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Going to the light side

Happiness is a sought-after goal for many. Here are some approaches to life and work that may help keep your sunny side up.

December 22, 2012|By Elise Oberliesen
(Alex Nabaum, For the Los…)

The quest for happiness sends millions of people into bookstores, doctors' offices and pharmacies — especially at this time of year, when well-being seems to be a national requirement.

Of course, the pursuit of happiness is relatively new to humankind — our ancestors were much too focused on their day-to-day survival to spend much time contemplating contentment — but scientists and writers have worked to fill the void in the last few decades, flooding the marketplace with theories and checklists. (See "The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom" by Jonathan Haidt, or "Stumbling on Happiness" by Daniel Todd Gilbert or "Every Day a Friday: How to Be Happier 7 Days a Week" by Joel Osteen.)

When author Gretchen Rubin examined happiness, she thrust her entire being into the project. But rather than chase the latest self-help bestsellers, Rubin decided to write her own — bestsellers, that is.

"The Happiness Project" was published in December 2009. Among her 12 commandments? "Act the way I want to feel" and "Do what ought to be done." Next up was "Happier at Home," published in September, which focuses on marriage, parenthood and possessions and the fleeting moments that drive people to "actively" seek out happiness.

Rubin moves readers down the path toward happiness with easy "why didn't I think of that?" ideas. ("Everything looks better arranged on a tray.") She transforms small matters, like cluttered kitchen cabinets or overstuffed closets, into streams of happiness. ("Outer order contributes to inner calm.")

The mother of two girls spends ample time pondering the forces that steal our moments of joy. She wants us not to take momentary pleasures for granted, pleasures such as seeing poppies growing wild or, in Rubin's case, noticing her daughter Eleanor's detailed drawings of pretty little flowers. And she suggests that sometimes we have to ask ourselves why we change things that aren't broken. (Just because you don't get the birthday gift you asked for doesn't mean you should be annoyed. Instead, relish the gift-giver's thoughtfulness as you relish the gift you got instead.)

Researchers — and happy people — tell us about other approaches to the world that help keep the blues at bay. Here, we look at a few of them.

Moving on

Some people seem to project happy. Susan Feniger is one of them. It's not that the chef-owner of Street (and partner with Mary Sue Milliken in the Border Grill restaurants) never has a bad day. It's that she doesn't wallow in her misery.

"I've had to close restaurants before," she says, "but I do not tend to dwell on it. I move on."

Feniger falls under the "glass half full" category. Instead of complaining about an over-shipment of an exotic ingredient or letting it go to waste, she's the type to create something new, to make lemonade from lemons, as it were. If you recall eating her stuffed rigatoni with chicken and fennel mousse appetizer, then you tasted a "mistake" transformed into culinary triumph.

Instead of the usual shipment of pasta that she used in salads, Feniger received oodles of 2-inch noodles.

"Since we had chicken and fennel seed in the house, we made a mousse and stuffed the [pasta]. It became one of our bestselling appetizers on the menu for 10 years," she said.

A stroke of good luck? Perhaps. But Feniger also works at creating her luck. She loves her job, even the 13-hour days. And she makes time for volunteer work, which may very well contribute to her contentment. (Researchers say social connections contribute to overall well-being.)

Feniger serves on the boards of the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center and the Scleroderma Research Foundation. She raises money, donates food and promotes AIDS awareness and education. "It makes me feel good. It makes me feel like I'm giving back to help those who are less fortunate," Feniger says.

You are what you think

Of course, hard work isn't everything. While striving helps us get ahead in life, it may not be enough to improve our happiness. Want to shift your mood into a better place? Then stop working so hard to achieve it, says June Gruber, an assistant professor of psychology at Yale University and director at the Yale Positive Emotion and Psychopathology Lab.

On a slow day, we process about 12,000 thoughts, but during especially contemplative days, that number can soar to 50,000 to 60,000, according to the National Science Foundation.

The problem, for our happiness, is that we tend to cling to negative thoughts, Gruber says. Instead of wrestling with those thoughts, she suggests learning to accept them. "From the mindfulness and Buddhist traditions, [it] refers to simply being aware and present of your negative thoughts and approaching them with a nonjudgmental attitude," Gruber says. "This type of approach fosters resilience to stress, decreased negative and hurtful emotions, and increased general well being."

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