It's that time of year again for making resolutions and convincing ourselves that this year, for a change, we're going to keep to them.
Somehow I have a feeling that "becoming a happier person" is right up there at the top of the list for many people and perhaps you as well.
Certainly, our national misery quotient would seem to bear this out with depression now in truly epidemic proportions in every developed Western country, including here at home in Australia. One in five people now experiences depression at some stage of their lives and the World Health Organisation has identified it as the largest medical burden of all, ahead of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and tuberculosis by 2030. We all know friends and family members who are deeply unhappy, maybe you are, too. So the question needs to be asked, "When we live in one of the richest and safest countries in the world, why are we so unhappy?" And maybe the question itself contains the seeds of the wisdom that provides the answer.
One woman who has made the study of happiness a lifelong pursuit is convinced there is a strong link between seeking "things" and losing our birthright of happiness. Marci Shimoff will be an instantly recognisable name to many readers, as the woman's face of the biggest self help book phenomenon in history, Chicken Soup for the Soul. Her six titles in the series have sold more than 13 million copies worldwide in 33 languages and stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for a blockbuster 108 weeks. More recently, she has written another runaway bestseller, Happy for No Reason: 7 Steps to Being Happy from the Inside Out. Her success is such that she is one of the bestselling female non fiction writers of all time.
And now she is bringing her magic touch to Australia for the first time, delivering a keynote address to the World Wellness Project Summit in Melbourne in February.
Speaking from her office overlooking San Francisco Bay, reason enough one might think to instil a sense of contentment, Marci told me she believes we're in the grip of pervasive myths that rob us of our happiness.
"First of all, we're trained to look in the wrong places. Our society has taught us to believe that the more we have, the happier we will be. That's a myth. And it's closely associated with the other myth, the 'I'll be happier when.... ' myth. And that "when" can be when I make more money or have a better job or a better spouse...
"The whole focus on expecting life circumstances to make us happy is completely wrong. So we find ourselves really grasping after our goals and once we've reached them we're happier for a short time, but then we soon return to our original happiness level," Marci explains.
This phenomenon is so prevalent, psychologists have even coined a name for it - "the Hedonic Treadmill" - coming from the same root as "hedonism" or "devotion to pleasure". .
"We're on the treadmill for the next pleasure or the next achievement and it just doesn't fulfil," says Marci.
As her book title Happy for No Reason conveys, Marci has sought to draw a distinction between basing happiness on a specific goal, even such apparently worthwhile goals as "a really nice life, a good marriage or a great job", and being happy for no set reason.
She sees the dilemma with clarity: "The problem in being happy for good reason is that it makes you a hostage to that reason. If that reason goes away, there goes your happiness."
On the other hand, when we have learned to access an inner state of peace and wellbeing that doesn't depend on our circumstances, we are happy without even being aware of it. It's a state of inner harmony that's completely independent of our circumstances in life - personal, financial, career or perhaps even health.
As Marci continues, "The distinction I like to make is that people who are happy for no reason don't look to life experiences to extract their happiness. Instead, they bring their happiness to their life experiences."
Just think for a moment of some of the truly happy people you have encountered in the past or meet on a daily basis. A vivid image in my mind is of a group of women in Kerala in southern India who used to wake us up every morning in our hotel room close by with their chatter and laughter - and a strange tapping noise we at first thought was a woodpecker! When we ventured out on our first day we discovered the sound was them cracking rocks! Admittedly, they were sitting down and just chipping away at their lumps of granite to create little piles of blue metal for road building - but they were still cracking rocks in the tropical sun. At first, we were horrified that we could have been so insensitive to their poverty and life circumstances. But as the days wore on, we really did come to think of these women in their brightly coloured saris and jangling bangles as genuinely happy - and friendly and welcoming. Yet on a visit to Ahmedabad in boomstate Gujarat two years ago, I gained no such sense of happy industry in a supportive, if poor, community - just a clear sense that the Western disease has India in its grip.
The view that true and lasting happiness must come from within is also espoused by none other than the Dalai Lama. As Nicola Silva wrote in her feature "Happiness in our Grasp" (NOVA Issue 17.1 March 2010), the Dalai Lama is a firm believer in our innate human capacity to be happy. Writing in his recent and timely book The Art of Happiness in a Troubled World, His Holiness explained that once our survival needs are met, happiness is more a state of mind. He teaches that it is both an art and a practice and within reach of us all.
The Dalai Lama's own focus on training the mind to transform adversity or disappointment into something positive so that you evaluate what is truly important to you resonates strongly with Marci Shimoff.
"The Dalai Lama is such a wonderful spokesperson on the message of happiness and, in fact, has been very involved in facilitating a lot of research into happiness," she tells me.
"What we're finding is it really is a matter of changing our brain functioning, our neural pathways, changing our heart rhythms - for example, the difference between when we're feeling love and gratitude and when we're feeling anger or frustration.
"I believe happiness is a skill, a practice, something we develop through creating happiness habits."
Inspired by her own desire to be happy, Marci has spent more than 30 years researching this deceptively attainable state, including interviewing 100 people from all walks of life who are "deeply, unconditionally happy". She calls them the Happy 100 and they all seem to live by three guiding principles or universal laws. The first is what expands you makes you happier (the Law of Expansion), the second, the universe offers you support (the Law of Universal Support), and the third, that what you appreciate, appreciates in turn (the very familiar Law of Attraction).
Recent studies in positive psychology have pointed to a finding that Marci believes should be headline news and it's that we all have a "happiness set point".
Importantly, it's been discovered that no matter what happens to us, whether good or bad, we will return to our original happiness set point - "we'll hover around it unless we do something consciously to change it". While it's 50% our genetic makeup, another 40% is determined by our habits, thoughts and behaviour and only 10% by our circumstances. "That 40% is the part we can most influence to reprogram our happiness set point to a higher level of peace and wellbeing," says Marci.
Along with the inspiring stories of the Happy 100, Happy for No Reason has achieved great success with its down to earth tools to help us all raise our happiness set point. Marci teaches that happiness habits fall into seven main categories encapsulated in the metaphor "building your inner home to happiness", with the home having a foundation, four corner pillars, a roof and a garden.
The foundation, says Marci, is to take full responsibility for your happiness rather than waiting for it to happen to you. The four corner pillars represent the mind, heart, body and soul. The "mind" pillar signifies not believing everything you think. "It has to do with changing your neural pathways so that your attention is directed more towards what is actually working in your life, savouring the positives, not the negatives."
The guiding principle for the "heart" is to "let love be in your life, to live with an open heart, with gratitude, forgiveness and loving kindness" (the subject of Marci's latest soon to be released book Love for No Reason); the teaching around "body" is to acknowledge that as our body is designed to support our happiness, "let your cells be happy" with the correct foods, exercise and sleep; and the final pillar, that of the "soul", is all about connecting to a greater energy or force, whether we call it God, Spirit, the Divine or Nature.
In keeping with other teachings which strongly point to such "soul connection" as vitally important, Marci says she found it to be an ingredient shared by all 100 of her research subjects. "I found they all had some sense of being connected to the greater energy of the universe."
Continuing her house building metaphor, having a secure "roof" relates to living an inspired life by truly following your purpose and passion, while the "garden", the final segment of the "inner home for happiness", can be filled either with weeds or beautiful flowers. It all depends, says Marci, echoing wisdom since time eternal, on those with whom we surround ourselves. Troublesome people encourage a garden choked with weeds, while those who nurture, inspire and love us allow us to bloom.
An engaging and lively conversationalist and now immensely successful author, it's hard to imagine Marci as ever anything but happy! But she tells me she's had to learn her lessons the hard way – "I came out of the womb with existential angst. I had a great family with a great upbringing, but I was an unhappy kid with a dark cloud around me that persisted through my teenage years."
Her greatest teacher was her father, "the happiest person I have ever known" who lived until the age of 91. His advice to his teenage daughter was blissfully simple, "Honey just be happy." When she protested that she wasn't born happy unlike him, the penny dropped that she'd just have to find the answers herself.
Now 33 years later, Marci has heeded her father's advice and also discovered her own path to the happiness that eluded her as a young person. "I'd say I was hugely happier now than I was back then. Growing up, I'd say I was a D - I wasn't doing very well. But now I'd say I'm an A minus.
"And it also works for thousands of people who've written or emailed me and come up after I've given speeches to tell me these happiness habits have changed their life."
Somehow, the knowledge that this accomplished woman struggled with unhappiness too, but has found a way to bring the sun into her life makes her advice that much more authentic.
Marci Shimoff will appear at the World Wellness Project Summit in Melbourne from February 24-26. Register now at www.worldwellnessproject.com or call 1300 300 516