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Worst Birthday Ever

March 6, 2013 | by Dr. Yvette Alt Miller

Justin Bieber and the search for happiness.

“Worst birthday ever.” Justin Bieber’s lament after some under-age guests were turned away from one of London’s hottest nightclubs quickly went viral, becoming the third-most Tweeted message ever.

When the singer found he couldn’t celebrate his 19th birthday with all his invited guests (those under eighteen weren’t allowed in the club), they regrouped at a nearby restaurant. But fans and photographers soon mobbed the party, and Bieber retreated with his friends to a hotel.

Worst birthday ever?

Bieber may know how to sing, but he’s lacking a clear understanding on how to attain happiness.

Happiness comes from an Icelandic word: “happ”, meaning luck or chance.

The English word for happiness comes from an Icelandic word: “happ”, meaning luck or chance. This is the origin of words like haphazard and happenstance, and it implies a view of happiness as something left purely to chance.

Like Justin Bieber, many of us view happiness in this same way: when everything works out just right, then we believe we can be happy. But things rarely work out the way we expect them to. How do we feel when our plans go wrong?

True happiness is impervious to setbacks like a disappointing birthday party. In one classic study, both people who won the lottery and people who became paraplegic reverted to their previous happiness levels in a matter of months. Outside factors – even when they’re extreme – can’t truly alter our ability to be happy.

The ability to be happy, even when faced with adversity, is a habit that can be learned. Here are a few strategies to try.

1. See the bigger picture.

It’s human nature to feel that we deserve what we have. Our material blessings, our wealth, our health: it’s easy to feel that these are inalienable rights. This thinking, however, leaves us vulnerable: when anything happens to jeopardize our possessions or level of comfort, we feel victimized.

The Hebrew language offers us a different way of looking at what we have. Instead of saying I own it, or it belongs to me, the most common way of saying “I have” something in Hebrew is yesh li, literally “it’s there for me.” This way of putting ownership recognizes a truth that is easy to overlook: rather than something we are owed, the many gifts we enjoy in our lives are just that, gifts, lent to us when we need them. Saying yesh li reminds us of the bounty of the world around us. The difference in talking about our possessions this way is subtle, but it can change our whole outlook for the better.

Our homes, our friends, our family, health, and wealth: try looking at it all as a gift. You’ll be amazed how lucky you feel. Once you start considering the many good things in your life as presents, not rights, you’ll start feeling happier.

2. Feel gratitude.

One way of beginning to see our lives as repositories of presents, rather than rights, is to cultivate a mindset of gratitude.

In a famous 2003 study, University of California researchers Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough found that people who listed five things they were grateful for each night had increased happiness and sense of well being. Dwelling on their gratitude also had an energizing effect: doing this exercise led people to become more proactive and effective in reaching their goals.

Taking a few minutes each day to reflect on how fortunate we are helps us not take the good things in our lives for granted, and can also help us gain the perspective we need to cope with life’s disappointments.

3. View failure as a chance to learn.

Two thousand years ago, Rabbi Chanina said “A person does not suffer even a small injury to his finger unless it was so ordained from heaven” (Chullin 7b): the Torah teaches that we’re each are given the tools we need to grow. This is a powerfully optimistic message: once we view setbacks as a chance to learn and evolve, they lose their power to derail us.

Modern research backs this up. University of Pennsylvania Professor Martin Seligman did groundbreaking research in “learned optimism”, and identified three “P’s” that hold us back when we experience disappointment. Gloomy people, he found, view challenges as permanent, personal, and pervasive. When bad luck strikes, they let it overwhelm them, dragging down their whole view of themselves, their self esteem, and their attitude towards their future.

Happier people, by contrast, are more likely to see bad luck as short-term, limited, and specific.

Viewing setbacks as challenges to overcome – instead of permanent catastrophes – can help us become happier, more resilient people.

4. Take another look at what you already have.

It’s very easy to get caught up in the modern rat race. We live in a consumer society, and we’ve all absorbed the message to some degree that getting something new will make us happier. Of course, as anyone who has ever indulged in “retail therapy” can attest, this is not always the case.

Our Sages anticipated this temptation thousands of years ago. “Who is rich?” the Mishna asks. Its surprising answer: “He who is happy with his portion.” (Pirkei Avot 4:1) Large or small, appreciating what we already have is the key to contentment.

This attitude allows us to choose our own level of happiness. The more we look inward, the less dependent we are for our mood on outside forces.

5. Think long-term.

Tal Ben-Shahar, the famous “Happiness Professor” whose class on positive psychology was the most popular course at Harvard, observed that having long-term, meaningful goals is necessary for true happiness. Without a clear sense of how we hope to make a meaningful contribution to the world, any pleasure we experience is superficial, and does little to impact our long-term well being.

Spend a few minutes thinking about what you’d like to accomplish. Thinking about long-term goals, and staying focused on them, helps insure that passing setbacks won’t be able to damage your happiness and sense of self.

Keeping our eyes on an overarching goal also ensures that when our plans don’t go smoothly – like Justin Bieber’s derailed birthday bash – we’ll be much less likely to allow it to crush our mood. It’s too late for Bieber to have the 19th birthday of his dreams, but if he implements these strategies to increasing happiness, chances are his 20th will be satisfying and fun, no matter what happens that day.


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