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Secrets to Happiness

Winter is always hard on me. I suffer from seasonal depression, and the gray days make me blue. But I know I’m not the only one. I have friends I rarely see during the dark days of winter who seem to pop back up when the robins make their spring debut. 

I’ve tried everything. Light boards give me migraines, and who has time for exercise, eating right, and getting enough sleep? Right? My therapist has helped and taught me good coping skills, so now the episodes aren’t quite as bad as they used to be if I’m paying attention. 

Earlier this year, I got my hands on the January issue of Time Magazine, featuring the secrets of happiness experts. My mom has a subscription and thought the content would be good inspiration for a Finishing School class. 

The magazine has an article by Dr. Laurie Santos, a professor at Yale University who teaches a class on happiness that is so popular on campus they started offering it free through The course is called the Science of Wellbeing, and there’s a separate class for adults and teens. I highly recommend taking it.

Thinking about happiness and how we can nurture and grow that emotion gave me an epiphany. Our lives are spent coping with the things that make existence uncomfortable. For example, I’ve been coping with depression for most of my life. But years ago, I decided that I wanted more from life than simply coping with what makes me miserable and to take a more direct approach.

So, this year, rather than coping with seasonal depression, I’ve decided to find ways to bring more happiness and, dare I say it, JOY into my life. That way, when the weather gets gloomy, I will have built my happiness reserves like a battery that powers the light that cuts through the darkness. 

I dedicated the entire month of Badass Women of Wichita Alliance to the pursuit of happiness. First, we celebrated women in film at the LunaFest fundraiser for Girls on the Run. Then, we discovered the secrets of happiness experts in the Get Happy Finishing School class and wrapped the month up with a hilarious panel discussion on Living Your Life With More Razzmatazz. Here’s what I learned. 

What we think makes us happy really doesn’t. 

We convince ourselves that we would be happier if only this thing could happen. But, unfortunately, it doesn’t work out that way. We think something like getting a better job, more money, a killer body, and more stuff will fill that happiness hole. But it’s just not true. 

Our minds’ strongest intuitions are often misleading. No matter what happens, good or bad, scientists have found that the things we dream of don’t affect happiness as much and for as long as we hoped. Even love doesn’t end up being happy ever after. Studies show that after two years of marriage, a couple’s happiness level reverts to what it was before they got married.

This is because our minds are programmed to adapt and ultimately get used to situations. We don’t give our brains enough credit for how well we adapt and cope with change, making it impossible to predict how specific outcomes will make us feel over time. We think that what made us happy at one time will make us happy forever, but this changes. We are much more resilient than we give ourselves credit for. As a result, we miss-predict our own potential. 

Let go of comparisons.

One of the biggest secrets the panel shared with us is how much their lives changed after they quit caring about what people thought of them. Rather than living their lives to please everyone else, they decided if they were going to make someone happy, it would be themselves. They came to a place where they had no more Fs to give. 

We tend to judge ourselves relative to irrelevant reference points, which makes us feel worse. Whether we’re comparing ourselves to what others have going on or what we used to do or be, we aren’t reasonable about what we compare ourselves to. Studies have found that the more we watch TV or are on social media, the worse these comparisons become. It’s impossible to compete with fictional and reality TV characters and people who only show the best of themselves publicly. 

We have choices.

In both the class and panel discussion, the point came up that we can affect how happy we are, to a certain extent, by the choices we make. Dr. Santos’ studies proved this by having people take tests measuring happiness before and after practicing certain habits that experts have agreed impact how we feel. They found improvements can be made. 

I chose the women for the panel who embrace life to the fullest and know how to make life a feast. It was interesting to discover that every person on the panel had faced adversities that would have floored most of us. Their ability to face the situation and look at it as an adventure rather than a setback kept them moving forward positively. Our panelists had great stories that had us rolling. I wish I could tell you, but what happens at Badass Women stays with Badass Women.  

Even how we dress makes a difference in how we feel. Our daring panel said that simply surrounding themselves in vivid colors in how they dress and decorate made them feel better than the somber grey and black colors. 

Yes. And…

 Maybe it was because we were at Flying Pig Improv, where people are taught the art of spontaneity, that one of the foundations of improv came up. “Yes. And…” is a phrase that lets your improv partners know that you’ve heard what was said and are going to run with it. 

The entire panel agreed that saying “yes” to opportunities for adventure is a big part of how they embrace life. Although it sometimes led to adversities, like getting stuck in Siberia, they wouldn’t have changed a thing. Not taking any risks and staying at home all the time is no way to live a full life. Being around people, embracing community, and savoring shared experiences is one of the secrets to happiness.  

Being happier takes practice.

The book How of Happiness, by Sonja Lyubomirsky, has broken down where happiness comes from. Fifty percent of happiness is determined by genetics, and another 10 percent comes from what life throws at you. The remaining 40 percent comes from our thoughts and actions, the only part we control. We have to take action and not just dream of better days. 

In the class, Professor Santos talks about increasing overall happiness by working on reframing – or rewiring our habits through simple actions that boost mood and overall wellbeing when practiced. 

Some of these rewirements aren’t surprising, like getting seven hours of sleep at night, exercising at least 30 minutes daily, meditating for 5 to 10 minutes daily, and developing a gratitude mindset. Other actions are a bit more surprising, like taking time to savor at least one experience a day, performing a random act of kindness daily for someone whether you know them or not, and making social connections with acquaintances and strangers every day in some way.  

The object of the game is not to do all these things every day. The thought of that makes me feel panicky! Instead, try practicing each action separately for a week and see how it makes you feel. Then, when you find the action that makes the biggest difference, try it for a month and see if it becomes a good habit that sticks. 

Where we are today is a starting point. But to change things, we have to work for it. We’re not going to wake up one morning out of the blue and feel a switch has flipped. Just like everything we get good at, increasing wellbeing takes daily, intentional effort over long periods of time. But, with practice, happiness can overshadow the darkness. 

I used to think the best way to protect myself was by growing a thicker skin – putting on a rhinoceros suit. Then I learned from a friend that a better way to protect myself is to build core confidence. We're invincible when our confidence is heightened, and we believe in ourselves. I love this approach because donning a rhino suit is repressive and suffocating. Building core confidence is expansive and generous. 

Now, over the past month, I’ve come to see coping with depression versus experimenting with happiness as being a very similar situation to rhino suit versus core confidence. So, since spring and the sun have finally shown up, I'll start practicing now, so when the weather does get gloomy, I'll be ready. 

Happy Spring! 


Did you know I've published a book? Learn more about it here!


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