Happiness is an Inside Job

June 15, 2018

People are just as happy as they make up their minds to be. 

Abraham Lincoln 


A very ‘together’ and independent ninety-two year old lady was moving into a nursing home. Since she was legally blind and her husband of seventy years had passed away, the move was her only option. She waited in the lobby of the facility for a long time before finally being told her room was ready. As she was escorted down the corridor, her attendant described the room, down to the curtains hung on the windows.


“I love it,” the lady enthused.


“But you haven’t even seen the room yet. Just wait.” The attendant responded.


“This doesn’t have anything to do with it,” she replied. “Happiness is something you decide on ahead of time. Whether I like my room doesn’t depend on how the furniture is arranged. It’s how I arrange my mind.”


John Maxwell, often called America’s number one leadership authority, is a best-selling author, coach and speaker in North America. For over 20 years, I have been using two or three of his books as resources when doing personal coaching sessions. In Today Matters, he shares this story:


After my wife, Margaret, and I had been married for four or five years, we went to a conference for pastors where I had been asked to be one of the speakers. Margaret had also agreed to be a breakout session for spouses. Speaking is not a passion for her as it is for me. She does a good job, but she doesn’t really enjoy it that much. I wanted to support her, so I attended her session. During the Q and A time, a woman stood up and asked, “Does John make you happy?”


I have to say, I was really looking forward to hearing Margaret’s answer. I’m an attentive husband, and I love Margaret dearly. What kind of praise would she lavish on me?


“Does John make me happy?” she considered. “No, he doesn’t.” I looked to see where the closest exit was. “The first two or three years we were married,” she continued, “I thought it was John’s job to make me happy. But he didn’t. He wasn’t mean to me or anything. He’s a good husband. But nobody can make another person happy. That was my job.” As a young newlywed in her early twenties, she figured out something some people never learn. Each of us must take responsibility for our own attitude.


Most people are searching for happiness outside of themselves. That’s a fundamental mistake. Happiness is something you are, and it comes from the way you think.


Happiness starts with you. Not with your relationships, not with your job, not with your circumstances, but with you. The secret of being happy is accepting where you are in life and making the most out of every day. Mandy Hale writes: “It’s letting go of what you think your life is supposed to look like and celebrating it for everything that is is.” As Tom Wilson states in one of his Ziggy cartoons, “Everything doesn’t have to come up roses…I’m happy with dandelions.” Johnny Cash never had to look far to find happiness. When asked for his description of paradise, he replied, “This morning, with her (June Carter), having coffee.”


Artur Rubinstein adds: “I live by one principle: Enjoy life with no conditions! People say, “If I had your health, if I had your money, oh, I would enjoy myself.” It is not true. I would be happy if I were lying sick in a hospital bed. It must come from the inside. That is the one thing I hope to have contributed to my children, by example and by talk: to make no conditions, to understand that life is a wonderful thing and to enjoy it every day, to the full.”


John Lennon writes: “When I was five years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy.’ They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life.”


Happiness is something you are, and it comes from the way you think.


In her book, Hot Lemon and Honey, Catharine DeVrye writes, “We all know individuals who say, “When I graduate, then I’ll be happy.” “When the mortgage is paid, then I’ll be happy.” “When the kids have left home, then I’ll be happy.” “When I retire, then I’ll be happy.” When, when, when. Then, then, then. Then they die, having seldom been happy.


Happiness is not something you postpone for the future; it is something you design for the present. I like the old proverb, “The foolish man seeks happiness in the distance, the wise man grows it under his feet.” Happiness comes when we stop complaining about the troubles we have and offer thanks for all the troubles we don’t have. Stop looking for reasons not to be happy and start living for reasons why you are. Oscar Wilde adds, “With freedom, flowers, and the moon, who could not be happy?” Growing up, “Happy Hours” were very much in style.  I guess my question would now be, “Why limit happiness to an hour?”


Be happy. You never know how much time you have left. I have always wondered why so many people save things for special occasions. We are all guilty of it, buying a new special garment and letting it hang in your closet, because you’re saving it for a special occasion. The problem is that the special occasion may never come. Life is short and tomorrow is promised to no-one. Every day on this earth should be considered special, so why not dress for it? P.S.- they are clothes and they are meant to be worn. Being alive is a special occasion.


A father became upset about the time his seven-year old son took to get home from school. He determined to make the trip himself to see how long it should take to cover the distance. He concluded that twenty minutes maximum was enough, but his son was taking well over an hour.


Finally, the father decided to walk with his son. After the trip, the man said, “The twenty minutes I thought was reasonable was right, but I failed to consider such important things as a side trip to track down a trail of ants, or a stop to watch a man fix a flat tire, or the time it took to swing around a half dozen telephone poles, or how much time it took for a boy to get acquainted with two stray dogs. In short, I forgot what it was like to be seven years old.” Remember when you were a kid and were happy for no reason. Be that again. If you need a reminder of what happiness looks like, watch children playing together. There is no such thing as ‘age appropriate’ when it comes to play. At every age play is not a luxury, it should be a necessity. Be the first one to make footprints in new snow. My partner and I often go on drives after it rains in search of rainbows.


There was a boy, whose family was very wealthy. One day his father took him on a trip to the country, where he aimed to show his son how poor people lived. So they arrived to a farm of a very poor family. They spent several days there. On their return, the father asked his son, did he like the trip.


“Oh, it was great, dad” the boy replied. “Did you notice how poor people live?” “Yeah, I did,” said the boy. The father asked his son to tell him in more details about the impressions of the trip.


“Well, we have only one dog, and they have four of them. In our garden, there is a pool, while they have a river with no end. We’ve got expensive lanterns, but they have stars above their heads at night. We have a patio, and they have the whole horizon. We have only a small piece of land, while they have endless fields. We buy food, but they grow it. We have a high fence for protection of our property, and they don’t need it, as their friends protect them.”


The father was stunned. He could not say a word.  Then the boy added: “Thank you dad, for letting me see how poor we are.”


The story shows that the true wealth as well as happiness is not measured by material things. Happiness is not for sale in any store. We can’t buy happiness. We can’t fill the void with stuff. It doesn’t work that way. No matter how much stuff we buy, that stuff won’t make you happy. At best, it may pacify us momentarily.


Happiness is not something you postpone for the future; it is something you design for the present.


Joyce Bothers adds: “What’s important is how frequently you’re happy, not how intensely. Those peaks of happiness-getting swept off your feet, scaling a mountain, winning a bundle at Las Vegas are nice, but happiness comes down to being quietly content most of the time.”


Jim Clemmer in his book, Growing @ The Speed of Change, talks about the ‘speed index’ in an ever accelerating world: “Ten years ago I bought a summer toy: a two-seat roadster convertible. At first, my wife, Heather, was just indulging me when she agreed to go along for a few rides. Fairly quickly though, she got into the joy of cruising along tree-lined country roads in the open air as we chatted, basking in the sunshine, and sang along to our favorite music. On warm weather ‘cruising days,’ when I am heading out in business, instead of blazing the fast lane of the expressway, I have found a variety of quiet backroad alternatives. It does take extra time for these trips. When I do live in the slow lane, I am struck by how often we choose the much faster superhighway, where the top is up, the wind doesn’t ruffle our hair (or my expanding forehead), and our scenery is roaring trucks and tailgaters who are closer that they appear. Too often we’re so intent on getting to our next destination that we miss the joy of the trip.” Pat (my partner) and I, when planning little getaways will actually map out backroad country road alternatives and just sit back and enjoy the drive. And yes, it does take more time. Anonymous adds: “The really happy man is the one who can enjoy the scenery on a detour.”


I want you to read the following paragraphs about unhappy and happy people, what they do and don’t do. And I want you to concentrate on each item listed. Give this some time. No speed reading. Spend some time reviewing each characteristic. Do any of these resonate with you? Are there any significant changes you need to make?


Things that unhappy people often do: Compare themselves to others, complain, blame, judge others, make up excuses, dwell on the past, feel sorry for themselves, listen to gossip, wait for life to improve, procrastinate, hold grudges, hide from change, avoid risk, view failure as the end of the world, live by other’s expectations, try to please everyone, depend too much on others, demand perfection in themselves and others. If your life is a canvas, and you are the painter of your own mood, your days are only as grey as you allow them to be. Eight-year-old Hannah Cheatem has some sound advice for us: “If you’re feeling blue, try painting yourself a different color.” Life is about using the whole box of crayons.


The really happy man is the one who can enjoy the scenery on a detour.


Things that happy people do: design their own life, have a growth mindset, exercise self-discipline, practice self-care, savor the moment, manage expectations of self and others, surround themselves with the right people, learn new skills, avoid negative self-talk, listen well, look for the good in every situation, cultivate optimism, view problems as challenges, are open minded, are busy but not rushed, step out of their comfort zones, avoid social comparison, develop an attitude of gratitude, count their blessings, practice acts of kindness, forgive both self and others, help less fortunate, laugh more, go to sleep when they are tired, develop strategies for coping, and savor life’s joys. These are just some of the factors that create happiness.


Pretty well all of these positive characteristics will be covered in some detail in future blogs.


Let’s close this blog, with this very touching thought written by Drew Silvern:


“There are days when I wake up, strap on my portable CD player, and walk Beasley, my pet Labrador Retriever, for an hour along Sunset Cliffs. Often I feel an incredible joy that I am able to do this. It’s a cancer dividend, and I always offer a prayer of thanksgiving at the midpoint. In my first life before being diagnosed with cancer, the morning walk would probably just have been another thing to get done before work. Cancer has given me a new appreciation for life I would never have felt without it.


In a way, my cancer came along at the worst time, and maybe the best. It made the past the past and the present the present. It healed most of the old scars and propelled me beyond regret or family resentments. It brought clarity to my life and a sudden ability to see the glass as half-full.”


Previous month: You Choose Your Attitude.

Next month: Develop an Attitude of Gratitude. 


 I hope you are working with these exercises in each of the monthly blogs. They are time proven to be effective as you learn more about yourself and life in general.


Make a list of things that make you happy. Make a list of things you do every day. Compare the lists. Adjust accordingly.


This exercise is always a fun challenge. Pick one day each week. Your assignment is: Be the reason someone smiles today. I like to live this on a daily basis.


Exercise: What Brings You Joy? In all my years of facilitating workshops and providing personal coaching, this little exercise is one of the most effective things you can do to lower stress levels and to maintain positive mental health.


Take an 8 ½ x 11 piece of paper. Draw a line down the middle of the page from top to bottom, then divide the page in two by drawing a horizontal line across the page from left to right. This should leave you with four equal quadrants. Label the top left quadrant 1-5 minutes, the top right quadrant is 5-30 minutes, the bottom left quadrant is 30 minutes to ½ day, and the bottom right quadrant is ½ day or longer. Now, just enter all activities that really bring you joy in the appropriate quadrant. Shopping, playing golf, having coffee with a friend, playing cards, going out for breakfast, daycations, staycations, vacations, etc. If you are like most people you will easily fill in three of the quadrants, but there will be less things listed in the 1-5 minute quadrant. Yet, this is the key to this exercise. Brainstorm for as many ideas as you can to fill this quadrant. Carry a few special photos with you of special people, or vacations. Eat a few strawberries. Carry some special touchstones to remind of special memories. Start a Sudoku. Work on a puzzle. Phone a friend or family member. Play a computer game. But limit it to 5 minutes maximum. Get in the habit of intentionally taking these 5 minute breaks.


Exercise: For each day this month, decide every morning that you are in a good mood. Begin your day with the attitude that something special is about to happen this day. Reflect back at the end of the day.


Exercise: John Denver sings, “Sunshine on my shoulders makes me happy.” What is happiness to you?  Here are a couple of examples:

•  Happiness is not having to set the alarm for the next day.

•  Happiness is a warm puppy.

•  Spelling ‘HAPPY’ is a scrabble game (15 points, 45 on a triple word score)




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