Happy New Year! Every January 1, in a blur of champagne and party chatter, we toss out those three little words like so much glittering confetti. They’re as much a staple of the annual milestone as Dick Clark and the Times Square ball. But how many of us take the time to think about what the phrase truly means? What is happiness, anyway? What does it look like? And–most important of all–how can we achieve it?
I think I have the answer to this question.
We’re all longing for happiness. We think we can achieve it by losing ten pounds or
kicking a bad habit or making more money, and that’s why we vow to do those things
year after year after year.
But I’ve found that true happiness isn’t about those kinds of achievements. Instead,
it comes down to learning to love yourself. And there are some very specific things
you can start to do now to move in that direction.
If you get the feeling that our nation’s overall happiness level is deteriorating,
you’re right. According to a 2007 Reuter’s.com article
(http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSL1550309820070615), a study done by Italian
researchers found that Americans are less happy these days than they were thirty
years ago. Culprits include longer working hours and a decline in social
I have struggled with depression and anxiety for much of his life. And while I know
that everyone’s path is different, I believe the real key for all of us is
self-love. When we can stop beating ourselves up over our mistakes and start
celebrating all the things we do right, we can finally be happy. We must change the
way we think about ourselves, and for some of us that’s a major journey–but the
good news is there are some specific “shortcuts” that will get us there faster.
I’ve given it a lot of thought and I’ve come up with ten simple things people can
do to become happier in 2011. You don’t have to do all of them at once–just focus
on the three or four that resonate most with you and do those.
Todd’s Top Ten Tips for a Happier 2011…and Beyond:
· If you don’t exercise, start. You already know exercise keeps you healthy and
helps you control your weight. But did you know it’s also a natural antidepressant?
I truly believe in the mood-boosting powers of exercise. And you don’t need to run a
marathon to reap these benefits (even though I actually did run one–the Boston
You can decide that 2011 is the year you will finally make exercise a part of your
life. Even a twenty minute walk every other day is great for both your body and mind
if you do it consistently. And the good news is you can do it with your spouse or
kids–and spending more time with them is another shortcut to happiness.
· Be easier on yourself. A lot of New Year’s resolutions are little more than thinly
disguised vehicles for beating yourself up. (“I’m too fat–this year I will lose
twenty pounds!” Sound familiar?) There’s nothing wrong with self-improvement, but it
needs to come from a place of love. Yes, you need to love and forgive yourself for
your mistakes and shortcomings…and that’s tough for many Americans.
The American work ethic has made our country great, but it has also made us
chronically unhappy. Many of us have a we’re-never-good-enough-or-doing-enough
mindset that’s antithetical to happiness. It’s not easy to change these ingrained
thought patterns, but it can be done. And becoming aware of this tendency is the
· Find some way this year to put your gifts and talents to work. Talent wants to
express itself. If your job doesn’t allow it to do so, find something that does.
(Yes, it would be better to find a job that lets you do what you’re great at–but
let’s face it, that’s not always possible in a bad economy!)
Playing to your strengths brings real happiness. And when you combine those
strengths with a desire to do something good, it’s a double whammy. For example, if
you’re a store manager with a flair for writing, and you also love animals, you
might offer to pen a weekly newspaper column for a local dog or cat rescue group.
· Build richer relationships with loved ones. Is your marriage running on autopilot?
What about your relationship with your kids? Do you come home from work and sit in
front of the computer while they play in another room (or worse, watch TV)? Too many
Americans fail to engage their families in a meaningful way.
Not only do you miss out on the joy your loved ones could be bringing you, on top of
that you end up feeling guilty about neglecting them. Decide that 2011 is the year
you’re going to improve these relationships. It is really about spending more time
with the most important people in your life doing what they want to be doing with
· Celebrate your spouse. And speaking of your marriage…how is it? If it’s mired in
negativity or characterized by bickering or tension, you’ll never be happy. (In
fact, if you’re married to a negative person who drags you down, you’d be best
served by ending the union–but only if you’ve tried everything else.) The good news
is that it may not take a lot of effort to dramatically change the tenor of your
If you’ve gotten to a place where you resent your spouse or feel chronically angry
with him or her, only you can change that. Make an effort to speak gently and
kindly. Surprise her with a small gift, or do one of his chores, or pick up
something special for dinner. Random acts of kindness are always powerful, and
that’s even truer inside a marriage.
· Let the people you appreciate know it. Yes, of course you need to let your close
friends and family members know how you feel about them. That’s a given. But what
about your coworkers? Your barber? Your child’s teacher? The neighbor who keeps an
eye on your house when you’re away? Most of us are too self-conscious to make a big
fuss over the people who are sort of on the periphery of our lives but who
nonetheless make a big impact–and changing that is a key component of happiness.
Be generous with hugs. I’ve always been a hugger, and while people may be taken
aback at first, they quickly come to appreciate my openness. If you’re just not the
hugging type, that’s fine: Try thank-you notes instead. Letting people know how
grateful you are for what they do makes two people happy: them and you.
· Forgive someone who has wronged you. This is the other side of the “forgive
yourself” coin. Just as you deserve a break, so do other people. And forgiveness is,
at its heart, an act of self-love. If you can’t let go of pain and anger, you can’t
Living with your anger and resentment is a recipe for misery. For one thing, those
two emotions reverberate through your mind and body, setting up toxic thoughts,
physical stress, and, yes, illness. And for what? You are the one walking around
feeling miserable while the objects of your anger are often totally oblivious to
The point? Resolve to forgive someone who has caused you pain. Whether you call or
visit an estranged ex-friend or write a letter to a deceased parent, you may find
the gesture immensely liberating.
· Become a giver. Happiness is not about how much you make; it’s about how much you
share. Your income and/or net worth has nothing to do with happiness. (I’ve been
wealthy and miserable at the same time, so I know.) How much you give–of your
money, your time, your self–does, however. That’s why you should find a way to
share your fortune (not necessarily the monetary kind!) with others.
If you have good health, a sound mind, and as littl
e as an hour a week to spare, you
are truly fortunate. Whether you’re tutoring kids who need a helping hand or
delivering hot meals to the elderly, there’s great joy to be found in giving.
Many people know this intellectually; they’ve just never put it into practice. Make
this the year you do it. Just give up some of the time you waste in front of the TV
or mindlessly surfing the Internet. You’ll find that it’s no sacrifice at all.
· Take a “baby step” toward finding some faith. This year, make a conscious effort
to think a little bit more about your faith, perhaps check out a few different
places of worship, or maybe read a couple of spiritual books. Happy people have a
connection to a Higher Power. If you aren’t sure there even is one, make this the
year you do some honest exploration.
You don’t have to go to church, temple, or a mosque–but you do need the ability and
the willingness to see God’s work in your life, who writes in his book about the
moment he realized God not only exists but has a plan for him. It will change your
life and the lives of others. A true relationship with a higher power keeps you from
becoming too self-centered and focuses your energy and concerns on the greater
community rather than just on you.
· Make 2011 a year of gratitude. If you make only one change in 2011, make it this
one: work to be more appreciative in general. According to an August 2010 article
in TheDailyBeast.com, a study by a University of California psychology professor
found that grateful people are 25 percent happier than their ungrateful brethren.
For the most part, becoming more grateful just means opening your eyes to the
blessings you already have.
Gratitude covers a lot of territory. When you’re grateful for your family, you’ll
treat them better. When you’re grateful for talents, you’ll use them. When you’re
grateful for your health, you’ll work to maintain it. All of these add up to
What I’m really talking about is a shift in attitude. All of these tips are simply
devices for helping us make that shift.
It’s ironic: Most of us have everything we need to be happy. The tragedy is we’re
sleepwalking through life without really noticing that truth. If we could learn to
live with an attitude of gratitude–for our kids, our homes, our friends, our
health, the food on our tables–we wouldn’t need to worry about finding happiness.
We’d be living it every day.
Todd Patkin, 45, is the coauthor (along with Dr. Howard Rankin) of the upcoming book
Finding Happiness: One Man’s Quest to Beat Depression and Anxiety and–Finally–Let
the Sunshine In. Born in Boston, MA, he graduated from Tufts University and went on
to join his father and brother in running one of the largest wholesale auto parts
companies in the country. After the company was sold to Advance Auto Parts, Todd
spent some time as a political fundraiser extraordinaire. Today, he is a very giving
philanthropist and an author who enjoys spending time with his incredible wife,
their great son, and two dogs.