changed behavior.

Tip 4:

Prioritize a self care practice of some kind. Unselfishly address your own needs as a priority. If you can’t take care of yourself, you can’t take care of others.

  • Airplane analogy – you know when the flight attendant says to put the oxygen mask on yourself before someone else? That’s so you can better assist others. That is a great metaphor for life.
  • Be ok with NOT being ok. It’s expected, you are human. Think of distress as an opportunity to learn. Pain and discomfort are information. Ask yourself why is this bothering me?
  • Sometimes self care is caring for others. It’s also ok if other people are not ok. It’s not your job to fix everything for everyone all the time. And, you actually can’t fix someone else’s problem.
    • Find ways to see someone else’s distress as an opportunity to connect (See Tip 1).

When I was little I wanted to be Luke Skywalker when I grew up. As a graduating senior, I decided I wanted to be a stockbroker when I grew up. That didn’t work out so well for me. I left high school with two thoughts in my head, to play lacrosse and be a stockbroker. That turned out to be a catastrophic failure. After essentially failing out of school in two years with a fantastic GPA of 1.3, (I did score quite a few goals) I decided it was time to restart. In that restart, I worked full time in my uncles pizza shop and went to school full time. The decision to follow up on what I really enjoyed led me to being a teacher. I didn’t fully understand it all in that moment, why teaching was the path I chose. It felt me more like me, more tangible. In retrospect, it feels a lot more like Luke Skywalker. Someone who cares about and helps others.

So, back to the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?”, there was one student response that I really hope can apply to all of us, and that is “ When I grow up, I want to be happy!”

The list of tips and suggestions that I shared with you earlier, those things are not a silver bullet or panacea or a linear path to happiness. They are suggestions, and they may not work for you the way they have worked for me or for someone else.

When I think about the core intention to include the word happiness in the Declaration of Independence, the practice of happiness sticks out to me. I think we take the word practice word for granted. To me practicing anything, means it takes time to master. Think about the last time you learned something new, or when you first learned how to read, or ride a bike. I am sure for most of us, those things didn’t just happen, it took practice. Practice includes, failure, stress, frustration, WORK, growth, and ultimately success. What works for you may not work for everyone, and finding your own unique path, skills, and strategies, is all part of the practice. The first task is to set your intention to be happy in the first place.

The last question I have, if you believe that happiness is a choice, what are you waiting for?

Congrats to the all of the graduating seniors to 2019!!

Schlesinger, Arthur M. “The Lost Meaning of ‘The Pursuit of Happiness.’” The William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 21, no. 3, 1964, pp. 326–327. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1918449.

P.S – And, for an added bonus, I received an awesome hat for speaking!

2 thoughts on “The Choice to Be Happy

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