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Knowing What Makes You Happy Makes You Happy

If you were hypothetically asked to sit down and list 30 things that make you happy, what would your immediate response be?

A) “……………………………….” (← for the record, that’s no response, other than the sound of crickets chirping in the distance as you sit wide-eyed with a mild bit of panic going on under the surface.)

B) “Hm. I could list off maybe 5 things, but 30 sounds like a lot. Can I get it to you by Friday?” (No.)

C) “Can all 30 items be cocktails and candy?” (You know I really want to say yes, but the authorities would revoke my coaching certifications.)

D) “No problem! I actually have a list of my Top 100 Things That Make Me Happy laminated right here, beside the list of the Top 100 Ways I Annoy Everyone Around Me.” (I’m making fun of this guy but he’s probably happier than Ted Lasso.)

E) “Happiness is for heathens.” (Oh! Wow! I guess we’ll part ways here then?)

Being in tune with what brings you even the smallest bit of joy is the very first step towards actually experiencing the smallest bit of joy.

And yet you know what? Most of the clients I work with are dumbfounded when it comes to the seemingly simple question of What Makes You Happy. 86% answer A, with the rest sprinkled equally between B and C. Many are women who have spent years looking after other people’s happiness (The Children can be so greedy, can’t they?), and when it’s time to pause and think about their own sources of enjoyment — other than “BEING THE FUCK ALONE FOR 45 UNINTERRUPTED MINUTES PLEASE AND THANKS” — most are befuddled as to what the next bullet point might be on their list.

So we get to work and they tentatively admit to things that bring little beams of pleasure into their lives — in hushed tones, in case anyone overhears their radically selfish selves talk about reading fiction books in the bath every once in a while. Blasphemy!

Most people can cobble together a handful of things that deliver bits of delight (when lovingly harangued encouraged by moi), and then things fall off the rails. It usually looks like this:

Me: “Wow! So you like sketching — that sounds interesting. When was the last time you sketched?
Them: “Oh, well, it’s been a while.”
Me: “Like how long?”
Them: “Um, a year ago? Maybe five years.”
Me: “How much time would you need to have a sketching session?”
Them: “Half an hour would be enough to feel good.”
The conversation would then continue in a less interrogation-sounding-kind-of-way.

We’re barely conscious of what it takes to light us up, and then when we do clue into what those happiness-inducing things are, the truth hurts us that we’ve long since abandoned them. We’re busy, we’re tired, we’ve fallen off the hobby wagon, we’re ensnared by our habits (that suck the life out of us, without fail), and we’re largely uninspired. It’s time to get inspired — by looking inward to ourselves.

“It is only possible to live happily ever after on a day-to-day basis.” –Margaret Wander Bonanno

Don’t you love the idea that your life is just a collection of moments, all strung together to make minutes and hours and days and years? That you can choose to make the next five minutes of your life pretty great, if you want to? The more in touch you are with what makes you happy, the likelier you are to make each five-minute increment of your life something that delivers on positive emotions… something that magnifies your spirit.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it:

The hypothetical question from the beginning of our conversation is no longer hypothetical.

On the left side of the page, write out 30 things that make you happy. The more trivial, the better (see below for examples).

On the right side of the page, indicate how much time each activity requires.

Hot tip #1: try to make at least 20 of the items on the list do-able in an average day of your life — so they can’t all about traveling to far-flung places (unless doing that is an average part of your life, and if so, can I join you on your corporate jet?).

Hot tip #2: try to make at least half of the items on your list less than an hour, so you can actually fit them into your day and not have to take vacation time just to enjoy your life.

Examples of happy tidbits from a random assortment of clients:

  • “Walking my dog to the lake and back”
  • “Walking aimlessly around the aisles at Target, with the kids at home”
  • “Reading a summery book on my rooftop patio”
  • “Making playlists with new music I find online”
  • “CrossFit class”
  • “Tending to my orchids”
  • “Smoking a cigar on a Sunday afternoon”
  • “Making a special dinner with the good plates and real napkins”
  • “Looking at photos from a year ago today, two years ago on this day, etc.”
  • “Watching 3-minute animal videos online”
  • “Meditating and then having an Ayurvedic cup of tea”
  • “Going to the driving range and listening to the driver hit the ball on a good swing”
  • “Writing my novel, even in tiny increments at a time”
  • “Playing a Van Halen song on the guitar exactly like the band”
  • “Sending a card in the mail to a family member or friend”
  • “Getting a pedicure while listening to a podcast”
  • “Afternoon delights” 🙂
  • “Performing a random act of kindness, like buying a magazine for the caregivers at my mom’s senior living center”
  • “Drinks with friends at new places in town, even the dive bars”

Here’s a quick coaching chestnut:

Coaching ChestnutI suggest you have this list of things you like to do at the ready, so that when you have a little window of time between meetings or carpool pickups or eyebrow threadings or whatever it is you do, you’re prepared to help yourself get happy.
Here’s what I mean: if I have a gap in my schedule of 15 minutes, and I’m at a loss for how to best use my time, I consult the list I’ve sketched out on my iPad of things that make me feel happy and alive. Yes, I could totally just check my email (which is what I do 8.3 times out of 10)… but sometimes I stick up for my own happiness and check the list. I might call my Dad, do my neck stretch routine, go online and look at fonts, snuggle with one of our cats, and the list goes on. What things on your list can you activate if you have a 5-minute break in the action today? What about a 30-minute gap? What “bigger time ticket” items on your list can you schedule into the near-term horizon?

Every increment of time in your life matters.

We can choose to be happy if we let ourselves. It usually starts with identifying what does the trick, then getting specific about doing those things instead of reflexively checking your inbox. Not knowing leads to not doing, so write out your list of things (and let it grow over time so you have a Compendium of All the Things that Make Me Happy) and do them. Daily. Don’t underestimate the impact of a 5-minute activity that brings a smile to your face.
I’m going to go pet Ralphie’s belly now. What are you going to do?

Jodi Wellman

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