These first few weeks in January are a precious time for setting getting ourselves on a path toward more joy in the year ahead. But that can be a surprisingly tricky task—too often, we pursue happiness in ways that don’t actually bring us greater joy, fulfillment, or satisfaction. So how do we set out on the right path?
To answer that question, I recently spoke with one of my all-time favorite happiness experts, meditation teacher James Baraz, author of Awakening Joy. (He teaches a great online happiness class by the same title, which I highly recommend.)
Here is a condensed version of our conversation. I hope it spurs some ideas for happiness habits you can pursue in 2015.
Christine Carter: What are some common “happiness mistakes” we often make at this time of year, and how can we avoid them?
James Baraz: Our intention to change backfires when we make too many resolutions, or when we make resolutions that really aren’t achievable.
Unrealistic expectations create a pass-fail test that is too easy to fail. Initial enthusiasm quickly disappears with the thought, “Who was I kidding?”
Changing a habit takes time. It’s important to realize that most resolutions are an ongoing process.
I find it helpful to really take in the good feeling that accompanies each (even minor) success. Take a few moments to let a minor win register fully in your body and your mind. Then build on that success. Instead of thinking, I’m someone who will never be able to change, it’s much more effective to think of yourself as someone who’s in the process of learning a new way to do something. Believing that you can change is crucial.
CC: What are some of the best habits we can establish to experience more joy?
JB: I have five favorite ways to “awaken joy,” but the most important is to not try too much at once. Find the one that really speaks to you.
1. Being grateful: I think the most direct way to awaken joy comes from a grateful heart, which means really being there for all the blessings in your life. Reflecting on your blessings regularly and appreciating them in the moment is powerful. Expressing your gratitude in words or actions to others when you sincerely feel it transforms appreciation from a fleeting thought into a living and shared connection.
2. Identify the activities that make you happy—maybe dancing or going for a regular walk in nature—and schedule time to do those things with the people you love. Connecting with others is a powerful source of well-being.
3. Express your caring in a fulfilling activity. This might mean being there for a loved one or volunteering for something that touches your heart. Finding ways to make a contribution to others gives our lives greater meaning.
4. Talk kindly to yourself. The kinder you are to yourself, the kinder you’ll be to others.
5. Spend some regular time with a creative outlet like singing, art, or writing. It makes you feel alive. Singing has always been my feel-good therapy.
There are many more I could add. The Awakening Joy course focuses on 10 different ways to cultivate true well-being in your life.
CC: What role do you think learning about your own happiness plays? Or about learning to be happy?
JB: If you don’t get clear within yourself about where true happiness lies for you, you’re at the mercy of what everybody else thinks, including the advertisers and the Joneses.
It helps to ask ourselves: “What do I need right now for my well-being, or to really thrive?” The answer will often be different in any one moment. We might need to reach out to a friend, or take a break, or recommit to a goal.
Often all we need is a little time to connect with what’s true for us in the moment. But we typically don’t pause to ask ourselves what we need, and so we look outside ourselves for happiness. The wisdom and truth we’re looking for is always already inside us.
CC: There is a big difference between knowing what to do to be happier and actually doing those things. What advice do you have for people who know what to do but have a hard time doing it?
JB: Get in touch with your intention. Intention is different from wishing and hoping, and it’s different from having a goal.
Everything issues forth from the power of our intentions. Start with a vision, and then make a heartfelt decision to do your part. Let go of any timetable you might have in mind. Take what steps you can, then allow yourself to experience the well-being you create, recognize it when comes. Savor it. Do it in baby steps, which means noticing even the littlest successes.
Be kind to yourself in this process. Self-judgment just gets in the way. Be aware of the thoughts and beliefs that sabotage you, and hold them with great compassion—as you would a child who doesn’t know any better.
CC: I think my most important happiness habit is a daily practice of acceptance and gratitude. What is yours?
JB: Remembering how blessed I am is also my top practice for well-being. Expressing my appreciation makes the benefits of gratitude even stronger. I often reflect on the fact that there are a finite number of moments in my life and this one has never been here before and will never be here again.
A daily mindfulness meditation practice is a big help. As my colleague Jack Kornfield likes to say, the signs in Las Vegas casinos read, “You must be present to win.” And it’s the same in living our life. The more I’m present for my life, the more alive I feel.