Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Secret to Happiness: Find Your Own Joy and It Will Spread

Guest Post by Dr. Matthew B. James

Recently, my eleven-year-old and I were talking about what parents want most for our children. I explained to him that the big three I hear all the time in my workshops are wanting our children to be happy, wanting our kids to become successful, and wanting our children to be good people.

I went on to explain to my son that, unfortunately, you can’t actually be in charge of someone else’s happiness or success. In fact, the only thing that you can truly be in charge of is whether your kids are good.

At end of the day, everyone needs to be in charge of whether or not they are successful. I can teach my son certain things and show him certain techniques that will help him be successful. After all, I teach these in my trainings, and many of my students have become very successful. However, ultimately to become successful one must practice these techniques. And, by that time, he will be over eighteen, and his success will be in his hands.

With happiness, it is the same way. It would make everyone’s life easier if they had control over other people’s emotions! I am a father, a teacher, and a boss. If I could make my kids, students, and employees happy with a wave of a wand, that would be great. However, it doesn’t work that way. I explained to my son that even as kids, we all have to be in charge of our own happiness in life.

Ultimately, as a parent, I think I’m only going to have a true influence over whether or not he is a good person. I can talk about being polite and having respect. I can assist in changing behaviors, and that is my focus. Yet our conversation gravitated back toward happiness.

My son discussed how he works hard at making people happy. He explained how he wants to make his teacher happy with his grades and work, and he wants to make his parents happy with his behavior, and he wants to make his friends happy while he is with them. In fact, it seemed this was a good portion of his day. And yet he said he was not happy!

As a parent I might have a misconception that I have control over my kids and could make them be happy. However, I know I don’t have that level of control over my friends and students. So I asked my son if he has that level of influence (like a parent has with a child) with his friends and teachers. He, of course, said “no.” I also asked him, “What do you think your friends want?” He responded that they want him to be happy.

So I told him: “You don’t have any influence over others to force them to be happy. And if you spend all your time trying to make someone else happy, and then fail, it makes you unhappy. Here you are wanting to make others happy, only to be unhappy in the process.” My son agreed!

I think we all experience this in our lives. We spend all this time miserably trying to make other people happy, something we obviously can’t do. We do it because we want to see other people happy all around us. But the paradox is, the harder we try, the more miserable we get. Others pick up on these negative feelings, and the process just keeps spiraling down.

Question: Why not just be happy yourself and do what makes you happy? Then other people will see that you are happy and respond to your joy. If people do this with the goal of seeing others happy, then this would work. All we have to do is be happy ourselves to begin that process.

So my thinking, with everything I’ve learned in psychology and communication skills, is that we should all give up trying to make other people happy because it’s impossible to have that level of control over someone else. If we instead begin to focus on being happy ourselves, then I believe we will begin to see happy people all around us.

Give it a try. It could start a happy epidemic!

About the Author: Matthew B. James, MA, Ph.D., is President of Kona University. His new book, The Foundation of Huna: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Times, details forgiveness and meditation techniques used in Hawaii for hundreds of years. He carries on the lineage of the one of the last practicing kahuna of mental health and wellbeing. To reach Dr. James, please e-mail him at


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