Control Your Happiness

You make a living by what you get,
but you make a life…by what you give!
Sir Winston Churchill

I’ve been pretty cranky for the past week and, when I saw this quote from Churchill it dawned on me that my moodiness has a great deal to do with being too concerned about what I am getting instead of what I can give.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m an evangelist for taking care of your needs but there’s a difference between passionate self-care and obsessive self-absorption. If you wonder how to tell the difference all you have to do is pay attention to how you feel. When you are practicing self-care, you are in a good mood. When you are self-absorbed, you are cranky. If people are avoiding you, put a check mark next to “self-absorbed.”

Sometimes self-absorption is disguised by justification. You tell yourself you need to “feel your feelings” or “I’m tired of being in a positive mood.”

What rubbish! If I could figure out why we cling to being grumpy, I could make a million dollars. Being mad at the world is like taking poison hoping your enemy will die.

When I consider the quote from Churchill, it occurs to me that most of us do our best when we are wrestling with big problems. If, for example, you’re doing volunteer work for a charitable organization and focused on that, it’s pretty hard to feel grumpy—who has the time? On the other hand, if your biggest problem is that you don’t have clean clothes for work tomorrow, it can seem as if the world is out to get you.

In the book Stumbling on Happiness, Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert tells us that we have a strong penchant for control:

“The fact is that human beings come into the world with a passion for control, they go out of the world the same way, and research suggests that if they lose their ability to control things at any point between their entrance and their exit, they become unhappy, helpless, hopeless, and depressed.”

When you’re working as a volunteer, you are not directly impacted by the success or failure of your efforts. In fact, you have no control over the impact and you know it. On the other hand, not having clean clothes for work the next day can make you feel completely out of control. When that feeling is triggered, it pulls in a chain reaction of the memory stack you’ve been collecting of all the other times in your life when you have felt the same way. Suddenly you are having a tantrum. You overreact because you are not responding to the situation at hand but to all the other times you’ve lost control. A friend of mine refers to this as a “stack attack.”

So what is the solution? Focus on what you can control. Feeling in control has a strong impact on your feelings of well-being.

You can’t always control what you get (wouldn’t that be nice?) but you can control what you give. The more you give, the better you will feel.

Giving can be something simple like a smile and a warm “hello.” It can be as big as a “volunteer vacation” where you spend your time and money to do charitable work—locally or in exotic locales. My friend Michelle and her son Mike are currently on a volunteer vacation in Costa Rica.

Whatever level you wish to participate, make note of how it makes you feel. Do you want to feel more of those feelings or would you rather go back to feeling out of control? It seems like a silly question until you think about how often we allow ourselves to slip into grumpiness for no apparent reason. This is a choice and we can always make a different one.

As for me, I’m tired of being cranky. It’s time to get moving on that charity fundraiser I volunteered for. How about you?

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