One simple step toward happiness every day for a year. Doesn't everyone want to be happy?
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Friday, April 30, 2010

Fake It Till You Make It

I spend a lot of electrons writing about the importance of what we think. But there's an old saying that "Action precedes attitude." What we do often shapes what we think.

Tell a kid to stop littering. And tell him, And tell him. And...

Or, take him on a roadside clean-up activity. He'll probably stop littering.

Want him to become generous? Have him give. Want him to be selfless? Have him volunteer.

Now, imagine that kid is you. What attitudes do you want to develop? And what actions can you do to help shape them?

Decide what you kind of person you want to be, and do what it takes to make you that person.

You'll be happier.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Control Your Self

When I was a kid, the comedian Flip Wilson was a big hit with his catchphrase, "The devil made me do it!"

It was funny when he said it. But isn't this a common cop-out? The idea that there is some outside force called "Evil" that makes us do bad things?

Here's what Buddhism says. In The Dhammapada, we read:

By oneself evil is done, by oneself one suffers;
By oneself evil is left undone, by oneself one is purified.
Purity and impurity belong to oneself,
No one can purify another.

And as for the results of our misbehavior? The great English Buddhist Christmas Humphries (love that name!) wrote, "Christians are punished for their sin; Buddhists are punished by their sin."

There's no one to blame but ourselves.

So take charge and control your Self.

You'll be happier.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Remember, No One Gets Out Alive

There are lots of clever ways to say this, but they all point to one thing: you're going to die.

In Catch-22, one character says, "I'm going to live forever, or die trying."


Robert Herrick in "To the Virgins, to make much of Time," put it more beautifully:

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles to-day
To-morrow will be dying.

So, what's the point?

Live. Just live.

You'll be happier.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

"Be All That You Can Be"

No, I'm not proposing that you go join the Army (though that's a possible route to happiness for some).

I mean, maximize.

Mark Twain said, "The man who doesn't read good books has no advantage over the man who can't read them."

Meaning? If you have the ability, or the opportunity, to do something, and you don't do it, you are in no better a position than the person who has no such possibilities.

So figure out what you've got, and use it. Figure out what you can do, and do it.

You'll be happier.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Go Insane

For those of you haven't done so already, it seems that losing your marbles is one secret to happiness. Take the word of no less a madcap than good ol' Sam Clemens, better known as the uber-whack Mark Twain: "Sanity and happiness are an impossible combination."

Think about it. Were you ever happier than when you first fell in love? And as another philosopher, the sometimes donkey-headed Bottom in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, says: "To say the truth, reason and love keep little company together nowadays."

The newly-in-love may be happy, but they sure-as-shootin' ain't stable!

The same is true of anyone in fits of ecstasy, whether a young one at Disneyland or an old one given a reprieve by the doctors. Ultimately happy is ultimately screwy.

Who was happier than Roger Rabbit at his most manic?

So go nuts. Lose it. Go off the deep end. Lose your marbles. Go insane.

You'll be happier.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Be a Cheapskate

As the old song goes, "The best things in life are free." The song gives us a list: the moon, the stars, flowers in spring, the robins that sing, the sunbeams that shine, and the Greatest Gift of All, Love.

But what do we want? Money. Or stuff. Or money and stuff.

So the great American philosopher, Henry David Thoreau (who knew a thing or two about getting by on the cheap) suggested we adjust our sights: "That man is richest," he said, "whose pleasures are cheapest."

This just turns everything upside down. We think the person who takes pleasure in going to Club Med, wearing a Rolex, driving a Ferrari, is the rich one.

Thoreau says it’s the guy who takes pleasure in walking in the woods, wearing a Timex, and taking the bus.

So downgrade a little. Learn to take pleasure in simple things. Be a cheapskate.

You'll be happier.

Saturday, April 24, 2010


A horse is a horse.

But not every human being is a human being, according to some schools of thought. There is a process, they suggest, by which we become human.

As someone who has been a teacher for nearly 30 years, I agree.

The Jungians call this process "individuation." Here's some (regrettably heavy) stuff from Wikipedia:

According to Jungian psychology, individuation is a process of psychological integration, having for its goal the development of the individual personality. "In general, it is the process by which individual beings are formed and differentiated [from other human beings]; in particular, it is the development of the psychological individual as a being distinct from the general, collective psychology."

OK? Or maybe you'd rather hear a more mundane version from that Sage of the Vaudeville Stage, Guru George Burns: "Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city."

In a limited sense, it's about cutting the apron strings.

Look, a child is embedded in a family, without much choice in the matter. Then adolescence comes, and the child roams away. When he or she comes back, the healthy person makes choices as to how to relate to the family.

The benefits? Again, from Wikipedia:

Besides achieving physical and mental health, people who have advanced towards individuation tend to be harmonious, mature and responsible. They embody humane values such as freedom and justice and have a good understanding about the workings of human nature and the universe.

Sounds like "happiness" to me.

So leave the nest, break free, individuate.

You'll be happier.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Find a "Spiritual Buddy"

Once in a blue moon, something really cool happens.

A person comes along who sees things as you do, who has the same spiritual priorities, who is positioned to join you on your path.

When that person comes along, hold on, and don't let go!

It may be someone at your church, or in a club; someone you met on the internet; or, for us lucky few, a spouse or loved one.

And the result is: fellowship, what one waggish pastor described as "a bunch of fellows in the same ship."

The Biblical Book of Proverbs says, "As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another."

I couldn't have said it better myself. A "spiritual buddy" can share readings with you, support your efforts, and--when the relationship deepens--point out your blind spots, all in the name of "sharpening" your spirituality. Money can't buy the growth that results from that kind of friendship.

So find a spiritual buddy to walk the path with.

You'll be happier.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Be an Early Adopter

Dueling proverbs: "Change is good."

And "Change hurts."

Which is true?


One reason we often resist change is because, in the past, change has led to discomfort at least, and often great pain.

Yet, there is great freedom, pleasure, and yes, happiness, in being an "early adopter." Remember the old come-on? "Be the first one on your block!"

So when you see something good--a new technique, a new attitude, a new product--that you think will make you happier, don't wait! Act now! Tomorrow may be too late!

And you'll be happier.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Keep Your Promises

Think of a time when someone made you a promise, and then broke it.

How did it feel? Hurt, didn't it?

Back before the lawyers got involved, back before "non-performance" and "breach of contract," there was a time when a person's word was his or her bond.

We, too, had that "golden age" in our childhood: "Cross my heart and hope to die / Stick a needle in my eye..."

Just remember what it was like when someone reneged.

A simple rule: If you’re not sure you can keep it, don't make that promise. A promise isn't a technique for wiggling out of a tight spot ("I promise, I'll do it later"); it's a building block in a wall of trust.

So keep your promises. You (and the people around you) will be happier.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Master Your Thoughts

That early-20th-century Happiness Guru, Dale Carnegie, echoed the wisdom of the ages when he wrote:

"It isn't what you have, or who you are, or where you are, or what you are doing that makes you happy or unhappy. It is what you think about."

The Dhammapada (again!) starts out on the same note. The first two verses read:

1. All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with an evil thought, pain follows him, as the wheel follows the foot of the ox that draws the carriage.
2. All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with a pure thought, happiness follows him, like a shadow that never leaves him.

Yep. It's all in your head!

Remember that, and you'll be happier.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Remember, It's Not Whether You Win or Lose...

The last lines from an old poem:

For when the One Great Scorer comes to mark against your name,
He writes - not that you won or lost - but how you played the Game.

This came to mind recently when I read this in the Dhammapada, one of the greatest collections of Wisdom (and therefore, Happiness) maxims ever:

Victory breeds hatred, for the conquered is unhappy. He who has given up both victory and defeat, he, the contented, is happy.

This is inherent in the idea that all of life is lila, a sort of game (and, coincidentally, my wife's name).

So learn how to play your best without thought of the outcome.

You'll be happier.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Avoid the "Seven Deadlies"

I've talked often of Buddhism's "Three Poisons"--Greed (or Desire), Anger (or Hatred), and Ignorance (or Delusion)--as sure-fire ways to become unhappy.

But recently, I led a discussion on Christianity's version of the Poisons: The Seven Deadly Sins.

Can you name them? (I can name the Seven Dwarfs, but the Seven Deadly Sins aren't as easy). In fact, it's kind of a trick question, as the list has changed over time. As taught today, they are:

  • Lust: Call it "sexual intemperance." The Opposite Virtue is Chastity. Certainly a failure to behave well in the area of intimate relationships can be a great source of unhappiness.
  • Gluttony: Intemperance in consumption. We could throw in materialism, addiction to drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, etc.--anything that violates the Opposite Virtue, Temperance.
  • Greed: Like desire out of control. The Opposite Virtue is Charity, or Generosity.
  • Sloth: This one is not mere laziness, but is a special meaning of the word. It has to do with lack of Diligence (the O.V.) in spiritual things. The original word was "acedia" (look it up), and described things like monks not getting out of bed for prayers.
  • Wrath: Like Buddhism's Anger; the Opposite Virtue is Patience.
  • Envy: This goes beyond mere jealousy (wanting what others have) to actually wanting them to not have it (somewhat like "begrudging"). That's why the Opposite Virtue is Kindness, a willingness to rejoice in their success.
  • Pride: Though last on the list, this "vaunting of self" may be the root of them all (as the last Poison mentioned, Ignorance, is the root of the others). The Opposite Virtue, Humility, is an abasing of oneself.

There they are. And their pertinence to happiness?

Simple. Avoid these Seven, which are Deadly to happiness, and guess what?

You'll be happier.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

BE Happy

A few years ago, a friend and I were hosting a Wednesday night social meeting. One week, I was scheduled to give a talk on "The Secret of Happiness." (Yes, only one; but you get 365!)

At the time, I also ran a mailing list called "The Laughing Buddha." My cohort and I swapped lists, to make sure that everyone received our announcements.

A member of his list sent him this letter in reply to our invitation (unedited except for the names):

Hi R---, i shall not be attending any more of these "club meetings" and please don't send me any "laughing budda" e-mails. I don't wish to receive any kind of religeous material. Be they writings, beliefs or any of the like.
Also, you may not know it, but i have a degrees' in sociology, psychology and philosophy. I don't wish to be preached to by some half-baked ideailst, who believes he has found the secret to happiness...
"Happiness comes from within." That's all there is to it!
Regards R---
Do you catch the tone here? This is an angry person. Something as minor as this email set him off in a fit of name-calling and self-righteousness.

Doesn't seem very happy, does he?

And yet, he knows the secret of happiness: "Happiness comes from within."

So this guy knows the secret, but is still manifestly unhappy.

My point? Knowing isn't enough. You have to BE happy.

You can know what wealth is, and not be wealthy.

You can know what peace is, and not be peaceful.

You can know what happiness is, and not be happy.

So that's today's secret. It's not enough to have the idea of happiness. You have to BE happy.

And then (somewhat redundantly) you'll be happier.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Keep Swimming

They say that, because of a peculiarity of their biology, sharks have to keep swimming to keep the water flowing over their gills to gather oxygen. If they stop swimming, they die.

Get it?

Keep swimming.

You'll be happier.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Close Your Mouth

Following up on "Sit Still"...

It sounds like a scold from a parent, doesn't it? "Sit still. Close your mouth."

But listen again.

Ah yes, listen. Someone said, "You can't listen with your mouth open."

And Mark Twain, or Abe Lincoln, or somebody famous, said, "Better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt."

So there you have the two benefits of the closed mouth: (a) it's a listening aid, and (b) it makes you look wise!

Talk less; listen more; be wise.

You'll be happier.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Sit Still

Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote: "Happiness is as a butterfly which, when pursued, is always beyond our grasp, but which if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you."

You know, everyone makes a big fuss about "Zen." Meditation classes are big business, and gurus become international superstars.

But, as one of my wise old teachers used to say, "When you sit, just sit."

You're not trying to get anything; in fact, the harder you "try," the longer it takes.

Just sit.

Sit in a garden, or sit at your desk at work. Sit in the bus. Sit on a stairway during break time.

Sit mindfully, of course. Good posture, breathing deeply. Don't slouch, or pant.

But seriously, all you need to do is sit.

And you'll be happier.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Meet Your Guardian Angel

Back when I worked in a "real" school, the headmaster wisely booked a series of "scholars in residence," one per year. Parker Palmer, Peggy McIntosh, and other first-class thinkers left their mark on my thinking.

But one idea, from Harvard educational sociologist Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, really stuck in my mind.

Think of the student that bugs you the most, she said. Watch that student closely, and guess what? The thing that is bugging you is likely to be one of your own weak points.

The student is always late for class; do you show up for meetings on time? The student's homework is often late, and incomplete; how about your grades, and other required paperwork?

Dr. Lawrence-Lightfoot called this student "your guardian angel." He or she is there to remind you of areas that you could stand to improve.

So, who's your guardian angel? Who drives you nuts? And what is that person's effect on you telling you about yourself?

Meet your guardian angel. Get to know him or her well. And find out what it is you’re meant to learn.

You'll be happier.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Be "Without Wax"

There's a popular etymology--almost certainly not true--for the word "sincere."

It's said that the Romans would find old Greek statues with cracks and flaws. They'd patch them with wax, paint them over (classical statuary was in fact painted) and sell them as flawless. One good, hot day would bring the wax running out, ruining the perfection.

So, they say, statues that were actually whole and flawless were sold as "without wax": sine cere in Latin.

Alas, as I mentioned, this explanation is bogus.

Nevertheless, I love the image, and so today's "secret" is this: Be "Without Wax." Do not gloss over your flaws. Fix them, or revel in them, but be sincere.

You'll be happier.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Get Lost

I don't mean "scram." I mean, following up on the idea of "trying something new every day," wander off the beaten path, and maybe even get lost.

I often head out into the city where I live (and last week, in a totally strange city), and wander until I need directions to get home.

In that strange city (Jinan, Shandong), I found myself in an old Muslim quarter, passing a woman in full burqa, several ancient Chinese-style mosques, and a Pakistani restaurant (a real treat after eating "Buddhist food" for three days). The restaurant's owner was a great guy, a doctor doing graduate work, and we had a fascinating conversation.

You never know what you'll see, or who you'll meet, or where you'll end up. That's the fun of it!

So get lost.

You'll be happier.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Get to the Root of Things

In the early pages of his Relativity: The Special and General Theory, Albert Einstein presents the image of "conscientious teachers" chasing students about on the "lofty staircase" of Euclidean geometry "for uncounted hours."

What a great image of the nonsense that is substituted for "education." Not that Euclid in himself is a waste of time; but we tend to spend so much time on the frills, the incidentals, that we seldom get to the heart of the matter.

And I'm not just talking about education.

The amount of time between when I sit down at my computer and when I actually start producing something is often alarming. Procrastinators R us.

Often, we fail to take the direct route because we don't know what to do. Or because we aren't clear on our priorities. Or because of plumb laziness.

So whatever it is you're supposed to do, get clear and get at it. Jump in head first. As Marian the Librarian told her student, "Now, don't dawdle, Amaryllis." Get down to brass tacks. Dive in.

Get to the root of things.

You'll be happier.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Try Something New Every Day

There used to be an ad for a fast food place. Over annoyingly repetitive music, the shuffling crowd kept saying, "Same place. Same thing."

Know the feeling?

So promise yourself that you'll try something new every day.

New food, sure. New clothes, of course.

But how about a new route home? Rearranging your cubicle? A new jogging route?

Shop in a new market. Watch a new show on TV. Attend a new church. Read a different newspaper. Get up earlier. Try tea instead of coffee.

There are a million and one things we do that are routine, and as I've written before, routine can be good. But so can breaking the routine.

Do it. Try something new every day.

You'll be happier.

Thursday, April 8, 2010


It's hard to believe that we've gotten this far--well over 300 secrets--and I haven't mentioned this one yet.

It occurred to me in class today. My students had read a story about a kid who built an airplane from wood, metal and wire. Lacking a motor, he planned to have his grandpa's horse pull it to get it airborne. I asked the students to write a paragraph guessing what would happen next.

You know, most of them said it would fly. After reading these, I pointed out that a horse couldn't get it to go fast enough to get off the ground. When I asked why they believed it would work, they said because he was "determined" and he "believed" it would fly.

So, jerk that I am, I closed my eyes and starting flapping my arms, saying "I'm determined" and "I believe!"

I think they got it.

You may detect here some of my latent hostility toward certain new age beliefs that shall remain unnamed. But my point is simply: the person who fails to use the brain she or he has is no better off than someone with no brain at all--say, a table, or a refrigerator.

If we don't think things through carefully, we are likely to face severe disappointment--like the kid with the one-horsepower airplane.

So use what you've got. Think.

You'll be happier.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Practice What You Preach

That's pretty straightforward, isn't it?

"Practice what you preach."

Last semester I was wrangling with my school over what seemed to them a very simple issue. I was depending on a school-operated bus to get me to my afternoon class, and for reasons too boring to go into, it sometimes got me there late.

"No problem," my bosses told me. "Just tell the students you were on the bus."

Big problem for me. Because the students I teach are considered by some the "educational dregs": the ones who couldn't score high enough for a good university.

So I spend a lot of time harping on certain things: pay attention, be prepared, and above all, BE ON TIME.

For me to walk in late, then, was really quite a problem, whatever my reason. I couldn't make my bosses understand that it undermined my entire effort if I didn't "practice what I preached."

As I've written before, Gandhi said that "Happiness is when what you think, what you say and what you do are in harmony."

But we can sum that up in simpler expressions: "Walk the talk." "Do unto others..."

Practice what you preach .

You'll be happier.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Be Missed

I'm constantly fighting the use of "Chinglish" by my students. This has many sources: poor grammar, direct translation from Chinese, or just plain old mistakes repeated again and again.

So I didn't quite know what to do when a former student greeted me in the elevator: "Hi, James. Miss you every day!"

The old teacher in me told me to correct her. But it was just so sweet. Who doesn't want to be missed? So I let it be.

Are you missed? Think of loved ones far away. Imagine that they're thinking of you right now. Maybe even call them up, and tell them how you feel. They might just say, "I miss you."

And you'll be happier.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Read the Obits – Gratefully

George Burns was one of my favorite old-time comedians.

And one of my favorite lines of his--remember, he lived to be 100 years old--was that every morning he would get up and check the obituaries. If he isn't in them, he said, he knew it was going to be a good day!

So check the obits for your name. If you're not there, you're a winner!

It's going to be a good day. And you'll be happier.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Look at Old Pictures

Do you have a photo album? Preferably one from the pre-digital age?

Why not get it out and go through it?

Maybe it's an old family album. Sit down with an older relative and ask him or her to tell stories.

Maybe it's from your school days. Invite some old friends for a mini-reunion, and reminisce. (Ask them to bring their pictures, too.)

Maybe you have some pictures of your adult children when they were little. Ask them to come over, bring their kids, and get everyone around the table to talk about the good old days.

Or maybe, if you’re far away from home (like I am), just remember where you came from.

"Faded photographs" really are "traces of love." (Yeah, I know that song is sad, but it doesn't have to be. We can rewrite it!)

Savor the memories in some old photos today.

You'll be happier.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Buy Ice Cream

A popular cliche has it, "You can't buy happiness, but you can buy ice cream. And that's kind of the same thing."

It is kind of the same thing.

You can't buy love, but you can adopt a dog from a shelter. And that's kind of the same thing.

You can't buy time, but you can maximize what you have. And that's kind of the same thing.

You can't see God, but you can serve others. And that's kind of the same thing.

This is fun!

Go out and buy some ice cream, and make up a few of these sayings of your own. Then pick one and do it.

You'll be happier.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Spin It

There's an old joke, about a man who killed both of his parents, then threw himself on the mercy of the court-- because he was an orphan!

The hip and happening today call that "spin." Defined as "interpreting events to persuade public opinion for or against" something (or someone), it is accomplished by a corps of new professionals called "spin doctors."

Why not be a spin doctor yourself?

You could start with the tried-and-true: "Who will remember this in 100 years?" or "There's an upside to everything."

Then, start getting creative. Find the lesson in the disaster. See what it has done for your personal growth.

Let's be clear: "spin" is usually bad. It's a type of propaganda. But if we use it to our benefit, it becomes good, right?

Here's one more example: A friend of mine told me that once, a football coach inherited a terrible team. When a reporter asked him his prediction for the season, he replied, "Dis year, we're gonna build character." (No one "builds character" when they win!)

So, find the upside to every down, the silver lining to every cloud.

Spin it.

You'll be happier.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Watch a Sunrise

One of the cooler yoga moves I've seen is called the "Sun Salutation." I love the image of standing on a bluff over the sea, or maybe standing on a giant rock in the desert, and greeting the sun as it starts its daily journey.

Not that I've ever done it...

But I do appreciate a good sunrise. Not a morning person, I've often said, "I love to watch the sun rise. I just hate what I have to do to see it." (That is, get up.)

As I mentioned recently in regard to the sunset, there's a great peace in watching the sun clear the horizon. As the sunset signifies the peace and quiet of a day well done, so the sunrise intimates possibilities of what is to come. The struggle over the lip of the earth, the clearing of morning mist, the emergence in its full effulgence, all hint at what we have to do every day.

So get up, get out there, and get an eyeful of the sun, before it's too bright to look at.

Watch a sunrise.

You'll be happier.