Tina Garrity Photograph by Kelley Fryer/elan )
For the past 243 years, happiness has been an unalienable right. Correction – the pursuit of happiness has been our right. That single word is crucial – the pursuit – because unfortunately, being an unalienable right doesn't make happiness a given.
"I believe that if you want to be happy, you have to work towards changing the negative to the positive," says Tina Garrity, founder of the Madison Happiness Club, which enables people to find the happiness in their lives through group discussions and events focused on wellness topics. "It's practice, like anything else. If you're not happy and want to be happy, you're going to have to do certain things that are suggested by the experts...whether it's meditation or quieting your mind or just taking a walk in nature to calm the mind from the negativity."
Entire industries, many based on detailed research, have sprung up to help us attain that elusive state, yet it can seem at times like the most agile of prey, growing more ephemeral the more actively we pursue it. But living a more joyful life, Garrity says, is not about being constantly in a state of bliss.
"Even when there are traumatic events," she says, "that is part of life. I don't believe that you're ever happy during those moments...but people who have enough of the skills that are talked about—whether it's practicing gratitude or doing the little things that can help you maintain happiness—don't get stuck in the negative aspects of those traumas. You learn to live in a solution, not continue to stay in a problem."
A quick google search on how to be happy delivers seven million results. A search for "happiness is..." brings you to images of stick figures enjoying the little things – like morning yoga, resting after an epic meal, or drying lettuce in a salad spinner. And there is significance in that. Finding one small way to be happy can immediately improve your thinking.
"Our body, our posture, our smiles...send a message back to our brain informing our brain of what state we're in," says Ruth Sullo, who has taught courses at the Cheshire Correctional Institution on decision making and living a more positive life. "Even in a prison, you make decisions. You can choose to focus on improving your situation or you can feel anger from the past and live as an angry person."
"You fake it 'til you make it, because by faking it, very soon you are feeling positive," she continues. "If you put a smile on your face, it helps your endorphins. If I'm in a mood, I say, 'I'd better smile.' That makes neurotransmitters like dopamine, epinephrine, start to flow and then I can start feeling stronger."
One small action that has helped Garrity feel more positive is opening her curtains each morning, looking out her window, and saying, "Thank you for the day."
"I tend to wake up with fears coming in pretty quickly," she explains. "Just that act...helps me to embrace the day and kind of reset my mind to think in a more positive" way.
Research points to similar seemingly small things that we can do to achieve happiness – that exercise, self-care, and even helping someone else can help you feel happier.
Sullo herself is a two-time survivor of breast cancer.
"I used to feel bad I had cancer," she says, recalling that when she was first diagnosed, in 1971, she would think, "'Oh my god, I'm going to die.'"
Then something changed.
"I realized nobody has a guarantee they're going to wake up the next day. I learned a lot more about myself when I got cancer," she says, crediting much of her positive outlook to a support group she attended, Exceptional Cancer Patients, with Bernie Seigel, M.D. A former surgeon, Seigel uses various techniques to inspire hope in people facing possibly terminal illnesses.
"It was very powerful, really beautiful," she says of her experience with the group. "It helps you turn your life around for the better. Your immune system gets better, and [as a cancer patient] it's to your advantage to be positive and pump up your blood cells."
There's ongoing scientific research into the connection between mind and body, says Diane Stark, PhD., a biomedical scientist at New Haven's Inspire Health whose work has largely focused, she says, on "connecting biology with behavior" and "physiology with psychology."
"Positive emotion is an active ingredient of health," says Stark. People who can bounce back from stress and trauma are generally happier. "Resilience is a big part of happiness."
At 73, Sullo is cancer free and a member of the Flat and Fabulous private Facebook page, for women who have had two mastectomies and no reconstructive surgery.
"It's really your attitude towards what life brings you," she says of happiness. "That's my definition—that it's definitely inside and it's that feeling of..." She hesitates for just a moment. "Basically, serenity. Peace. Life is good."
We asked Tina Garrity, the founder of Madison's chapter of the Happiness Club, and Liz Bartek, marketing manager for R.J. Julia Booksellers, 768 Boston Post Rd., Madison, to suggest a few books for those interested in learning more about happiness.
Zen and the Art of Happiness by Chris Prentiss
Cutting-edge science and spirituality tell us that what we believe, think, and feel actually determine the makeup of our body at the cellular level. In Zen and the Art of Happiness, you will learn how to think and feel so that what you think and feel creates happiness and vibrancy in your life rather than gloominess or depression.
The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz
In The Four Agreements, bestselling author don Miguel Ruiz reveals the source of self-limiting beliefs that rob us of joy and create needless suffering. Based on ancient Toltec wisdom, The Four Agreements offer a powerful code of conduct that can rapidly transform our lives to a new experience of freedom, true happiness, and love.
A Return to Love by Marianne Williamson
Williamson reveals how we each can become a miracle worker by accepting God and by the expression of love in our daily lives. Whether psychic pain is in the area of relationships, career, or health, she shows us how love is a potent force, the key to inner peace, and how by practicing love we can make our own lives more fulfilling while creating a more peaceful and loving world for our children.
The Untethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself by Michael Singer
What would it be like to free yourself from limitations and soar beyond your boundaries? What can you do each day to discover inner peace and serenity? The Untethered Soul offers simple yet profound answers to these questions.
Be Happy by His Holiness the Dalai Lama
A simple and accessible guide for finding and embracing happiness from one of the spiritual giants of our time.
How Art Can Make You Happy by Bridget Watson Payne
Why is art magical? How can it make us happy? How Art Can Make You Happy offers the keys to unlocking a rich and rewarding source of joy in life.
5-Minute Bliss by Courtney E. Ackerman
Discover more than 200 easy ways to find everyday bliss and add joy to your life in less than 5 minutes.
1,000+ Little Things Happy Successful People Do Differently by Marc and Angel Chernoff
New York Times-bestselling authors Marc and Angel Chernoff deliver instant inspiration and powerful advice for becoming our best selves.