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What makes you happy?

Published December 03. 2011 09:01AM

How much power do we have to determine our own happiness?

That's an interesting question I've been debating with people for quite some time.

Some say happiness is determined by what happens in your life.

I'm among those who believe that's not exactly true. Happiness is determined by how you respond to what happens in your life.

Attitude probably has more to do with happiness than does circumstance.

That point was again driven home to me this week when I visited my friend Fern.

I told you about her in a previous column. At 71, through no fault of her own, she lost her home to foreclosure.

This was a woman who didn't just live in a home. She thrived in it. She often said her two favorite parts of her place were the garden out back and the heated pool she needs to get moving each day. Severe arthritis has taken its toll and she needs the early morning warm water to get her joints moving.

When she knew the bank was foreclosing, she stayed philosophical. "It's just a building," she said. "It's just a place to live and there are other places."

Even as she said it, I knew that wasn't true. I knew she would miss going into her garden for the herbs and vegetables she uses in her cooking. And I knew she would suffer without the pool.

Fern moved to what she could afford - a second floor apartment with no outdoor space. Shortly after she moved, she invited me to see her new apartment.

When I was walking up the path, I looked around and felt sick that my precious friend had to live in a place without the outdoor space she craves.

But when Fern showed me around the apartment, she kept saying: "Aren't I lucky to find a nice apartment like this? I just love it!" she enthused. I must have given her a look that conveyed what I was thinking because she hugged me and explained.

"I know I will be happy here," she said. "Before I moved, before I even knew where I would be living, I knew I would be happy wherever it was," she said.

"Do you know why I knew I would be happy?" she asked me.

Her answer: "Because I made up my mind I would be happy no matter where I landed. Happiness is a choice and I choose to be happy."

She's right about that. Happiness is a choice. There's a book by that name which I bought for a relative a long time ago.

This woman thinks everything that happens to her is out of her control. She's depressed about her circumstances. Those circumstances keep changing but she's still depressed. She never seems to realize she has the capacity to control her own happiness. That's why I bought her the book.

She later said the book was "hokey" and "pie in the sky." She says I don't understand.

What I do understand is that life is what we make it. It may sound like a cliché, but attitude is everything. As Fern will tell everyone, we can't control what happens to us. But we can control our attitude toward it.

The older I get in life, the more I think that our well-being depends on what it takes to make us happy.

There's a well-known quote that says: "Happiness doesn't depend on what you have. It depends on being content with what you have."

I attended a seminar by a psychiatrist who talked on that very subject. To determine our values and what makes us happy, he told us to write down at the end of every day what made us happy that day. At the end of a month, he said, we'll see a pattern of what we value.

I find that so many of my happy moments are the everyday things of nature. My pleasurable moment yesterday was watching magnificent shore birds glide across a sky streaked with pink and purple hues. It was so peaceful to sit there and watch them and that peace soon filled my soul.

The other day when we were driving home from dance lessons I was just about ready to point out the spectacular sunset to my husband. Before I could say anything, he had pulled into a parking place by the bay so we could get out and enjoy the sight.

We stayed there watching the sky look like it was illuminated from on high, with rays of light shining down on us. Who could walk away from a site like that and not feel good all over?

It's also the small routines of life that give me pleasure. Shopping with my husband for a Thanksgiving turkey was a pleasurable moment.

Maybe you can take moments like that for granted if you're married a long time. Maybe you can even think of it as a boring routine.

But once you lose that routine for any reason, you come to realize how precious is every single moment.

I glory in all the small pleasures and small moments of life. It doesn't take big, grandiose events to make me happy.

How about you? What does it take to make you happy?

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