Are you really, truly happy? If we’re honest, most of us would respond with a reluctant no. Todd Patkin—a businessman and philanthropist who kicked anxiety and depression and went on to write a book on happiness—wants you to have a different answer next year.
Happy New Year! Every January 1, in a blur of champagne and party chatter, we toss out those three little words like so much glittering confetti. They’re as much a staple of the annual milestone as Dick Clark and the Times Square ball. But how many of us take the time to think about what the phrase truly means? What is happiness, anyway? What does it look like? And—most important of all—how can we achieve it?
Todd Patkin thinks he has the answer to this question.
“We’re all longing for happiness,” says Patkin, author of Finding Happiness: One Man’s Quest to Beat Depression and Anxiety and—Finally—Let the Sunshine In. “We think we can achieve it by losing ten pounds or kicking a bad habit or making more money, and that’s why we vow to do those things year after year after year.
“But I’ve found that true happiness isn’t about those kinds of achievements,” he adds. “Instead, it comes down to learning to love yourself. And there are some very specific things you can start to do now to move in that direction.”
If you get the feeling that our nation’s overall happiness level is deteriorating, you’re right. According to a 2007 Reuter’s.com article, a study done by Italian researchers found that Americans are less happy these days than they were thirty years ago. Culprits include longer working hours and a decline in social relationships.
Patkin has struggled with depression and anxiety for much of his life. In his book he details his own journey to happiness, from his fretful childhood to his rocky college experience to the emotional turmoil that marked the intensive years he spent growing his family auto parts business to (most recently) his philanthropic endeavors.
While Patkin admits that everyone’s path is different, he believes the real key for all of us is self-love. When we can stop beating ourselves up over our mistakes and start celebrating all the things we do right, we can finally be happy. We must change the way we think about ourselves, and for some of us that’s a major journey—but the good news is there are some specific “shortcuts” that will get us there faster.
“I’ve given it a lot of thought and I’ve come up with ten simple things people can do to become happier in 2013,” he says. “You don’t have to do all of them at once—just focus on the three or four that resonate most with you and do those.”
Todd’s Top Ten Tips for a Happier 2013…and Beyond:
• If you don’t exercise, start. You already know exercise keeps you healthy and helps you control your weight. But did you know it’s also a natural antidepressant? In Finding Happiness, Patkin pays homage to the mood-boosting powers of exercise. And you don’t need to run a marathon to reap these benefits (even though Patkin actually did run one—the Boston Marathon—in 2007).
• Be easier on yourself. A lot of New Year’s resolutions are little more than thinly disguised vehicles for beating yourself up. (“I’m too fat—this year I will lose twenty pounds!” Sound familiar?) There’s nothing wrong with self-improvement, says Patkin, but it needs to come from a place of love. Yes, you need to love and forgive yourself for your mistakes and shortcomings…and that’s tough for many Americans.
• Find some way this year to put your gifts and talents to work. Talent wants to express itself. If your job doesn’t allow it to do so, find something that does. (Yes, it would be better to find a job that lets you do what you’re great at, Patkin acknowledges—but let’s face it, that’s not always possible in a bad economy!)
• Build richer relationships with loved ones. Is your marriage running on autopilot? What about your relationship with your kids? Do you come home from work and sit in front of the computer while they play in another room (or worse, watch TV)? Too many Americans fail to engage their families in a meaningful way, notes Patkin.
• Celebrate your spouse. And speaking of your marriage…how is it? If it’s mired in negativity or characterized by bickering or tension, you’ll never be happy. (In fact, Patkin says if you’re married to a negative person who drags you down, you’d be best served by ending the union—but only if you’ve tried everything else.) The good news is that it may not take a lot of effort to dramatically change the tenor of your marriage.
• Let the people you appreciate know it. Yes, of course you need to let your close friends and family members know how you feel about them. That’s a given. But what about your coworkers? Your barber? Your child’s teacher? The neighbor who keeps an eye on your house when you’re away? Most of us are too self-conscious to make a big fuss over the people who are sort of on the periphery of our lives but who nonetheless make a big impact—and Patkin says changing that is a key component of happiness.
• Forgive someone who has wronged you. This is the other side of the “forgive yourself” coin. Just as you deserve a break, so do other people. And forgiveness is, at its heart, an act of self-love. If you can’t let go of pain and anger, you can’t be happy.
The point? Resolve to forgive someone who has caused you pain. Whether you call or visit an estranged ex-friend or write a letter to a deceased parent, you may find the gesture immensely liberating.
• Become a giver. Happiness is not about how much you make; it’s about how much you share. Your income and/or net worth has nothing to do with happiness, says Patkin. (“I’ve been wealthy and miserable at the same time, so I know,” he insists.) How much you give—of your money, your time, your self—does, however. That’s why you should find a way to share your fortune (not necessarily the monetary kind!) with others.
• Take a “baby step” toward finding some faith. This year, make a conscious effort to think a little bit more about your faith, perhaps check out a few different places of worship, or maybe read a couple of spiritual books. Happy people have a connection to a Higher Power. If you aren’t sure there even is one, make this the year you do some honest exploration.
• Make 2013 a year of gratitude. If you make only one change in 2013, make it this one, says Patkin: Work to be more appreciative in general. According to an August 2010 article in TheDailyBeast.com, a study by a University of California psychology professor found that grateful people are 25 percent happier than their ungrateful brethren. For the most part, becoming more grateful just means opening your eyes to the blessings you already have.
What Patkin is really talking about is a shift in attitude. All of his tips are simply devices for helping us make that shift.
“It’s ironic: Most of us have everything we need to be happy,” he says. “The tragedy is we’re sleepwalking through life without really noticing that truth. If we could learn to live with an attitude of gratitude—for our kids, our homes, our friends, our health, the food on our tables—we wouldn’t need to worry about finding happiness. We’d be living it every day.”
Todd Patkin grew up in Needham, Massachusetts. After graduating from Tufts University, he joined the family business and spent the next eighteen years helping to grow it to new heights. After it was purchased by Advance Auto Parts in 2005, he was free to focus on his main passions: philanthropy and giving back to the community, spending time with family and friends, and helping more people learn how to be happy. Todd lives with his wonderful wife, Yadira, their amazing son, Josh, and two great dogs, Tucker and Hunter.