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What makes you happy? A new pair of shoes? A profound understanding of your life's purpose? The first one? We thought so. Problem is, if you rely too heavily on momentary mood boosters, you could be robbing yourself of real, feel-it-in-your-soul satisfaction. "Truly content people understand what energizes them and what they believe in," explains Dan Baker, PhD, director of the Life Enhancement Program at Canyon Ranch spa and author of What Happy People Know.
Luckily, you don't have to take a mystical trek into the desert to arrive at this point. In fact, all it requires is a shift in your point of view. These simple yet powerful exercises will help you see your life in a whole new light.
The way you view daily events can profoundly affect your mood. Happy people don't live in bubbles of perfection: They get caught in the rain, they lose their keys, and their relationships falter just like everyone else. What sets them apart is the way they choose to characterize these situations. Was it a disaster or a mere inconvenience, a sign of a pervasive problem or a temporary setback? By changing the way you portray your circumstances to yourself and others, you change their emotional effect.
For this exercise, pretend that you're telling a story about a big work project. Think of this as the first draft. Next, craft a story from the other side of the fence -- don't change the facts, just your interpretation of them. Rather than say you're stressed out by tight deadlines, talk about how the fast pace keeps your mind limber. If office politics are causing you grief, instead of carping about gossipy colleagues, mention how working with so many interesting characters has enriched your knowledge of people.
Then ask yourself which version would be more fun to tell at a cocktail party, the one that's all "woe is me" or the one where you're pretty fortunate? Which would you rather hear? "It's human nature to automatically tell ourselves the bad version, but that doesn't mean you have to accept that as the official story of your life," Baker explains. To get started, jot down one negative thought, then rewrite it to give it a more positive spin.
Devoting time and attention to something that gives your life meaning -- a goal to work toward or a passion that fulfills you -- can be a constant source of joy. "Research has shown that people who have the clearest idea of their purpose in life have the easiest access to happiness," says Baker.
Your sense of purpose doesn't have to be grandiose; you don't need to make a mint or cure the common cold. Purpose is simply a matter of discovering what you're passionate about -- spending time with family, playing tennis, advancing in your career, gardening, traveling -- and dedicating your energy toward that. "You can develop your sense of purpose by recognizing the day-to-day things that invigorate you and make you feel like your best self," Baker explains. For example, if you enjoy problem solving at work, think about how you can become your company's go-to troubleshooter.
For this exercise, ask yourself the following questions to help you identify your passions:
Once you begin to develop answers, think about how often you do the things that are so important to you. Are there aspects of your life that you love but have shunted off to the pile of things you'll get to when you have more time? Your goal here is to figure out what's missing and to start integrating that more fully into your daily existence. "Consciously pursuing activities that make you feel more engaged will not only increase your capacity for happiness but also your chances of finding it," says Baker.
Originally published in FITNESS magazine, October 2006.