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Four Rules of Happiness That You Can Ignore

Happier people are more productive, live healthier lifestyles, make better parents, and so on. But have we gotten to the point where happiness is a burden? Where the things we're supposed to do to "be happy" are causing more stress than joy?
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group of happy young people...
group of happy young people...

For the last half-decade or so, there has been a massive Happiness Movement underway in this country. Two hundred fifty-eight new books in the happiness category were published on Amazon last month. We are obsessed with happiness.

Overall, this is a good thing. Happier people are more productive, live healthier lifestyles, make better parents, and so on. But have we gotten to the point where happiness is a burden? Where the things we're supposed to do to "be happy" are causing more stress than joy?

Here are four rules about happiness that you should probably ignore if they aren't making you any happier.

1. Skip Gratitude, Just Be Happy

We all heard it growing up. "Be grateful for the broccoli on your plate, there are starving children in India." That just made me jealous of the kids in India who didn't have to eat broccoli.

Now, we're hearing it again as adults. One of the key tenets of most happiness guides is that we're supposed to be grateful. Every day. We must find and express our gratitude as a way of achieving some inner joy. And yet, I constantly hear from people who say, "I know I'm supposed to be grateful, but..." Fill in the blank: "I have less than everyone else I know;" "my job is still miserable;" "my children can be so tiring."

My reply is always the same. Stop trying to force yourself to be "grateful." It won't make you happier, and now it makes you feel like you're failing at one more thing. Skip gratitude and come up with three things in your situation that you can simply be happy about. This is a much lower standard and can include things that you would feel like a jerk being grateful for, but can acknowledge that they make you happy. For example: "I'm happy my son got detention today. It gives me one more hour of peace before he comes home."

You're not grateful that your son got in trouble at school, but allow yourself the freedom to acknowledge the small part of it that makes you happy. Happiness is a lot easier when you're easy on yourself for feeling it, and it's okay to be happy about the silver lining, even if there's a dark cloud that comes with it.

It's true that people who are more grateful are happier, but I don't know that anyone's done the definitive cause-and-effect study. Maybe it's that people who are happy are more grateful, and if gratitude is hard to reach for you in your current situation, let it go. Start with simple happiness. You'll eventually have both.

2. Yes, Happy People Complain, Too

Google "stop complaining" and you'll find dozens of sites where you can pledge to not complain for 7, 21, 30 days, or even a year. In some form or another, they all assert that not complaining will make you happier.

I have a friend who took one of those pledges. During that time, here's how our conversations went:

"Hi Melissa, how's work going?"
"I took a vow for thirty days not to complain."

"Hey, what's the pool like at your new apartment?"
"I took a vow for thirty days not to complain."

"That muffin looks dry. Do you want to send it back?
"I took a vow for thirty days not to complain."

Newsflash -- that's all complaining! To actually stop complaining, you have to train your brain to replace complaints with a positive spin, or take action to fix what you're unhappy about, if you can. Here's how that would look in the above examples:

"Hi Melissa, how's work going?"
"I have a vacation coming up in three weeks that I am totally looking forward to."

"Hey, what's the pool like at your new apartment?"
"Once they clean it up, it'll be great. I'm calling the landlord about that this week."

"That muffin looks dry. Do you want to send it back?
"Yeah. They must have something fresher. Let me ask the waitress."

Those replies still convey dissatisfaction, but they don't sound like complaints, and that's better for the speaker and the listener. Happy people still have things to complain about, and their friends and colleagues put up with it because it's occasional, not constant. Work to become happy first, and the incessant complaining will stop on its own. Don't make "not complaining" just one more thing that makes you unhappy.

3. "It's wrong that I'm happy about that, isn't it?"

We all get joy now and then at the misfortune of others. It doesn't make us bad people. There's even a word for it -- Schadenfreude. If watching loudmouth Bob tank a presentation makes you a little giddy -- enjoy it. It's fine to react that way, regardless of what the experts say. You're a human being, with natural human emotions. Give yourself a break.

This should not be your primary source of happiness, of course. However, it's perfectly okay to smile for a few minutes when the driver who cut you off gets pulled over, or when the girl on the softball team who torments your daughter strikes out. Don't beat yourself up for that kind of happiness, just acknowledge it, enjoy it, and focus on more positive outcomes.

4. You don't have to Forgive, just Release

So many guides to happiness say that you have to forgive those who've wronged you in order to move on, but forgiveness is an incredibly high standard. If someone hurts me and doesn't ask my forgiveness, I find it nearly impossible to be able to forgive them on my own, in a vacuum. Gandhi, Jesus, Buddha... those guys could bust out some serious forgiveness. Me? Not so much. And that's okay. I can be happy in a world where people have wronged me, even if I never forgive them.

What I do instead is release the anger or hurt I feel at whatever that person did to me. I'm not telling myself that what they did is okay, because it's not, but I am saying that it won't hurt me any more. In fact, I get an added boost of happiness thinking that I've moved on, and am unaffected by whatever past harms were done, without letting the other person off the hook. It's my own little mental victory.

If you're trying to achieve happiness, Release is easier than Forgive, so start with the easy step. Allow yourself to be happy, even if you haven't forgiven yet, and if that person ever comes and asks your forgiveness, you'll be far better prepared to give it. Or not. Whichever makes you happy.

We all have it in us to be happy, but we can't get there if the "Rules of Happiness" are more encumbrance than inspiration. If you want to be happy, allow yourself the freedom to be a normal human being first, with all the thoughts and reactions that come naturally to our kind.

Find things to simply be happy about in your daily life, and eventually you'll feel more grateful. When you have something to complain about, go ahead and express yourself, but do it in the most positive light, with an eye towards fixing what ails you. Release the anger and the hurt caused by others, and someday you might (or might not) find it in your heart to forgive them. If the guy screaming into his phone trips over the curb and drops his $4 latte and that makes you laugh, go ahead. Laugh. Ignore the rules. Treat happiness advice like a cafeteria line -- take what you like and leave the broccoli.

Take a deep breath and just be happy. It's easier than you might think.

To read more about how to Speak Happiness, follow Valerie Alexander here on Facebook. Or visit her website.

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