Happy and healthy go hand in hand. Happier people are healthier. They live longer, have less chronic disease, become sick less often, and if they do get sick, they get better faster. Being happy is clearly in our best interest, and we do have some control over our own happiness. We control approximately 40 percent of our happiness. Another 50 percent appears to be genetic, and the last 10 percent is situational. Interestingly, the situational piece is quite small. I should know, after dealing with my own cancer diagnosis — one of the worst situations person can find herself in — I learned how to be happier than I was before my diagnosis.
While it’s hard to define happiness precisely, and it is likely different for everyone, for me it is a general sense of contentment and the ability to enjoy myself regardless of what I am doing. This does not mean one should never be sad, frustrated or angry. Even though I have found a way to be happier with cancer than I was before, at times I am still mad, sad and discouraged that it happened to me. In fact, attempting to be happy all the time does the opposite, makes us less happy.
So, how can you be happier? There are many ways, but I would like to share a few of the things that have helped me. Of course, most people know that a healthy diet and exercise help us to feel better and thus happier. But numerous other little things that people do every day can increase happiness. This is true even for people who are in the midst of much personal turmoil.
Make your bed. The first incredibly small, seemingly trivial thing you can do is make your bed in the morning. You’ll start your day feeling accomplished and at the end of the day, no matter what happened, you can return to the peace and order of a well-made bed. Gretchen Rubin, a New York times bestselling author on happiness and habits, says outer order leads to inner calm.
Even if the rest of your space is a mess, a made bed can be a sanctuary of peace, calm and order. Admiral William H. McRaven gave a commencement speech at the University of Texas, among the life lessons he shared was making your bed. He said, “Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that the little things in life matter. If you can’t do the little things right, you’ll never be able to do the big things right. And if by chance you have a miserable day, you will come home to a bed that is made — that you made. And a made bed gives you encouragement that tomorrow will be better.”
I am not always the tidiest person, and I started making my bed, in part, because I kept losing things in my unmade bed. But I think it does indeed make a difference. I do start the day feeling happier and when I return, at the end of the day, and see that my bed is made, it surprises me how peaceful, relaxed and happy I feel to see it. Now that I see the benefits of making my bed, I feel inspired to tackle the overwhelming job of cleaning and organizing the rest of my house.
Know yourself. Knowing yourself sets you up for success. If you are not a morning person and you know you are not a morning person, don’t plan to get up at early every day to exercise or meditate or clean your house. You will likely fail and as a result, be unhappy. I struggle with this as I am a night owl, and I have to get up earlier than I would like to get my child off to school. Fortunately for me, my child is not an early riser either and adhering to the school schedule has me getting up only about 30 minutes earlier than I would like. The 30-minute difference has been a painful transition at times, but now I can enjoy the extra time in the morning.
Feel grateful. Remember all the things you do have instead of what you don’t have. A recent study showed that people who wrote down three things they were grateful for every day for a week felt happier, slept better and were more likely to engage in healthy behaviors than those who did not. And these benefits lasted for six months!
Writing regularly in a journal about happy events, or even not so happy events, in your life can have similar effects. During my cancer treatment, I started a journal of my experience. It is one of the things that is regularly recommended for cancer patients, and I can see why. Dealing with a cancer diagnosis and treatment brings up a lot of stuff. Journaling was invaluable for me to process all that was happening. Now, almost two years after finishing treatment, it’s much less intense, but I am still doing it. I discovered that I enjoy writing, and that makes me happy.
At first, I would write about what was frustrating. My intention was to vent about all the things that aggravated me, but in the process of writing, I would end up finding something positive in the sea of negativity. As I was writing in my journal and complaining about all the crappy things that had happened, I realized I wanted to think and write about all the positive, good things that occur in my life. I didn’t want to complain anymore. Unlike the making my bed habit, which provides instant gratification, the benefit of journaling is more subtle, but without a doubt it has helped me to be happier. If you are interested you can read my breast cancer journal here.
Live in the present. Stop and smell the roses. Being able to savor and enjoy today contributes to being happier tomorrow. Here is a great quote from the Dalai Lama, when asked what surprised him most about humanity: “Man. Because he sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future; he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived. “
So often we get caught up in looking for a big win when instead it is the little things that can add up to make a difference. Look for ways to make small, positive changes in your life. See if they can increase your happiness and ultimately your health.