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Do Books About Happiness Work?

What Books About Happiness Taught Me About, Well, Happiness

If you look up the dictionary definition of happiness, you'll find words like delight, contentment, pleasure, and joy. These words don't truly define happiness; they are just more words that evoke a certain feeling that really holds a different meaning for all of us. What makes one person happy may not make another person happy, and what we think should make us happy may not actually make us happy at all.

As a wife and mom of two, happiness is something I think about often. I often wonder if my husband is happy and how I am contributing to (and hopefully not taking away from) his happiness. I think about my children and what I can do to ensure they grow into happy adults. I sometimes consider the responsibilities and activities I fill my day with and contemplate how much happiness they bring me.

My pursuit of happiness drew me to a few books about happiness (and there's more on my list). I recently read Gretchen Rubin's The Happiness Project, Dan Buettner's The Blue Zones of Happiness, and Thrive: Finding Happiness the Blue Zones Way to better understand happiness and how to get more of it in my life and my family's lives. What I learned is that happiness is closer, easier to find, and totally different looking than you might think.


Sometimes Happiness Isn't Happy

In The Happiness Project, Rubin states that "happiness doesn't always make you feel happy." I'm sure there are some out there who have more profound examples of this sentiment, but the first thing I thought of while reading this passage was cleaning the bathrooms. I loathe cleaning the bathrooms more than any other household chore, and I probably don't do it often enough. But, without fail, I always find myself proclaiming to my husband how happy I am to have sparkly, clean bathrooms as soon as I finish the dreadful task. I may not be happy while I'm doing it, but I'm always happy when it's done.

There will always be parts of life we don't enjoy in the moment, but they may bring us happiness in other ways or even after the fact. This could come in the form of frustration when learning a new language, fear when skiing a big hill the first time, or something as simple as cleaning the bathrooms.

Happiness Is Different for Everybody, but Some Things Are the Same

What makes me happy — iced Americanos, being in the woods, and reading whatever book I can get my hands on — may not be the same things that make you happy, but there do seem to be a few universal truths about happiness. When it comes to setting down roots, Buettner notes in his books that medium-size cities (as opposed to a small town or a too-big metropolis) that are near water and friendly toward outdoor enthusiasts (bike lanes, walking trails, etc.), tend to have happier citizens.

Spending quality, in-person time with friends and loved ones should also be a priority if happiness is on your list. This is easier said than done in a world where we think we know people because we saw photos from their kids' talent show, and we're totally OK with sending a "thank you" text in lieu of sending a card in the mail. Making time to see our friends, family, and neighbors face to face, however, is a big piece of the happiness pie, and it is well worth the time and effort.

Buettner also lists that not working too much, not making the TV your main source of family entertainment at home, and spending money on experiences (and finding ways to revisit the happy memories of those experiences) over possessions can bring a healthy dose of happiness.

Be Yourself

One of the biggest lessons I learned from Rubin's book, and one that I think we could all benefit from, is to just be myself. I've spent so much of my life trying to be who I thought should be. I should meditate more. I should feed my family only organic veggies. I should drink less coffee. I should want to wear something other than workout leggings everyday. How can we be truly happy if we are always feeling "less than" or trying to change ourselves?

Lately, I've been embracing the things that make me uniquely me instead of trying to change them. That isn't to say there aren't things about myself I can work on, like staying present with my kids and taking time to be more appreciative, but I also now realize that I don't have to feel guilty for not doing things that don't feel like "me." But, I probably should drink less coffee.

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