"Happy New Year!" Every January 1, in a blur of champagne and party chatter, we toss out those three little words like so much glittering confetti. They’re as much a staple of the annual milestone as Dick Clark and the Times Square ball. But how many of us take the time to think about what the phrase truly means? What is happiness, anyway? What does it look like? And—most important of all—how can we achieve it?
Todd Patkin thinks he has the answer to this question.
“We’re all longing for happiness,” says Patkin, author of Finding Happiness: One Man’s Quest to Beat Depression and Anxiety and—Finally—Let the Sunshine In (StepWise Press, 2011). “We think we can achieve it by losing 10 pounds or kicking a bad habit or making more money, and that’s why we vow to do those things year after year after year.
“But I’ve found that true happiness isn’t about those kinds of achievements,” he adds. “Instead, it comes down to learning to love yourself. And there are some very specific things you can start to do now to move in that direction.”
If you get the feeling that our nation’s overall happiness level is deteriorating, you’re right. According to a 2007 Reuter’s.com article, a study done by Italian researchers found that Americans are less happy these days than they were 30 years ago. Culprits include longer working hours and a decline in social relationships.
Patkin has struggled with depression and anxiety for much of his life. In his book he details his own journey to happiness, from his fretful childhood to his rocky college experience to the emotional turmoil that marked the intensive years he spent growing his family auto parts business to, most recently his philanthropic endeavors.
While Patkin admits that everyone’s path is different, he believes the real key for all of us is self-love. When we can stop beating ourselves up over our mistakes and start celebrating all the things we do right, we can finally be happy. We must change the way we think about ourselves, and for some of us that’s a major journey—but the good news is there are some specific shortcuts that will get us there faster.
“I’ve given it a lot of thought and I’ve come up with 10 simple things people can do to become happier in 2014,” he says. “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.”
Todd’s top 10 tips for a happier 2014 … and beyond:
- If you don’t exercise, start. You already know exercise keeps you healthy and helps you control your weight. But did you know it’s also a natural antidepressant? In Finding Happiness, Patkin pays homage to the mood-boosting powers of exercise. And you don’t need to run a marathon to reap these benefits (even though Patkin actually did run one—the Boston Marathon—in 2007).
“You can decide that 2014 is the year you will finally make exercise a part of your life,” he says. “Even a 20-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 20 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.”
- Find some way this year to 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 2014 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.
“Living with your anger and resentment is a recipe for misery,” writes Patkin in Finding Happiness. “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.”
The point? Resolve to forgive someone who has caused you pain. Whether you call or visit an estranged ex-friend or write a letter to a deceased parent, you may find the gesture immensely liberating.
- 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, your self—does, however. That’s why you should find a way to share your fortune (not necessarily the monetary kind!) with others.
“If you have good health, a sound mind, and as little as an hour a week to spare, you are truly fortunate,” he says. “Whether you’re tutoring kids who need a helping hand or delivering hot meals to the elderly, there’s great joy to be found in giving.
“Many people know this intellectually; they’ve just never put it into practice,” he adds. “Make this the year you do it. Just give up some of the time you waste in front of the TV or mindlessly surfing the Internet. You’ll find that it’s no sacrifice at all.”
- Take a “baby step” toward finding some faith. This year, make a conscious effort to think a little bit more about your faith, perhaps check out a few different places of worship, or maybe read a couple of spiritual books. Happy people have a connection to a Higher Power. If you aren’t sure there even is one, make this the year you do some honest exploration.
- Make 2014 a year of gratitude. If you make only one change in 2014, make it this one, says Patkin: Work to be more appreciative in general. According to an August 2010 article in TheDailyBeast.com, a study by a University of California psychology professor found that grateful people are 25% happier than their ungrateful brethren. For the most part, becoming more grateful just means opening your eyes to the blessings you already have.
“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.”
What Patkin is really talking about is a shift in attitude. All of his tips are simply devices for helping us make that shift.
“It’s ironic: Most of us have everything we need to be happy,” he says. “The tragedy is we’re sleepwalking through life without really noticing that truth. If we could learn to live with an attitude of gratitude—for our kids, our homes, our friends, our health, the food on our tables—we wouldn’t need to worry about finding happiness. We’d be living it every day.”