Be Happier in 2011

Friday, January 21, 2011
By Julie Wiegan

The year has just begun and you’re already off to a bad start. Well, maybe it’s time to make a few changes to move your life in a more positive direction. Todd Patkin, co-author of the upcoming book Finding Happiness: One Man’s Quest to Beat Depression and Anxiety and—Finally—Let the Sunshine In. has some tips for a better year. “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,” he said.

Start exercising
Exercise keeps you healthy, helps you control your weight, and it’s also a natural antidepressant.

“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, says Patkin, 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,” says Patkin. “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 first step.”

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, Patkin acknowledges—but let’s face it, that’s not always possible in a bad economy!)

“Playing to your strengths brings real happiness,” he notes. “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, notes Patkin.

“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,” he says. “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 you.”

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, Patkin says 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 marriage.

“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,” he says. “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 Patkin says changing that is a key component of happiness.

“Be generous with hugs,” he suggests. “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 be happy. Whether you call or visit an estranged ex-friend or write a letter to a deceased parent, you may find the gesture immensely liberating.

“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 your feelings.”

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, says Patkin. (“I’ve been wealthy and miserable at the same time, so I know,” he insists.) How much you give—of your money, your time, yourself—does, however. That’s why you should find a way to share your fortune (not necessarily the monetary kind!) with others.

Make 2011 a year of gratitude
If you make only one change in 2011, make it this one, says Patkin: Work to be more appreciative in general.

“Gratitude covers a lot of territory,” he says. “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 happiness.”

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