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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Remember, It's Better to Give than to Receive

I grew up in the Episcopal Church, and some of the phrases from the Sunday service still thrum through my being. One of these was recited just before the collection was taken up:

"Remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, It is more blessed to give than to receive."

OK, it may have been a little self-serving to say this just before they took our money, but the idea turns out to be a good one: It's better to give than to get.

This lines up nicely with Socrates and his "virtue over money" principle.

So give, give, give. It's an expression of love. And the more we love, the happier we'll be.

Yes, you'll be happier. Not to mention the people you give to.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Remember, Virtue over Money

Lately, I've been reading Plato's accounts surrounding the death of Socrates (The Apology, Crito, and Phaedo).

In the first of these, The Apology, Socrates is condemned to death--in essence, for telling the truth.

And here is one of the truths he tells (in Benjamin Jowett's stodgy translation): he would "exhort any one" that he met and say, "You, my friend … are you not ashamed of heaping up the greatest amount of money and honour and reputation, and caring so little about wisdom and truth and the greatest improvement of the soul, which you never regard or heed at all?"

Sound familiar? I see it every day. Then, later, he observes: "I tell you that virtue is not given by money, but that from virtue comes money and every other good of man, public as well as private."

Money can't buy virtue; but if we practice right conduct, we'll have enough money, and every other good.

So remember, Virtue over Money.

You'll be happier.

Monday, March 29, 2010

See with Your Inner Eye

I've written before about how readily we see the imperfections of others, while failing to notice our own.

Thinking about this recently, I remembered a saying from Saint-Exupery's The Little Prince: "It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye."

So there's the key to looking past the imperfections of others: See with the heart, not with the eyes.

Remember that scene in Star Wars, where Luke has to hit a moving target with his eyes covered? That's the secret. Seeing with the "inner eye," not relying on our feeble senses. Looking past the surface, into the "is-ness" of things.

When we can do that, it will get a whole lot easier.

Try it, and you'll be happier.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Clean House

One of the ancient rituals connected to the Spring Festival ("Chinese New Year") in China and Chinese-influenced cultures (like Japan) is a good cleaning of the house before New Year's Eve.

It's the physical equivalent of the "New Year's Resolution": start the year with a clean house and a clean slate.

The feelings that come with a clean house are many: pride, lowered stress, comfort. Then there's the efficiency that comes from being able to find things (or not have to step over things).

Cleaning itself can be drudgery, but you can always "Whistle while you work." Every time I see Snow White clean the Dwarfs' house, I wish I had those animals to help! But barring animals, there are always partners and kids. Or friends (really, really good friends).

So clean the place up. If you don't get pleasure in the action, you'll get pleasure from the result.

And you'll be happier.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Dance in the Rain

I remember when I was a kid, how much I enjoyed jumping in puddles, and taking off my hood in the rain (even though I knew I'd catch it when I got home).

Years later, Gene Kelly cinched it for me. The last line of his famous "Singin' in the Rain" performance adds that he's "Singin' and dancin' in the rain!"

Yeah. Get out there, take off as many clothes as you legally can, and dance in a spring (or summer) rain. And why not make an event of it? Invite a few friends over. Do it on a rooftop, in a park, on a crowded sidewalk (where you can get passersby to join in!)

So dance in the rain. Just dance in the rain! It's a glorious feelin'. You'll be happy again. You'll be laughing at clouds so dark up above. With the sun in your heart, you'll be ready for love. When the stormy clouds chase everyone from the place, you can dance in the rain with a smile on your face. You'll dance down the lane with a happy refrain, just dancin', yes dancin' in the rain!

You'll be happier.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Lean on Someone

Bill Withers was born in 1938 in Slab Fork, a small coal-mining town in West Virginia. The youngest of six children, he grew up in nearby Beckley, where his father died when young Bill was just 13. After nine years in the Navy, he moved to L.A., where he worked in factories. Even after "Ain't No Sunshine" became his first big hit song, he held onto his job, not believing that income from music could sustain him.

You see, Bill was missing the strong sense of small-town community that had nurtured him. This inspired him to write his biggest hit ever, "Lean on Me":

Sometimes in our lives we all have pain
We all have sorrow
But if we are wise
We know that there's always tomorrow

Lean on me, when you're not strong
And I'll be your friend
I'll help you carry on
For it won't be long
'Til I'm gonna need
Somebody to lean on

Please swallow your pride
If I have things you need to borrow
For no one can fill those of your needs
That you don't let show

...

If there is a load you have to bear
That you can't carry
I'm right up the road
I'll share your load
If you just call me

So just call on me brother, when you need a hand
We all need somebody to lean on
I just might have a problem that you'd understand
We all need somebody to lean on

So lean on somebody who's strong when you're not.

You'll be happier.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Stand Up Straight

Teenagers slouch. It's their natural pose, and feels comfortable.

And parents of teenagers say repeatedly, "Stand up straight." It's their natural pose, and feels comfortable to them.

The fact is, most teens are miserable much of the time. It's hard to be growing so fast. It's hard to have people telling you "you’re not old enough" and at the same time "stop being childish." It's hard to have all those hormones, and no outlet for them.

So slouching is a physical expression of that misery.

Here's an observation: happy people don't slouch.

The corollary is: Slouching people aren't happy.

So, as my mother and father told me time and again, "Stand up straight." Chin up, back erect, eyes forward into the future.

Whatever it is that is making you slouch, get rid of it. If you can't get rid of it, forge right through it.

And as you do, stand up straight.

You'll be happier.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Daydream

Yes. Stare out the window. Lie back on the grass and watch the clouds. Imagine yourself in that perfect job, that perfect life.

Walter Mitty got a bad rap. The protagonist of a story by James Thurber, a "Walter Mitty" is defined by the American Heritage Dictionary as "an ... often ineffectual person who indulges in fantastic daydreams of personal triumphs."

What's so wrong about that?

Who can't afford to let off a little steam now and then, drifting off to a better place, a better life?

Sometimes spending a little time in that world is just what we need to get us through this one.

So who do you want to be? A pirate? Amelia Earhart? Hercules, or his descendant Superman? Wonder Woman? Why not?

Want to be an artist on the Left Bank of Paris in the 30s? Live a little! Be Gauguin in Tahiti. Find the cure for cancer. Write a bestseller.

Then, come back, and use all the peace, self-esteem, or glory you've achieved to get you through the day here.

Daydream. You'll be happier.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Be a Role Model

Have you ever been looked up to? Has a kid ever imitated you (in a good way)? Do youngsters use your vocabulary, repeat your maxims, follow your advice?

That's a powerful drug.

The world is full of opportunities to shape young minds, from formal programs like Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, or Scouting, to "just" being a mom or dad.

Remember that kids learn more by what we do than by what we say. Remember that they may not even realize they're emulating you. And, alas, remember that sometimes they learn by negative example.

So be a hero. Take on a role that you can be proud of.

Be a role model.

You'll be happier.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Play

A secret vice: Free Cell.

I use it to limber up before I write. When I get stuck trying to express an idea, I play a game or two, and voila! Logjam unjammed.

Dutch scholar Johan Huizinga wrote a book calling us "Homo Ludens," or "Man the Player." In it, Huizinga suggested that culture itself would not exist without the human capacity for play.

It's as true for the individual as for the species. What defines us is what, and how, and how much, we play.

So take a look at your play time. Do you spend it sleeping? (Not good.) Do you have hobbies? Play sports? Interact with others? (Better.)

Do you create lasting products? Sing, dance, or otherwise perform? Do you "play" in a way that improves your health, your life, your community, your world?

Whatever it is you do, play. Whether you're good at it or not, play. Alone or in groups, play.

Play. You'll be happier.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Cause Happiness Wherever You Go, Not Whenever You Go

Oscar Wilde was a rare wit. One of his bon mots was this pearl:

"Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go."

Which would you rather be?

Try the former.

You'll be happier.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Work the Routine

Every day is different, with its own unique blessings and challenges.

However, some things are the same every day.

It's good to establish a routine to deal with the everyday tasks. On work days, I know what time to rise, how long to be at the computer, what time to shower, what I need to take with me.

Every semester, I know what I need to do each day of the week in order to keep up with my classes, my writing duties at the local paper, and my online postings.

When I work my routine, I free up time and mental energy to deal with the not-so-everyday; when I break my routine, I find myself rushing around to get things done--or discovering that I've forgotten something.

Yes, the word "routine" conjures images of dull, boring days. But since we have to get certain things done, why not get them done in the most efficient way possible, making way for the fun stuff?

So, work the routine.

You'll be happier.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Yield

When I walked through Japan back in 2001, I started with high ideals. I never wanted to be in a wheeled vehicle, no sirree, not for the entire 1,200 miles, even to get to and from lodging. I'd sleep on the ground if I had to.

But it didn't take long (about 24 hours, in fact) for me to realize that the plan as I had conceived it, while not impossible, would prevent me from actually benefiting from the experience. (Sleeping in an apartment building's carport will do that to you.)

So, despite plans and promises made, I adjusted my scheme and lo and behold had a great time and learned a lot--and the inner transformations experienced are still having their effect.

Sometimes, you have to yield to reality, to give up, to adjust.

Let's reiterate the point with a silly joke.

A guy catches a ride with a dummy. At the first red light, the dummy drives right on through.

"What are you doing?" asks the guy.

"Oh, that's what my brother does," says the dummy.

The next signal, and the next, the dummy does the same thing.

At the fourth signal, the light is green, and the dummy stops.

"What are you doing now?" asks the guy.

"Well," says the dummy, "you never know. My brother might be coming on the cross street!"

Be ready to give up your preconceived notions and adjust to circumstances.

Yield. You'll be happier.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Affirm Every Morning

Here's a little exercise:

Set your alarm five minutes earlier tomorrow. As soon as you open your eyes, sit up on the edge of the bed and repeat some affirmations to get you through the day.

Here are a few to get you started:

  • I am grateful for this day.
  • I am grateful for the people in my life.
  • I am mindful of the world around me.
  • I am compassionate toward others.
  • I am at peace.
  • I am confident and relaxed.
  • I feel great about myself.
  • I accept the opportunities that come my way.
  • I trust my intuition.
  • I am healthy and well.
  • I am safe and secure.
  • I choose to be happy.

You get the idea.

Yeah, it's a little smarmy, a little "touchy-feely." But you know what? That's your head talking, not your heart. You can totally "psych" yourself into a happier day.

Try it, and you'll be happier.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Express Yourself

Who remembers Charles Wright & the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band?

Not me.

But I sure remember their big hit, a funky little James Brown-esque number from the 70s called "Express Yourself" (that's the original, not the N.W.A. remix).

Seriously. Who could forget this?

Express Yourself!
Express Yourself!
You don't ever need help from nobody else. All you got to do now:
Express Yourself!

Then, expanding on this thought:

What ever you do, do it good.
What ever you do, do it good. All right...

And, going even deeper:

It's not what you look like, when you're doin' what you're doin'.
It's what you're doin' when you're doin' what you look like you're doin'!

Uh...O...K...

Anyway, Charles and the guys were probably talking about expression through dance. But however you get it out--art, poetry, painting your room, whatever--just

EXPRESS YOURSELF!

You'll be happier.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Get Up, Dress Up and Show Up

When I was a kid, I was sick much of the time. I hated going to school (where I felt over-challenged), and never wanted to get up and get ready.

My mother had a whole bag of (sometimes dirty) tricks for dealing with this. The slyest was when she'd say, "Look, get up, get ready, and go today, and I'll let you stay home the next two days." Young (and groggy) as I was, I'd be brushing my teeth before I realized: it was Friday.

Moms. What're ya gonna do?

Anyway, since then (as I've written before) I've learned that people who are depressed tend to hide from the world, and the best way to "snap out of it" is, as someone said, to "get up, dress up and show up."

Put your game face on. Put on your top hat. Put your best foot forward.

Don't lose by forfeit. Sometimes the guy who shows up wins by default!

So get up, get outta bed. Dress for success. And be there.

You'll be happier.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Get Catharsis

When I lived in Japan, I worked near Shibuya station, where you'll find the statue of the faithful dog Hachiko. He used to go to the station every day to greet his owner, a professor, on his way home from the university. After the professor died at work, Hachi continued to go down to the station every day and wait. The local people later cast a statue of him, still to be seen waiting patiently at the station.

There are times when I can barely tell this story without choking up.

So when a friend told me recently that he was embarrassed by the fact that the new film adaptation of Hachi's story made him cry, I understood completely.

Aristotle called this "catharsis," the release of emotions that occurs from watching (Aristotle wrote) a tragedy. (But I think it works for comedy, too.)

Having a good cry--or a good laugh--at a fictional character's expense, is a great way to get it all out, to "purge" (the meaning of catharsis).

Watch a tear-jerker, or something slapstick. Or try a film like A Serious Man (which we watched this weekend) that will keep you swinging between these emotions.

So purge yourself. Flush out that excess emotional energy. Get catharsis.

You'll be happier.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Get Real

Here's an oxymoron for you: Reality television.

Awhile back, someone figured out that it was cheaper to do so-called "reality shows" than to bother writing anything. So now we get to watch long-time partners arguing over which way to go, and the deep inner turmoil of roommates.

I guess it beats soap operas.

Some people tell me: "I learned so much geography from 'The Amazing Race.'"

Whatever. Wouldn't you learn more from watching the same number of hours of The Discovery Channel?

Sigh. What's a teacher to do?

Anyway, just please please please remember that "reality TV" is no more "real" than any other TV. What you see there has been processed and manipulated (to process and manipulate you in turn).

One of my wife's former professors is the renowned Filipino artist Kidlat Tahimik. He initiated a campaign called "LIBHRTY," standing for "Limit Idiot Box HouRs (Thank You)." Limit them, yes, and be selective regarding what you choose to watch, then be sophisticated in how you watch. Don't let them snow you.

When it comes to TV viewing, get real.

You'll be happier.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Pet Something

Most of my young life, and again during my first marriage, there was always a dog in the house. I remember times when the dog was the only one I could tell my troubles to, and the dog always listened--as long as I kept stroking its head!

But I haven't lived with a dog for a long, long time.

So while we were in Bali with friends over Chinese New Year, I saw something that brought back memories.

To my surprise, we didn't see any beggars working the streets. I've grown so used to them here in China, and in the Philippines, that their absence was notable.

We did see one in a restaurant, though, and he had a unique hustle: he was carrying around a puppy, and handing it to people.

I never did find out his story: Was he begging for money to buy the dog food? Or was he just offering a chance to pet the puppy in exchange for a donation?

Whatever the deal was, I can tell you: people were happily petting that puppy, and paying for the privilege.

You who have pets--pettable pets, not goldfish or canaries--know what I'm talking about. There is a very deep, almost nostalgic pleasure in petting a dog or a cat, or grooming a horse. The intimate contact with another sentient but non-human being has been a constant in the evolution of our kind.

So hug a hound, cradle a cat. Get in "touch" with nature.

Pet something.

You'll be happier.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Remember, the Best Is Yet to Come

Here it is again, truth in a cliche: "The best is yet to come."

The older I get, the more I believe it.

Many of you will know that Frank Sinatra recorded a hit by that name back in 1964; it was also the last song he ever performed in public. What you may not know is that he had the words The Best Is Yet to Come engraved on his tombstone!

Hmmm...

Now, I don't mean to sound all Pollyanna. This is no glib "pot of gold at the end of the rainbow" kind of thing. This is the Voice of Experience talking.

And I also don't mean that you should always be looking to the future. Definitely, live for today.

But just know, in your heart of hearts, that whatever your life is like now, it will probably be that much better five years from now, or ten, or twenty.

And Ol' Blue Eyes says it even gets better after it's over. I can't swear to that, but I can say that my life has never been as sweet as it is right now, and I expect it to get better and better.

So hold on. You ain't seen nothin' yet, folks. Remember, the best is yet to come!

You will be happier.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

"Try Not"

I think I've mentioned before that in high school, Joseph Heller's Catch 22 was sort of my "Bible." (I think I should read it again, and see how it has held up.)

One of the "absurd" lines that always stuck with me was one character talking about another, saying, "He thinks he's happy."

As if there could be a gap between thinking one is happy and actually being happy.

It reminds me of that happiness guru Yoda, who said: "Try not. Do. Or do not. There is no try."

Are you trying to be happy? Do you think you're happy?

Stop it. And just be happy.

You'll (need I say it?) be happier.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Expect the Best

There's an interesting phenomenon in classrooms.

Let's say a teacher is given a new group of students. She's given a list of the student's aptitudes (all manufactured, as it turns out). She then teaches these students in front of an observer.

Unbeknownst to the teacher, the observer is timing her. He is watching to see how long she gives each student to answer.

The results? Consistently, the teacher gives the "smart students" more time to answer. The "slow students" are rushed, and not given a chance to think things through.

Talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy. The "slow" students don't do as well because of the teacher's expectations.

Now, to tell the truth, I'm not a hundred percent comfortable with the so-called "Law of Attraction." Yes, I think positive thinking has its place; but no, I don't think it can bend the laws of space, time, and economics.

Nevertheless, I do believe that expectation affects outcome in many, many cases.

So yes: be positive. Believe, and you are likely to receive more than you might have otherwise. Expect the best

You'll be happier.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Watch a Sunset

One of the "big give-ups" where I live is that there is seldom a blue sky, and virtually never a sunrise or sunset.

That's what makes trips to Manila so fulfilling. Watching the justly-famed Manila Bay sunsets from the Baywalk area is an experience not to be missed. (Never mind that the colors are likely generated by pollution.)

Something about seeing the sun go down--the end of the day; the slow, steady sinking into the sea--reminds us of the arc of our own lives.

Doing it with someone you love, or from a spectacular vantage point, or both, just makes it that much better.

What are you doing tonight? Why not catch a sunset?

You'll be happier.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Learn to Be Alone

Recently when I was out and about I noticed something: virtually none of the young people I saw were capable of being by themselves. Those that were physically alone were either on the phone, or texting to someone.

Sitting alone in a cafe? Call someone.

Walking down the street? Send a text (while watching for manhole covers!)

Waiting for a bus? Dial, dial, dial.

It's sad, really. When do they get time to think? To appraise, to process, to be?

Being alone, being one's own best friend, is a key to the happy life. Then, when we're with others, we can act out of our "center," instead of reacting to others.

Alone time recharges the battery, rebalances the mind, refreshes the spirit. And you don't have to be on a desert island, or in a forest retreat, to do it.

Just learn to be alone in the little spaces every day brings.

You'll be happier.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Go to a Playground

Seriously. Go to a playground.

Slide down the slide. Swing on the swings. Go around on the merry-go-round. Climb on the jungle gym, and monkey around on the monkey bars.

Be a kid again.

You'll be happier.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Kill the Green-Eyed Monster

Ah, envy.

The Ten Commandments attributed to Moses (and behind him, G-d) admonish us not to covet "thy neighbor's house, thy neighbor's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbor's."

House, spouse, servants, source of income, means of transportation, or anything.

Yup, that about covers it.

Let me make a quick aside here: we're so used to thinking of rules (like the Ten Commandments, or the Five Precepts) as binding, restrictive, punishing. Have you ever thought about them as sources of happiness ?

Anyway, the point is, you already have what you need.

It has been observed that, just before a divorce, there is often a major acquisition: a new house, a fancy car, even a baby. And then the two people discover that it wasn't the thing that would save the marriage, and so off they go.

You already have what you need.

Believe it, live in it, breathe it.

You'll be happier.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Seek Harmony in Thought, Word, and Deed

That Gandhi fella said, "Happiness is when what you think, what you say and what you do are in harmony."

Interestingly, this accords perfectly with a phrase in the "General Confession" recited in the Episcopal Church's communion service when I was growing up. "We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, Which we, from time to time, most grievously have committed, By thought, word, and deed, Against thy Divine Majesty," we said.

Cynics will notice that one who sins in thought, word, and deed would in fact be happy, as all three are in harmony. To this all I can say is, "Cut it out."

The assumption here (after all, it is Gandhi talking) is that "what you think, what you say and what you do" will be "in harmony" in positive ways.

Some people talk a spiritual game, but neither believe it nor live it. Others talk tough, but are really spiritual sweeties inside.

The truly spiritual--and therefore happy--person is the one who does all three.

Think about it. Are you thinking, talking, and walking the life that you want?

Try it. You'll be happier.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Remember that Shtuff Happens

One of the things I've learned about the "mysterious East": Basically, every country I've spent time in has an expression that means, "What can you do?" or "I can't worry about it."

In Japan, it's "Shoganai." A volcano buried my house in lava? "Shoganai." A typhoon destroyed my business? "Shoganai." My daughter ran off with her English teacher? "Shoganai."

In China, it's "Mei banfa." And in the Philippines, "Bahala na." (I like this one best: it's speculated that it refers to a pre-Conquest god, and means that it's all up to him.)

Now, this goes beyond the sort of flippant "C'est la vie" that we are accustomed to. Some see in it a deep fatalism, a sort of despair or giving up.

Instead, however, I see it as an aspect of non-attachment, the "serenity to accept the things I cannot change" mentioned in the "Serenity Principle."

So when things go wrong that are beyond your control, say one of these and move on.

You'll be happier.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Indulge a Whim

You're on your way home from work. Your plan is to cook dinner, watch some TV, and hit the sack. Next thing you know, you've taken a detour and ended up at the home of a friend you haven't seen in ages. Or maybe you’re in a karaoke bar. Or taking a moonlight hike.

It seems like our lives are all plan and program. Gotta check that Dayrunner to see when we've penciled in some fun.

(I once saw a hilarious scene at a meeting of Episcopal priests: someone mentioned a date and the men and women of the cloth all reached into their breast pockets to pull out their calendars, looking for all the world like a bunch of hoods at the St. Valentine's Day Massacre going for their guns.)

Whatever you have planned for today, scrap it, and have some fun instead. I don't mean that you should be irresponsible, heavens no; but does everything have to be planned?

Watch for that next wild impulse, and act on it. Be spontaneous. Indulge a whim.

You'll be happier.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Lower Your Sights

"Dream big!"

"If you can conceive it, you can receive it!"

"You can have it all!"

And then, when life just oozes along (as it usually does), we feel cheated.

I'm not saying we shouldn't strive for the best.

But I am wondering, "What's wrong with 'pretty good'? Or even 'so-so'?"

An old bumper sticker said it best: "When all else fails, lower your standards."

The Buddha taught that the way to happiness (or "enlightenment") was to stop desiring, to accept whatever happens with equanimity.

A tall order. But anyone can want less.

So reduce your desires. Downsize. Scale back. Lower your sights.

You'll be happier.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Sweat the Small Stuff

Zen practice is famous for the peculiar notion that "little things matter." As Charlotte Joko Beck wrote (in Nothing Special: Living Zen):

How do we brush our teeth? How do we sweep the floor, or slice a carrot? We think we're here to deal with "more important" issues, such as our problems with our partner, our jobs, our health, and the like. We don't want to bother with the "little" things, like how we hold our chopsticks, or where we place our spoon. Yet these acts are the stuff of our life, moment to moment. It's not a question of importance, it's a question of paying attention, being aware. Why? Because every moment in life is absolute in itself. That's all there is. There is nothing other than this present moment; there is no past, there is no future; there is nothing but this. So when we don't pay attention to each little this, we miss the whole thing.

Whatever we're doing--washing windows, driving kids to school, trimming our fingernails--if we do it with full attention, it takes on a significance that raises it above the mundane. That leads to happiness.

So pay attention to the details. Be in the moment, no matter how trivial that moment may seem. "Sweat" the small stuff.

You'll be happier.