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Secrets of Happiness

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It was reunion weekend at Stanford University. The opening talk was a roundtable discussion held in the basketball arena. Katie Couric was the host, and five professors joined her to discuss, "Are You Happy Now? The New Science of Happiness and Wellbeing."

One of my college girlfriends texted me from her hotel room right before the lecture began: "I have the stomach flu. Throwing up, chills and sweats. ☹ " Not a happy text to send or receive. We were supposed to be celebrating our 25th reunion.

I determined to take careful notes to share with my friend. I would listen for the two of us. As I sat in Maples Pavilion waiting for the talk to begin, I was so excited to see Katie Couric in person that my heart raced as if I were a teenage girl waiting to see Taylor Swift. When Katie Couric and the five professors walked onto the basketball court, I had to refrain from hooting and hollering.

Note to friend: Katie Couric is shorter than I imagined, has really pretty legs, and is wearing fabulous heels.

Katie began by reading a quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln, "Most folk are about as happy as they make up their minds to be." The question then became, how do we influence our minds?

What was exciting about the discussion that followed was that really smart people from the worlds of psychology, business and design who had devoted their life's work to understanding happiness were sharing what they had learned.

They began by discussing the definition of happiness. Associate Prof. Firdaus Dhabhar explained that happiness can come from pleasurable experiences, but a more lasting happiness comes from meaningful experiences. Prof. Jennifer Aaker described happiness as feeling satisfied. Prof. Sonja Lyubomirsky said people experience happiness when working towards life goals. Another professor, David Kelley, described happiness as having fun, being in the present and having a calling or a higher purpose. And Prof. Ian Gotlib said happiness is loving anyone, or anything.

After a warm opening, we were given a wake-up call. Our happiness ranking in the U.S. was statistically low when compared with other countries. Prof. Ian Gotlib, who studies depression and anxiety, apologized, "I'm trying to not be depressing," and added that he studies depression because he wants to find ways to help people get better. But he then went on to say that having a positive outlook has declined and suicide, depression and anxiety are on the rise. The crowd was quiet. Maybe the truth behind his numbers is why there were thousands of us there.

Note to friend: This stuff is important. We can do better as a people. I'm sure of it.

Prof. Sonja Lyubomirsky runs a Positive Psychology Lab at University of California, Riverside, and studies people who are happy. She suggested learning the habits of happy people. Here's her list:

Be grateful.
Look on the bright side.
Savor the moment.
Cultivate relationships.
(I put stars next to this list in my notebook.)

Prof. Firdaus Dhabhar, who studies the positive effects of short term stress on our immune system, quoted Gandhi, "Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony." Later, he quoted Yoda, "Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering." What was alarming was that he explained how one person's negativity can spread and pervade others.

Note to friend: Our negative thoughts and our positive thoughts affect those around us. We choose.

Prof. Jennifer Aaker, who studied time, money and happiness, summarized studies that showed that when people were given $100 to spend, if they spent it on an experience versus a thing, they were happier. And in another study, when school children were taught how to do small acts of kindness for other children, the kind children's overall popularity and happiness increased. She asked us to think about how we spend our time and whether we are making time to give to others.

Note to friend: Be generous by being a parent, a philanthropist, a volunteer, or a caregiver. Being generous gives people meaning, and meaning gives people happiness.

Prof. David Kelley, whose passion is to unlock the creative potential in people, shared that having a positive mindset improves our creativity, our likability and our ability to solve problems. Ultimately, a positive mindset becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. He teaches people how to be creative by offering them tiny successes at being creative. When people see themselves as creative, they are more likely to tackle more difficult problems and live happier lives.

As I listened to the discussion, in the margin of my notebook I wrote:

be kind
take care of others
eat well
connect with people
be creative
live with purpose
do good

It was a great list and I liked the neurological backing of good living.

Note to friend: Science and Sunday school lessons seem to be meeting up.

After the conference, I was inspired by what I had heard, but I felt as though something foundational was missing from the discussion. It took me a few days to sort it out. I poured through my notes and reflected on my own life, and then I found what was missing. No one said the "F" word. And I don't mean sex. They talked about sex and pleasurable experiences bringing happiness. The "F" word that was missing was Faith.

As I reflected on my weekend, I did hear faith mentioned at a football tailgater. The happiness lecture was on Friday. The tailgater before the Stanford-UCLA football game was on Saturday. Fortunately, we all wore giant nametags, which made it easier to recognize people I hadn't seen in decades.

At the tailgater, I ran into a friend of mine from my senior year, Carianne James. Carianne is an artist and has been teaching kids creativity classes for years. Carianne is a lot taller than I am, and when I looked up into her eyes, I saw the same youthful sparkle, that laughter. She had her two daughters with her, and I loved meeting her girls. As Carianne and I talked, I enjoyed watching the younger daughter consider climbing a nearby oak tree. Carianne was telling me about a class she teaches to girls in 4th through 6th grade about faith and unconditional love.

"We make cloaks," Carianne said. "First, we start with the imagined cloak. Imagine someone who loves you unconditionally," she said to me. "It could be Buddha, or Jesus, or Mary, or Krishna..." She spoke quickly and listed names I'd heard before and ones I hadn't. "Now cover yourself with a feeling of being loved completely, of being enough, from the top of your head all the way to your toes."

I smiled and followed her instructions.

"Now, imagine that feeling of unconditional love is a cloak," she said. "What color is your cloak?"

I thought about it for a moment, and the little girl in me called out, "Moonlight!"

"Moonlight!" Carianne said, "another girl I taught had a cloak that was moonlight. We went out and bought fabric and each girl made herself a cloak of unconditional love. It took a while to find fabric that was moonlight."

"It would need to be iridescent," I said.

"Exactly," she said.

We talked a bit more, and I felt my insecurities about reunion weekend lessen. My what-do-I-wear and I-can't-have-grey-hair sentiments slipped away. I felt present, loved and thankful. It was textbook.

At the end of the weekend, it wasn't knowing the latest brain science that helped me make the physical, emotional, spiritual shift to happiness. That information got me aligned and ready, but the first step I took was faith.

Having faith that I was loved unconditionally, cloaked in moonlight and iridescent love, gave me a deep, childlike feeling of happiness. And that feeling helped me feel confident, creative, positive and willing to reach out and be kind to others.

Note to friend: Before you start working on the other stuff, let yourself feel loved completely. Feel yourself cloaked in unconditional love. It makes everything else easier.


*Best new blog on how to empower young girls (my friend Carianne James's blog).

*Best website for collecting the good and building happiness (created by Dan, my husband).

A youtube video of the Happiness Roundtable held at Stanford University on October 18, 2013

Kathleen Buckstaff's memoir The Tiffany Box is full of love, humor, heartache, and insight. A gathering of e-mails, letters, diary entries, newspaper columns, and holiday bulletins to family and friends, comprise Kathleen Buckstaff's candid, funny, and recognizably true chronicle of a generation "in-between": nurturing its young while nursing its aged, and coming to terms with the bitter realities that temper life's sweet rewards.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post in conjunction with our women's conference, "The Third Metric: Redefining Success Beyond Money & Power," which took place in New York on June 6, 2013. To read all of the posts in the series and learn more about the conference, click here. Join the conversation on Twitter #ThirdMetric.

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