When you’re younger you have an idea of what a happy life looks like.  For me it was a white picket fence, flowers and a fireplace surrounded by the love of my life, my kids and a cute dog you could fit into your handbag by the age of 25. Yes, I was a romance novel visionary. But unlike Jane Austin I didn’t quite have a hit on my hands and there was no Mr Darcy to have a spirited courtship with. Evidently, that idea of happiness stayed just that, a notion.

Three months ago I made a friend through Tumblr who uses his blog to bring happiness to strangers.  After sometime he asked me write an article about happiness, I was flattered by the request and agreed to write the piece. Two months later and I am still sitting at my laptop fumbling over the right words to encapsulate this idea of happiness.  The truth is growing up I was never a happy kid.  I remember a lot of anger and sadness because I couldn’t get my head out of thoughts of how life had dealt me cards that I didn’t want, instead of getting the King or Queen I got the Joker repetitively.  And maybe I am still growing up because some days I still feel angrier and sadder than ever.  Only now those emotions aren’t internalised and selfish.  Instead those emotions relate more to how the world is rather than how MY world is. And those emotions no longer override my happiness.

The change in my attitude to happiness wasn’t as simple as clicking my fingers and having a bunny magically pop out of a top hat. It was gradual, slow and at times unnoticeable. It started when a 13 year friendship died like a withering plant. While it wasn’t an ideal life experience, it forced me to re-evaluate life, to lose the parts of me that failed as a friend and person and to implement changes for present and future circumstances. I enrolled into a kickboxing gym (I still punch like a ‘girl’), befriended, maybe even stalked, a stranger on Facebook (now one of my closest friends and inspirations), found a new job that has taught me discipline (also that love/hate relationships last) and enrolled myself back into university for another 10038 years of postgraduate study.  Initially, each of these things were out of my comfort zone and they required me to work my ass off. That’s when the complaining began.  I complained when I couldn’t get a kick right at the gym, I complained when I had to stay back at uni to finish an assignment, I complained that my job was too stressful and I complained that life sucked. It made sense though.  I was the girl whose ambition was handicapped by her laziness.  Notice how I used the word was.  As in past tense.

In training to become a Deakin University ambassador I was asked why I wanted to be a psychologist and my reply was “Much of life is mind over matter”.  That answer changed everything.  I stopped seeing and thinking of aspects of my life as chores and I began to see them as choices I made for a better life.

Happiness is much like that.

Happiness is a choice, a conscious decision you make every day.

Elizabeth Gilbert quotes “Happiness is the consequence of personal effort.  You fight for it, strive for it, insist upon it and sometimes even travel the world looking for it”.  This notion of personal responsibility towards happiness isn’t something that you read in fiction books like Eat, Pray, Love, it is also a notion that has been identified by great philosophers such as Aristotle, Dalai Lama and Immanuel Kant.  Our actions, attitude and aspirations are essential ingredients for happiness. But, happiness, like all emotions, is not consistent. Emotions are fluid, they change with life situations and fluctuate over the lifespan.  Maybe I speak for myself, but a large part of happiness comes from accepting that happiness coexists with sadness, that a Ying must have a Yang.

Positive psychologist and author of Authentic Happiness, Martin Seligman, utilizes scientific methodologies in his view of happiness. He compartmentalises happiness into three components, pleasure, engagement and meaning, with the latter two baring more importance. His studies found that the happiest people were those who discovered and mastered their signature strengths such as courage, humanity and persistence. This individualistic approach highlights the importance of nurturing ourselves; emphasising the use of a mental toolbox filled with tools such as forgiveness for the past, gratitude for the present and optimism for future to enable us to create a satisfactory life.  For me this year was about mastering my strengths, which was incredibly difficult because I had engaged in self-doubt for so long, becoming comfortable with the idea of being small. Breaking the pattern of low self-confidence and self-worth wasn’t easy, it required me to flush out maladaptive thoughts of myself, to understand the power words had when I spoke to myself negatively (no more I should haves), to repeatedly tell myself “I am the shit” (don’t judge me, it works) and to focus on my strengths rather than dwell on my weaknesses.  I am betting all of those tools in my toolbox had something to do with 2013 being one of the happiest years of my life.

Studies have also looked at what aspects of life brought people the greatest happiness, all observing similar results.  Altruism, exercise, relationships and spirituality rank highly as habits of happy people. Surprisingly education and money do not increase satisfaction of life, with one research study showing that once basic life needs are met, additional income does not attribute further happiness.  From personal experience I am inclined to agree with the research.  No amount of materialistic possessions can amount to happiness I feel when I laugh with my closest friends over a shared meal, when I volunteer with the underprivileged or when endorphins are released into my body after an intense boxing session.  While tangible things provide temporary happiness, what I am really looking for is long term satisfaction, to be able to extend my personal happiness to others too.

Without getting too sentimental, life doesn’t have be a big black hole filled with the downfalls of the past, the people who betrayed and hurt you, the numerous times you failed at a task or how things used to be. Life has the possibility to be beautiful and you can be the artist that creates a masterpiece by turning a yellow dot into a sun.  The blank canvas is your life, you’re the painter holding the brush and you’re in control of the strokes you paint.

What colours are you going to recommit to painting with every day of your life?