For most of my adult life I believed that I just wasn’t meant to be a happy person. While I was successful in my career as a grant writer and columnist and worked hard to be a good mom to my three kids, I often had to drag myself out of bed and then force myself to do basic daily tasks like making dinner or getting the children ready for bed. I once read a poll that said 52 percent of people describe themselves as extremely happy, and my reaction was to sit back and think, Really?
My low point was in 2002 after I gave birth to twins in my seventh month of pregnancy. Dealing with feeding tubes and taking the newborns to more than 20 medical appointments a month while still caring for my older children pushed me to the limit. I remember seriously thinking that it would be a relief if a car hit me while I was pushing my grocery cart across the parking lot.
At that point, I decided that I needed to make improving my mental health a priority. My kids truly needed me to be at my best. So, after talking with other people who took antidepressants, I went on Zoloft for a year and a half. While it helped me to begin functioning more normally, I wasn’t exactly happy.
Over the next 10 years, I tried other ways to lift my mood. I changed my diet, exercised and attended psychotherapy. But through it all I felt numb.
Finally, last January — after looking around and realizing that my kids were all doing well, my marriage was great, and we had a comfortable life — I realized there was just no excuse for not feeling more joyful. I decided to do whatever it took to change my life. Instead of limping from day to day, doing my best to get by, I wanted to be what I call a “default happy person.” I made that my New Year’s resolution and approached it like a scientist tackles an experiment.
I read countless books and magazines to find out what the key conditions for happiness were, and became fascinated with Health Realization, a philosophy that revolves around the idea that happiness is an inherent state that gets disrupted by stress and ruminating on the things that aren’t working in your life.
I found that, for me, there wasn’t a one-step solution to getting and staying happy. In fact, the key to my happiness was to support it on every level — physical, psychological and emotional.
The Body Electric
I get the biggest emotional boost from rigorous aerobic exercises. And I’ve found that since being happier has become the focus of my workouts, I’ve been more motivated to be active than when I was simply trying to lose weight. I can now run a mile in 10 minutes and I’ve completed a triathlon.
I run intervals (alternating sprints with lower-intensity runs) three days a week and swim once or twice during the same time period. I take a Nia class, which combines modern dance, jazz and martial arts. It’s incredibly nurturing, and I never miss it unless I’m out of town. I also attend yoga once a week at my church and love the spiritual connection I get from it.
To fuel my activities, I make a conscious effort to eat a mood-enhancing diet. When it comes to food, everyone’s body chemistry is a little different and requires unique adjustments. Like an increasing number of people, I found that eliminating gluten had a dramatic impact on my mood. If my blood-sugar levels are yo-yoing, that messes with my mental state, as well. So instead of turning to sweets for an energy boost, I take a multivitamin every day and always treat myself to a cup of coffee.
Since sleep is proven to affect a person’s psychological disposition, I make sure that I go to bed early enough so that I can get nine hours. On those occasions when I wake up and can’t fall back asleep, I get up, do a little work, and then rest during the next day.
Taming a Mad, Mad World
Over the past year I’ve found that I’m very sensitive to my surroundings. To honor that, I try to get at least 20 minutes of direct sunlight a day, usually by going on a walk or running. In addition to my multivitamin, I also take fish oil and a calcium supplement with vitamin D.
I’ve found that keeping my home and office reasonably tidy and clean helps me feel centered. So I make an effort to put things in order and keep my eyes open for tricks and tips to improve the process. (Flylady.net is a wonderful resource, with daily emails and reminders about how to turn clutter and chaos into peaceful routines.)
Most important, I take time to notice and appreciate something beautiful every day, whether it’s a leafy tree or an arresting inanimate object.
Being consciously grateful for all that goes right in my life has profoundly changed my overall perspective. Every night before I go to bed, I use an app on my iPhone called Live Happy, based on research by Sonja Lyubomirsky, PhD, a psychologist and author of The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want (Penguin, 2008).
The app has a gratitude journal and an email feature, so I can thank someone in the moment. I make sure that I record my accomplishments and savor them, no matter how big (completing a triathlon) or small (getting my kids to do their homework).
Just as important is steering clear of things that needlessly bring me down. I need to constantly counteract the effects of negativity. I read inspiring books and keep a library of movies and TV shows that move me, from The Lord of the Rings to The Waltons. I also listen to a lot of music, especially when I run.
Just a year after making my New Year’s resolution, I can truly say that I am a happy person. When bad things happen, I can now put them into perspective and realize they won’t last forever. If I’m in a bad mood, I tell myself to get some exercise, soak up a little sunshine and eat well. My priority is to feel better first and then carry on.
Now that happiness is a habit, I can focus more on my close relationships — making more time to engage in deeper, more frequent conversations with friends and family. I know that being more present for others this coming year will solidify my progress and help spread the joy.
Meet: Deb Sweeney, 45, a grant writer from Eden Prairie, Minn., married to Brett, with five kids between the ages of 10 and 17.
Big Achievement: Reaching her dream of becoming a “default happy person.”
Big Inspiration: A deep desire to experience living with joy and ease.
What Worked: Supporting happiness with a multipronged approach that combined exercise, diet, healthy lifestyle choices, inspirational advice, and personal reflections and affirmations.
What Didn’t Work: Psychotherapy — which Sweeney felt focused too much on what was wrong in her life, instead of taking advantage of what worked.
Words of Wisdom: “Believe in what makes you happy and go after it with your whole heart,” says Sweeney. “You deserve to be happy and nothing has to change in your life except setting the intention. Once you do that, you’ll figure out how to go after it.”