Okay, we all like making lists of New Year's Resolutions. And most of the time--well, much of the time--we have a really hard time keeping them because they're so difficult. Lose 20 pounds. Read a new book a month. Never get drunk again. Avoid all sodas. Don't eat any chocolate again. Stand up to my boss. Go to the gym every day. Sometimes you feel defeated by January 2.
But how about five simple things you can do to be happier--which you really can do? Here are five easy things you can do for a happier life next year. And they're a lot easier than losing 20 pounds.
1.) Be a Little Kinder. I think that 90% of the spiritual life is being a kind person. No need to have any advanced degrees in theology or moral reasoning, and no need to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the world's religious traditions, to get this: Be gentler and more compassionate towards other people. In other words, say "Thank you" and "Please." Ask people how they are. Listen more carefully when they speak to you. Don't say snotty things about them behind their backs. Basically, give them the benefit of the doubt. I know that sometimes you feel like acting like a jerk--you feel justified because of the way you're being treated--but you don't have to. Most of the time you have a choice: I can be a jerk or I can be kind. Be kind. You'll find that you'll be happier with yourself at the end of the day. And, as an added benefit, everyone around you will be happier.
2.) Relax a Bit More. Let's not belabor the point: a lot of us are rushing around like lunatics these days. Overbooked. Overscheduled. Overworked. Crazybusy. Exhausted. Checking our phones and iPads and blah blah blahs every five seconds. Do you really, really, need to be checking in every few minutes? Can you set those things aside for a just a little bit? And aren't there just a few tasks you can let go of? A few months ago I realized that I had completely booked myself for the next few months and started to get a little overwhelmed. The more I thought about these supposedly fun things, the more depressed I got. I had to ask myself: How many of these things did I really have to do? For me the answer was about three-quarters of them. The other quarter I could let go of. Maybe the proportion is different for you, but looking at cutting back a bit is a good exercise. Relaxing a little bit more can lead to more creativity, more time to think, and more time to pray. Paradoxically, it may make you more productive. It'll certainly make you happier--and again, everyone around you happier because you're not stressing everyone else out with your stress. I'm not saying check out completely, or quit your job, or tell everyone that you're stopping every activity you presently do. Just relax a little more. You're a human being not a human doing.
3.) Enjoy Nature More. Look up at the sky. It's pretty amazing. Every moment of the day. Yesterday where I was staying it was a brilliant blue. Clear. Cloudless. Ahhhh. Enjoy it. How about noticing something as beautiful as the trees in your neighborhood? Are you watching them cycle from spring green to green to red to barren? Give yourself a few seconds to be aware of that. If you live in a city, can you notice the wind on your face or the occasional burst of sunshine peeping through the gray buildings? If you're lucky enough to live by the ocean or a lake, well, I envy you! Notice nature a little more. It's always changing and so it's always a surprise. And can you thank God for the natural things that you notice every day? Natural beauty is, I think, happy-making for most of us; and being more grateful to God will add even more to your happiness.
4.) Be a Little More Grateful. Try this: Notice the small daily things that you tend to overlook. The stuff you take for granted or like, but don't really consider "special." The taste of your favorite cereal or coffee or juice in the morning. An unexpected phone call from a friend. Your child's laugh or a nephew's or niece's giggle. Your cat's crazy antics. A funny TV show. A small house job finally finished. Stop and savor those little things. And say thanks to God. I'm not saying that you can't be sad or bummed out. Life's really tough some times. Most times. But I'll bet that there are a few things in your life that make you feel lucky. Just a few seconds a day is all it takes. Gratitude is the gateway to the spiritual life. Open that door today. You'll be a happier person once you step through.
5.) Pray Just a Tiny Bit More. I'm not saying that you need to enter a monastery or take out a mortgage out on a hermitage. But just a few more minutes a day is enough to jumpstart your spiritual life. Think of it as a relationship. If God is important to you, wouldn't you want to spend some one-on-one time with God? That's what prayer is. And there's no best, or only way to pray. Whatever works best for you--imagining yourself with God, quietly meditating on a favorite Scripture passage, or reciting an old prayer that comforts you--is what's best for you. Just a little bit of prayer will help you feel in closer touch with God. And that relationship, because it connects you to the transcendent and makes you feel less alone in those tough times I mentioned, will make you happier.
There. Those aren't so hard are they? Be kind. Relax a little bit. Enjoy nature more. Be a little more grateful. Pray just a tiny bit more. You can do all those. And in doing those you'll be happier. And have a Happy New Year.
This piece first appeared in America Magazine