My mentor and wise friend Wendy Bernero has always reminded me that happiness is a choice available to each of us and is crucial for our well being. She also told me that it’s okay to not be okay all of the time.
After the recent and abrupt ending of a relationship that forced me to move out of my home, she again said to me, “I know you’re sad now, but you can to choose to be happy.” She went on to tell me that I must choose it or else it could be very damaging to me professionally and personally.
You can be stuck feeling bad during bad times or you can choose to make hardships and the worst times of your life teaching moments and turn them into something positive. You’d be surprised just how resilient each of us are if we just believe it.
Also, happiness comes easier to some people and others must choose to be happy at certain points in our lives in order to turn the tide around or just to carry on and not to fall into a dark hole of despair.
I’m about to share a personal story that is not easy for me – but I’m doing it in the hopes that it helps others. Not everyone shares what’s going on with them personally with professional colleagues, but I want others to know that life is messy and no one is perfect – especially me, and so many of us are struggling with personal crises and it’s a miracle we are so high functioning! It’s about time we got real and stop making it seem like everything is fine when it’s not. I also wanted others who are struggling to know that they are not alone, and again, it’s okay to not be okay sometimes.
This idea of choosing happiness is something I tried when my mom passed away from cancer three years ago. I sought out the good things in my life. I made lists of why I was grateful. I surrounded myself with people who loved me and made me laugh. For me, making plans and having things to look forward to is the antidote to being sad. So I started booking trips, making plans to see friends and researching upcoming concerts (yes, I really did need to see the Dave Matthews Band for the 20th time) – I spent my disposable income on experiences instead of material things, which was incredibly fulfilling.
I also purged clutter out of my life. I felt paralyzed by all the things I had accumulated over the years – Marie Kondo would not approve of me at all. I had so many things I thought I needed that I really didn’t. Less really is more most of the time. Many of us buy things when we are sad or trying to fill a void in our lives. It may work for a bit but it really is just a quick fix that won’t solve anything and may leave you with more problems down the road.
Some days it is harder to find happiness than others, but when I realized I had control over how I felt — even while mourning a profound loss — I regained my focus and control, and my overall outlook improved.
Unfortunately, time doesn’t stop just because we are going through a personal crisis as much as we wish it would. The sun still rises and sets each day, and we all still must get up and put on our game faces and go to work, and take care of our families, and just keep going no matter how hard it is.
After the ending of my relationship, I tried so hard to keep it together, but I’m human, and I just couldn’t all the time. I admit that I did cry at my desk sometimes (the same thing happened when my mom passed away). I even once cried in my managing partner’s office when he made the fatal mistake of asking me how I was doing (thankfully he is one of the kindest people on the planet and understood I was going through a rough time). I had lost my mojo and had a hard time concentrating for a few weeks, but I am lucky to work in a very supportive environment. Remember, it’s okay to not be okay sometimes. Those who care about you and value you will give you the benefit of the doubt if it is out of character for you. These are the select times in your career when you want to be honest about what is happening in your personal life without getting airing too much of your dirty laundry. You can’t always pretend like everything is fine – it’s to your benefit to tell your boss and a select few others that you are having a personal crisis if it is impacting your work so that they will understand why you are not at the top of your game.
My managing partner told me I needed to compartmentalize what was happening and to use work as my outlet from the crazy in my personal life. Something changed for me that day – I realized that although my relationship was ending and the rug was pulled from under me, I was not going to allow my ex to also jeopardize my career – I had worked way too hard for it. So I put my feelings a box so to speak – I would not allow myself to think about him and my mess of a personal life during the day. I focused on work, and when I found myself thinking of my personal problems, I did something productive for me, which was writing more articles (thanks Adrian Lurssen for publishing them on JD Supra!). I got myself together again, found purpose and little bits of joy in my every day, and I realized I was the same person before this personal hardship happened to me and that I was not going to be defined by it going forward. Instead, I would use it to become a stronger version of me and learn from the experience. In short, I took the control and power back.
I learned just how important it is to be happy and how it can help overcome hardships when I attended the 2018 Legal Marketing Association Annual Conference and listened to the keynote speaker, University of Amherst “Science of Happiness” professor Catherine A. Sanderson speak about benefits of happiness and the science behind why you should incorporate happiness into your life (studies show that it leads to more success and fulfillment in your personal and professional lives – score!). Dr. Sanderson provided practical ways that each of us can incorporate happiness into our professional and personal lives. If you follow her tips and make small changes to your daily routine, you will feel a positive difference in your life.
Here are Dr. Sanderson’s top strategies to increase happiness (they work even if you aren’t the most happy person by nature):
- Change little things in your daily life such as getting more sleep, regularly exercising, enjoying nature and meditating. All of these are natural mood boosters.
- Find your match personally and professionally. You must love what you do and who you’re with to be truly happy and successful.
- Read books you love. Books are a great escape from your everyday life. (A note from me: reading is great but please don’t read anything depressing, self-help books that make you feel like you are the worst person in the universe or twisted, creepy horror books. They defeat the purpose of making you happy!)
- Be grateful. Do two things to become more grateful: 1.) Keep a gratitude journal. Regularly write down for what you are most thankful. 2.) Make a gratitude visit to someone who has made a profound impact on your life. Do this before it’s too late for them and for you.
- Smile even when you aren’t happy. Studies have shown that the act of smiling can trick your brain into happiness.
- Savor the everyday moments. Relishing the little things – such as a sunny day, when your dog finally catches the Frisbee (my dog did this just once, but it was a great moment for both us), an ice cream sandwich (who doesn’t like ice cream? Okay, maybe lactose intolerant people don’t…), the flowers on your desk or the way your baby smiles at you – teaches you to be more grateful and appreciative of what you have, especially when things go wrong in life, which they inevitably will.
- Perform random acts of kindness. Do good things for people without expecting anything in return. Give to charity. Compliment someone just because. Volunteer for a cause that is meaningful to you. Buy gifts for others.
- Spend money on experiences vs. things such as travel, concerts, cooking classes, a Broadway show and the like. It’s the idea of investing in experiences to which you can look forward with the people you care about most. Sanderson described it as the idea of “anticipation,” which she said, in turn, creates happiness rather than buying material things. I think we can all relate to this – the feeling of excitement as you count down the days until a big vacation or seeing your favorite band in concert. As I said above, buying a fancy electronic gadget or handbag just doesn’t achieve the same lasting feeling of joy. But doing things you find meaningful will make you happier.
- Avoid comparisons. They just make you feel bad. This is the idea of “Keeping up with the Joneses.” First off, I guarantee you that the Joneses’ life isn’t all that great when you peel back their curtains. Be thankful for what you have and your crazy, imperfect life.
- Build and maintain close relationships. I agree with Sanderson that building and maintaining high-quality relationships both personally and professionally is the most important thing you can do to be happy. (Unless you are a hermit. Then by all means, don’t do this.) Relationships are so important to our happiness and they can be frustrating because most of the time, the people in our lives don’t do what we want them to do when we want them to do it (how dare they!). But care about and love your imperfectly perfect favorite people anyway.
So the next time you’re going through a rough time, try choosing to be happy. Do more of what you love with the poeple you love. Smile more. Be kind to those around you. Work out as much as you can because it releases feel-good chemicals and you will feel better physically and mentally. Seek out those in your life who bring you joy – for me my dog and my one-year-old niece are among the highlights of my week.
Remember that for many of us, happiness is a choice. Of course there are times when you experience happiness without any work. Be thankful for those moments of pure joy. They won’t come easy. Life is unpredictable and finding ways to create a happy and meaningful life for yourself both inside and outside the office is key. There really is a silver lining in everything.