On any day of the year, an estimated 18 million American suffer from depression; and this statistic was compiled before our nation’s current economic crisis!
Living just ten minutes away from the World Trade Center, where most mornings I commute into Manhattan from Jersey City with scores of brokers, planners, traders, and bankers, I’m acutely aware that America is not only in a financial crisis, but also a spiritual one. Distressed and/or displaced, we are increasingly aggressive in our dashes for open train seats, unforgiving if another body rubs up against us, and unlikely to initiate a conversation with our fellow commuter. I’ve received more “no’s” and had more events I’m affiliated with cancelled in the last two weeks than at any other point in my life.
According to Marcus Buckingham, a fellow coach and speaker who coined the term, “play to your strengths,” only 17% of American workers play to their professional strengths most of the time. And yet, high workplace performers typically play to their strengths more than 75% of the time. Therefore, says Buckingham, under “normal” circumstances most of us are happy in our jobs, oh, about once a week.
So no wonder we’re not feeling the love. If we are fortunate enough to have a job, most of us are not wild about them chiefly because they don’t adequately showcase our abilities. And if we leave in search of something better, we join 6.1% of Americans who are currently unemployed. While many of my clients are grappling with this disappointing reality by making plans for graduate school, they are frighteningly in good company. Economists are forecasting 2009-2010 to be a record year for graduate school enrollment, ironically just in time for private loans and scholarships to dry up.
So why don’t we all just come home tonight, fix ourselves a stiff drink, cash out what’s left of our IRAs and 401(k)s, and retreat under the covers for the rest of the year?
HOW TO BE HAPPY IN TOUGH TIMES
Because in reality, while there is no denying that we are in difficult economic times, our happiness depends on how we interpret the world as much as it does on what it actually looks like. A lot of coaches, mental health professionals, and meditation practitioners have focused our work on empowering those we serve to embrace happiness. We have argued that although most of us are born with a particular happiness “set point,” we can train ourselves to make happiness habitual, regardless of our life circumstances, if we make it as much of a priority as any other professional or personal goal.
While there are as many recipes for cooking up a happiness regimen as there are self-help authors in Barnes and Noble (Stock Quote: BKS), I propose the following: A pinch of Pollyanna with a dash of Dr. Viktor Frankl.
For anyone who has not read or seen the Disney classic (Stock Quote: DIS), (which has been on the boob tube so frequently in the last month I’m convinced most TV network execs must have a happiness coach on staff), Pollyanna Whittier is a young orphan who goes to live with her miserly Aunt Polly in Vermont after her parents’ untimely death. She transforms her aunt’s dispirited town with “The Glad Game.” Anytime she or her neighbors concede to idle gossip, whining, or sadness, Pollyanna challenges them to cite one thing that makes them glad. And in no time, even Ole Aunt Polly can’t help but count her blessings.
It seems simple enough. But does it work?
MAKE HAPPINESS A HABIT
During this week’s morning and evening commutes, I’ve made a mental list of at least a dozen things that make me glad. While each day I recite my staples- my partner, my family, my cat, my friends, my work, and my health- I try also to come up with a series of people and things particular to that day so that I continue to play the game actively rather than go through it on autopilot. For example, today I expressed gratitude for dressing warmly so that I could enjoy the cool, sunny fall day and for having a night free to spend watching the Presidential debates with my partner. Yesterday, I was glad that I got to do a presentation on one of my favorite subjects, speaking for social change, and reconnected with an old high school friend. Tomorrow, I’ll continue to be glad about receiving a kind email from a former student and who knows what else. But what I do know with absolute certainty is that when my head, heart, and gut are focused on “glad,” I notice myself exerting less effort trying to slay the “sad.” I think I’m back on track for making happiness a habit.
GET TO (PURPOSEFUL) WORK
But shifting one’s happiness set point means more than finding daily reasons to be glad. It also entails engaging in purposeful work. In his landmark book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Holocaust survivor Dr. Viktor Frankl says that there is a direct relationship between our happiness and our clarity about what we were put on this Earth to do. One of the most powerful questions my mentor coach asked me when we started working together was, “What is the question you were born to answer?” I still get goose bumps remembering the first moment I found myself having to articulate an answer, accepting the challenge to come up with a mission and vision statement for my life. When I know what my purpose is, how specifically I am contributing to a world I want to one day bring children into, it’s hard to succumb to suffering.
As Buddha says, “Happiness comes when your work and words are of benefit to yourself and others.”
What contributions are you called to make?
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