Millions of holiday revelers will shout “Happy new year!” when the last second of December ticks away and 2013 is born.
It's a simple wish, a public prayer. For some of us, it's also a resolution. This year we're going to be happier. We won't be so negative, stressed out, judgmental and fearful. This year we'll change for the better.
But how can we make that happen?
Dr. S. Renee Orcutt, an Oklahoma City psychologist, has some ideas about that.
Actively choose happiness
Bad things happen to everyone. Some events — a death in the family, financial difficulties — are genuinely terrible. It's hard to find any good in them.
Not every worrisome event is so devastating, though. You can choose to dwell on the negatives or seek out the positives.
“Watch your own self-talk, the thoughts you feed yourself inside your head,” Orcutt said. “Become your own internal coach. How can I look at this in a more positive light? What are the good things I can take from this situation?”
Keep a “happy journal,” she suggested, and fill it each day with things that make you smile or feel good about yourself.
The goal is to avoid catastrophic thinking, in which one negative thought leads to another and another, setting off a chain reaction of negativity that can send you spiraling into helplessness and fear.
“Don't just expect happiness to come to you,” she said. “Actively seek it out. Encode it in your own head.”
Live in the here and now
Unhappy people rarely live in the moment, Orcutt said. Instead, they stare into the past, thinking about regrets and failures and the things they've lost, or try to look into the future, anticipating potential problems and expecting the worst.
“We let the sorrows of yesterday and the worries of tomorrow drag us down,” she said. “Live in the moment. Let go of so many worries.”
Happier people manage to tune out the background noise and focus on what's going on right now, whether it's a boardroom meeting or an evening out with friends. If the moment is bad, it passes soon enough, replaced by another and another.
“Some people naturally think more this way than others,” Orcutt said. “Deeper thinkers have more of a struggle with this.”
You can't be everything to everyone. You can only be yourself.
That means letting yourself off the hook a little, Orcutt said. Don't beat yourself up for not meeting everyone's expectations. Sometimes your boss, your parents and your spouse expect too much. Don't blame yourself for not being perfect; just emphasize what you can accomplish.
“Set boundaries,” she said. “No, I can't fit in that one extra meeting. I can't volunteer this time with the PTA. Reserve some time to take a nap or a bubble bath or read a book. Give yourself time for good eating habits and exercise. People feel better about themselves when they're taking care of themselves in those ways, too.”
“Happy people usually have a sense of purpose or something they love to do,” Orcutt said. “It could be some type of volunteering, gardening or art. For some people, it might be their work; it has a lot of meaning to them and can be an outlet.”
For others, it may be helping those less fortunate, spending time at church, learning a new skill or embracing creativity. Don't have anything like that in your life? Take classes on things you find interesting. Try painting or drawing or photography. Volunteer a day or two at a charity until you find one that's a good fit.
Giving back or developing a talent can help you feel better about yourself.
Happiness can rub off on you, Orcutt said. If you're sad and miserable and only spend time with other people who are sad and miserable, don't expect your world view to improve.
Don't write off your unhappy friends, she said, but broaden your horizons. If you're having a bad day, sometimes a funny, cheerful friend can help you smile. Similarly, try to be positive when it's your turn to cheer someone up.
“Negative thinking begets negative thinking,” she said. So spend some time on the sunny side of the street.
Some problems require professional help. If you can't seem to find happiness no matter what you try, make an appointment to see your family doctor or a counselor, psychologist or psychiatrist.
Depression is a medical condition and could be a sign of additional problems. Medications and/or therapy can help.