Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A Plan for Happiness

One of my wife Susan's favorite quotes is...

Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you imagined.

~ Henry David Thoreau

No problem, right? I'm sure you're doing it right now: your life is exactly what you imagined and you are going confidently in the direction of your dreams.

If that's true, you can stop reading right now. But I'm guessing that you started reading this post because of the title, and a plan for happiness would be a welcome change in your life.

If you break down Thoreau's quote, you can see exactly why you aren't already living the life you imagined. Three key concepts drive the process to getting there: confidence, direction, and imagination. The lack of any one is a roadblock that leaves you wandering uncertainly through a life of disappointment.

The first step to living the life you imagined is to have a dream. Many people have trouble articulating their dream life, but that's exactly where you must start in order to have a direction. Look at your life now and write down what makes you happy and what makes you unhappy. Those things are clues. Dig deeper by repeatedly asking "why" those things affect you like you do until the question starts to sound absurd. The first "because" answers you come up with are often intellectual masks for the true emotional reasons for your reactions to circumstance.

After you break down the things that make you happy and unhappy, assemble your happiness keys into a package that describes your dream life. Turn the package upside-down and sideways. Take it apart and put it back together again in different ways. Try mind mapping, or a vision board, or some other tool to help you bring it all together into a coherent picture of what you want your days to be like. That picture is your goal.

Having a goal is a good start, but you still have a huge gap between your goal and where you are now. Your goal gives you a direction, but traversing the gap requires a plan of action.

Many people never achieve their goals for the simple reason that they never make plans to reach them. At first, creating a plan seems hard because you are looking across the distance between where you are and where you want to be, and you can't see how to make the leap. The trick is to realize that you don't have to make that leap in a single bound. You don't even have to go in a straight line. Your best course may zig and zag. That's okay, as long as you know where you want to end up. It is often better to go around an obstacle than to try to go through or over it.

Develop a plan by working backward from your goal and forward from your current position until you can identify the next easily attainable step that gets you closer to your goal. Now, before you get too relaxed about having started an action plan, set a deadline for that next step. When you complete the first step, do the same thing for the next step. Don't expect to have all the information you need to come up with a complete plan from the beginning: just keep taking achievable steps that bring you closer to your goal. You'll just stress yourself out if you try to make a plan that encompasses obstacles you can't know about until you get there.

Having a goal and knowing what you will do next gives you confidence, the final necessary ingredient in your plan for happiness.

Confidence in your plan borrows happiness from the future. You'll find that the very act of going forward in the direction of your dreams helps you start to live the life you imagined before you even "get there." The journey itself becomes half the fun, which is good, because it may take you a while to get there.

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