stressfreeThe average person, I’m told, doesn’t think actively about whether they are happy or not. I think that’s partially true at least.

Those who have lived fairly even lives, where things have gone along pretty much as planned and expected probably don’t think about how they feel about their life. They are too busy living it. And I’m convinced that ranges from the garbage collector to the college professor. For it has little to do with class or profession.

It has to do with relative acceptance that “this is life”. There are not a lot of extraordinary highs, but no devastating lows either. If you drew it across a graph, the mean would be close to a straight line.

On the other hand, people who have experienced too many lows, and have an active understanding of being “unhappy”, well they rather know what happiness is I suspect. At least I find that I do. I know what it’s like to be unhappy so I can state with some precision what makes me happy.

Unfortunately, other than generalized categories, it’s not easy to translate to another person. I’ve set out some guidelines that I found helpful–basically to bring an equilibrium to life, wherein mind, body and spirit are actively nourished. When I’m unable to “feed” some part of myself, I begin to experience unsteadiness in my reaction to the world.

But I don’t claim this works for everyone. Certainly some people are consumed with a passion for something and they can neglect other things as long as they continue to feed the passion. There are people who energize and feel complete only when working at their profession, others at their hobby. They neglect regularly other aspects of themselves with no seeming ill effects.

I suspect they are not the norm however. Most of us need some equalizing between our different selves.

But I was reminded after something I read a couple of weeks ago, that there is a common thread that meanders through all these things. It’s the absence of something that is the true key to a “happy” life.

It is hard to define happiness as we have realized. It’s harder yet to quantify it or even to tell when it is operating in another. It relies on self-reporting and thus on the idiosyncratic beliefs of the beholder. It may be to some no more than a general feeling of well-being while to others it may be regular doses of exhilaration during an experience.

So what is absent in the happy person?

In a word, STRESS.

It is hard to be happy when one is fretting and worrying about anything. While it is generally true that money can’t buy happiness, insufficient funds to live decently causes stress. One can hardly feel happy when worrying about whether there will be enough to both feed and pay the normal bills.

Similarly, chronic pain or worry about a catastrophic health condition are not conducive to a joyous life.

The same goes for relationships that have gone stale or have died. When people spend more and more time apart by choice, the impending retirement looks like a death sentence instead of the opportunity to engage in things that work never left time for. It is no secret why there are many divorces as retirement nears and people contemplate spending more time with a person that they have spent 15-20 years devising ways to avoid.

So, in structuring one’s life, keeping stress at bay is surely a real choice we can make to avoid unhappiness. And that leads us to what so many of us fail to do regularly–turn inward and examine in brutal thoroughness our “life”.

We must do this for a very real and serious reason. Left unchecked, stresses build over time, often encompassing more than aspect of our personhood. When we reach a certain point in all this, we “run out of options”, “feel trapped”, “see no end in sight” and feel that “this is our ultimate fate”. At that point, there MAY be no real solution. The problems may become so entangled that it’s impossible to solve.

Too, too many people find themselves here, living hopeless lives, beaten and defeated, merely going through the motions and looking for whatever solace can be temporarily gained through alcohol, drugs, sex, or other palliatives.

It would be a shame to suggest that there are no answers, and indeed there are, but it requires, as I said, a firm commitment to be ever vigilant of one’s emotional being and to catch the frustrations, angers, impatience, melancholy, blues, and so forth early enough to do something about them.

Some examples are:

  1. Health issues can be avoided to some degree by eating good healthy foods regularly and exercising. Preventive care established as early as you can will help you avoid more damaging health issues later. It’s not a guarantee, but its sure good insurance.
  2. Pick your profession carefully, and experience as many interests as you can manage before settling. Problems in the work place should be worked on before they become critical and before you are locked into a job you can no longer afford to quit. Plan for the future, with further education and networking to leave situations that are dead ends, unhealthy emotionally, or where you aren’t being fulfilled. It’s one thing to stay another five years, it’s quite another to stay for 25.
  3. Constantly examine your personal relationships especially those that are significant (where you are living together). Look for weaknesses, discuss small problems before they become large ones, seek ways to enjoy a new hobby or interest. Seek professional help if necessary. If it’s dead, get out early, or at least give yourself  time to plan how to go it alone.
  4. If little things set you off, recognize that this is not normal. Everyone faces problems from flat tires to deflated souffles, to not getting into the preferred college. If you are not taking these things in stride, and learning lessons from mistakes, then seek professional help. You will only get angrier, meaner, and more unhappy as you age.
  5. Develop methods of de-stressing over minor but normal stress. Learn coping mechanisms for the small things, and big things will be seem more manageable. There are numerous methods of meditation, places to  relax, teas, inspirational music and reading material. Breathe.
  6. If you are faced with a big problem, list all the steps that you need to take. Then forget about all but the first. Concentrate on that alone, and work toward it. It’s the magnitude that causes the stress. A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. It’s true. Focus only on what you need to do today, this hour, this minute. Coming through a difficult situation with grace is a huge boost for your emotional well-being.
  7. Don’t ask yourself a lot whether you are happy. Happy people don’t. They just live. If life just sort of flows along evenly, then you are there.
  8. Remember you can always make it better, even if it’s only the way you look at it.