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*****= An all-time favorite
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*****How We Choose To Be Happy

The Nine Choices of Extremely Happy People
--Their Secrets, Their Stories

by Rick Foster and Greg Hicks

Reviewed June 30, 2006.
G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, 1999.  227 pages.
Available at Sembach Library (158.1 FOS).

Here’s another book that seemed to come to my attention at exactly the right time with exactly what I needed to hear.  I continue to say that God knows me well, and He knows that if He wants to give me a message, sending it through a book is sure to reach me!

I liked this book so much, I bought myself my own copy to go through slowly and refer to again over the years.

Rick Foster and Greg Hicks started out as corporate consultants.  “We spent years solving issues that are familiar to many of us—misunderstandings between people, lack of trust, poor collaboration.  We thought that fixing these problems would make people happier.

“But eventually, we learned a truth:  When we fix our problems, all we end up with is fewer problems.  We feel better only until the next problem crops us, which it inevitably does.  In fact, we can keep ‘fixing’ forever without ever creating real happiness.

“At about the same time we began to take notice of a few unusual people who stood out from the crowd.  They seemed to live in a different world from the rest of us.  They had life ‘wired.’  Regardless of the problems swirling around them, they moved through life with grace, warmth and an elegance that was both alluring and mysterious.  There was only one way we could describe them:  extremely happy.  And we were fascinated by them.

“So we shifted gears, deciding to focus our attention on the world of happy people, not just at work, but in every aspect of life.  If resolving issues wasn’t the source of their happiness, what was?  We had other questions, as well.  What makes them tick?  How do they stay emotionally elevated?  What are they doing that the rest of us aren’t?”

“What we uncovered amazed us.  Even though the people we interviewed were extremely diverse and their situations varied, they all had something in common.  Rich or poor, black or white, married or single, old or young, they each created happiness by making the same nine choices.

“What we learned changed us in ways we could not have imagined, opening up a whole new world, a whole new way to be, to think, to live.  It changed the way we related to each other, the way we parented, our notions about friendships, our approaches to consulting and our feelings about the value and richness in ordinary lives well-lived—lives that could teach us something valuable.”

This book communicates what they learned about happiness.  They say, “Have we created a tangible, clear guide to happiness?  Yes.  Can we make you happy?  No.  You have to make yourself happy.  What we can give you is a portrait of happiness showing you how to grow, learn and change.”

They define true happiness as “a profound, enduring feeling of contentment, capability and centeredness.  It’s a rich sense of well-being that comes from knowing you can deal productively and creatively with all that life offers—both the good and the bad.  It’s knowing your internal self and responding to your real needs, rather than the demands of others.  And it’s a deep sense of engagement—living in the moment and enjoying life’s bounty.”

“Beyond the discussion of genetics and biochemistry, two critically important themes emerged from our discussions with extremely happy people.  First, happiness comes from within—you can’t find it outside yourself.  Second, you can choose happiness—it is not a matter of luck or happenstance.  You have the power to create your own happiness.  These themes will emerge constantly throughout this book.”

This book intrigued me.  I think of myself as a happy person, but my last year was rough, and I had come out of a severe depression, and still take antidepressants.  When I was in the middle of the book, a major blow came to me.  I was scheduled to have surgery, and my husband made it clear he didn’t want to help me during the recovery period.  I was feeling very sad.  The next chapter in this book was called “Recasting,” and I was sure it was about seeing the bright side of bad things, so I figured my down day disqualified me.

But this book said otherwise.  Happiness isn’t about denying or ignoring painful emotions, burying them and pretending they don’t exist.  I was encouraged to read that happy people experience their feelings and fully engage their emotions and then move on.  So there was still hope for me—I was certainly feeling this emotion of sadness!

They picture the nine choices in a circle, not a hierarchy.  “Each of the nine choices made my happy people stands alone as an important and valuable life choice.  But when they come together, they create a synergistic system.  In other words, when they work as a whole their total result is far greater than the sum of their individual parts.  And that synergy creates deep, long-term happiness.”

They do, however, put the first choice, Intention, in the center of the circle.  “In our research and subsequent work with individuals and groups, intention is the force behind all happiness, the fundamental choice that drives the other eight choices.  It’s compelling because it initiates an adventure that’s waiting to happen.  It’s the prelude of things to come.  It’s the instant we turn the key in the ignition.  It’s when we decide to pick up the phone and begin to dial.  It’s opening a book to the first page.

“The intention to be happy is a mindset that propels us toward living as happily as we can, predisposing us to make each day as joyful and significant as it can be.  It’s the point at which we stop responding unconsciously and actively decide we want to be happy.  We make a promise to ourselves, a commitment to happiness that becomes our compass, guiding the decisions we make and the actions we take.”

“The intention to be happy is an umbrella that covers all of our other intentions.  It overlays our intentions to be good citizens, excellent parents and loving friends.  While none of the happy people we spoke with told us that happiness was, by itself, a final goal, they actively integrate the intention to be happy into every part of life.  They are not just parents, friends and lovers, they intend to be happy parents, friends, lovers.”

“At the heart of happiness is the realization that we can always choose our reactions.”

“If we desire happiness, we can’t rely on anything outside of ourselves to make us happy, whether it’s a new car or a better love life.  Even though our commercial world shouts at us that we can buy happiness, we know that it doesn’t really work.

“When we choose intention along with the other eight choices we can create happiness from within—true happiness that is lasting.  The new car, latest promotion or community recognition may give us a momentary thrill, but the happiness that comes from within us is a profound sensation that endures.  This is the kind of happiness we truly desire.”

The second choice is Accountability.  “Accountability is how intention comes to life….  It’s a feeling that we can be in control of our own lives.  It’s honoring our right to craft a life for ourselves that is rewarding, rich and exuberant.  It’s believing that we deserve to be happy and can nurture ourselves.  It’s the assumption that no matter what life presents we have the ability to move ahead—to do something good for ourselves, to make a difference, to have an effect.”

“Happy people don’t see themselves as victims, even under the most difficult circumstances.  Their focus is on finding solutions to their problem and looking for what they can do to make their lives better.

“There is a difference between accountability and responsibility.  Although accountable people are responsible, responsible people are not necessarily accountable.  Responsible people are not necessarily accountable.  Responsible people do all that is required of them—they pay the bills, take out the garbage, raise the kids, go to work, and follow the rules.  In short, they are good citizens, and we admire them.

“But that doesn’t mean they’re happy.  Especially if, along the way, they’re blaming the boss, complaining about the kids, and allowing external events to control the direction of their lives.  Being responsible is important, but when we’re accountable, we forge ahead, improving the quality of our lives by becoming proactive rather than reactive.  We create our own circumstances, rather than allowing circumstances to dictate to us.  As creators of our own lives, we are filled up.  We feel content, capable and in control.”

“Of the many behaviors that characterize happy people, one stands out resoundingly.  Happy people avoid blaming in all its incarnations.  They don’t blame other people, they don’t blame circumstances, and they don’t blame themselves.  To happy people, blame serves no purpose.  It doesn’t ever get us what we truly desire.

“In fact, our research clearly shows that blame, along with its family members—greed, envy and jealousy—are among the most dramatic indicators of unhappiness.  These reactions lead nowhere.  They are only ways to dodge responsibility.  Except for the brief sense of satisfaction that comes from pointing a finger at someone else, blaming ultimately leaves us stuck with feelings of resentment.

“The choice to be accountable is the choice to be masters of our own fates.”

“When we answer the question ‘What’s my part?’ we feel better, happier.  Why?  Because we are addressing the only thing we can affect—ourselves.  We give ourselves the power to move through the situation, rather than being bogged down by trying to get the other party to change.

“Focusing on ‘my part’ after we’ve been attacked may seem counterintuitive.  But this is what happy people do.”

The third choice is Identification—“the choice happy people make to figure out what makes them truly happy.  They don’t dance to the happiness messages others send them:  buy this product, join this club, follow this ideology.  Rather, they look deeply within themselves to envision what will make them happiest in a given situation.  They don’t do it occasionally or only when something big happens.  The happiest people do it as a matter of course, every day of their lives.”

“Sometimes we’re so busy responding to other people’s formulas for happiness that we haven’t created a formula of our own.  This can be the crucial difference between our long-term feeling of happiness and a sense of frustration and emptiness.”

This step reminds me of what FlyLady teaches on her website,  FLY stands for “finally loving yourself.”  For some people, the biggest obstacle to identification is believing that you don’t deserve to have time to spend on yourself.

One woman considered seeking her own happiness superficial and self-indulgent.  She spent her energy trying to make a difference in her community.  But after she began trying to put some happiness into her life, she said, “I believe more than ever about giving back to the community.  But now I also believe that I can build happiness into my life.  When I do, I’m more energized and effective and less stressed.  I’m nurturing myself as I nurture the community.”

The fourth choice is Centrality.  “Centralizing is happy people’s nonnegotiable choice to pursue the greatest passions of their minds and hearts.  It’s what energizes them.  It’s what makes them sparkle.  And it’s what integrates them into their world.”

The wording there reminds me of the Sparkle Theory I developed in college:  “Every human being desperately needs sparkles.”  For a young, single girl, it’s easiest to get those sparkles in a relationship.  But sometimes we’ll look for a relationship only to get the sparkles.  And when a relationship dies (or your husband wants a divorce), you will need to find other sparkles in your life.

“Centralities are an expression of who we are as authentic individuals.  They’re what make us feel most vital and alive.  And in their diversity, they celebrate the variety of human experience.  Whether it’s spending time with grandchildren or rock climbing, living our centralities makes our individual path unique, exciting and well worth following.”

“So how do we do it?  Centralizing may seem difficult, but it can be as easy as choosing one item each day from your Dream List.  Even pushing ourselves to do little things, like cooking dinner with our spouses or filling the house with cut flowers, can add richness to our lives.  We forget how meaningful simple pleasures can be.

“Even under the most difficult circumstances, happy people find a way to centralize.  Every extremely happy person we encountered managed in some way to build a life around his or her passions.  Doing so requires ingenuity and creativity, and in this chapter we’ll give you portraits of happy people who have made changes in order to be happy.”

“In order for us to live our passions, creativity and problem-solving—not money—are the keys.”

“Centralizing requires having enough self-worth to withstand pressures—from our loved ones, our bosses and from our own internal voices.  If we wait for unanimous support, it will never come.  At any given time, some people will be supportive, others will be critical.  Making everyone around us happy is an impossible task.  It is enough to make ourselves happy.”

The fifth choice of extremely happy people is Recasting, the one that especially struck me as I was reading the book.

“One way [to deal with difficult times] is to adopt the ‘get over it, get on with your life’ strategy.  Another way is to decide you’d rather stay upbeat and positive regardless of the severity of the situation.  What entices us about these approaches is that they make it appear that we’ve gotten through the problem without having to feel the pain.  But ultimately these approaches are forms of denial.  And denial, unfortunately, fails to bring long-term happiness.

“There’s no way around the fact that life brings pain.  It’s part of the human experience.  The question is ‘What do we do with that pain?’  Happy people have an answer that is uniquely powerful and moving.  One of the most extraordinary discoveries in our interviews is that happy people universally react to painful situations in the same way.  We call it recasting.  By recasting, they move through events that are otherwise debilitating, with an elegance and efficiency that is stunning.”

“Recasting has two phases.  First, happy people dive into negative feelings head on and experience them deeply.  They listen to what their minds and bodies are telling them.  They don’t censor raw emotion, deny feelings or run from pain as many of us do in an attempt to ‘just go on.’  Rather, they honor their own emotional world by feeling it, even when avoidance would be easier.

“Once they are fully engaged with their emotions they move into the second phase.  They begin to transform their feelings with new reactions and insights.  What lessons can they learn?  What new meaning can they create for their lives?  What hopes for the future can they carry away from this experience?”

“When we recast we put the event and our reactions into a psychological furnace and melt them down.  Over time, we allow ourselves to feel the heat of negative emotions and forge a richer, deeper meaning from the trauma.”

“Underlying recasting is a powerful notion:  We have the strength to master our reactions purposefully to even the most traumatic events, and, in so doing, transform ourselves.  Therefore, we do not have to be held captive by sadness and loss.  We can experience them fully and grow richer from having been in their shadow.”

“Fear says, ‘I can’t cope.’  Recasting says, ‘I can cope.’  Fear says, ‘I’m not going to be able to handle the bad things that are happening.’  Recasting says, ‘I can work through painful situations and emotions.’

“Fear is a trap.  It keeps us stuck in unhappiness.  It obscures analysis, keeping negative events clouded by anxiety.  But working through fear can enrich us, providing new insights.  By allowing our real feelings to surface, recasting helps us manage them effectively and sets us free.”

“Obviously, big problems take time to develop, and sudden trauma can wound us even more deeply.  There is no ‘quick fix.’  Recasting takes time, practice and follow-through.  But there is a real benefit.  Recasting ultimately requires less energy than chronic suffering and grief.”

“Recasting stands alone among all the choices of happy people because it works specifically with events that leave us profoundly unhappy.  Whereas the other choices generate new, increased happiness, recasting restores happiness when it’s been taken away.  As such, it is an essential skill.  Without it, we can make all the other eight choices but still be unarmed to deal with crises.”

The sixth choice of happy people is Options.  “Happy people thrive in an ever-changing world by opening up their lives to a daily bounty of opportunity.”

“For happy people, every experience offers a new chance for adventure.  A business trip, the open house at their child’s school or even a much-dreaded family reunion are seen as offering possibilities and potentialities that can’t be anticipated in advance.”

I need to take this choice to heart as I’m writing this.  My husband’s planning to divorce me, and we are due to leave Germany this summer.  I was planning to follow him wherever he’s stationed, so that he could continue to spend lots of time with our younger son.  (Our older son will be off to college.)  However, he volunteered to go to Japan, unaccompanied.  I’m definitely sad at the thought of being on the other side of the world from him, but I don’t have to let that ruin my happiness.  Even though I don’t like it, this opens up all kinds of possibilities for me.  I can live wherever in the world I want to live.  I will probably move to live near two dear friends whom I’ve known and loved since third grade.

The authors say about happy people:  “They are never rigid about their plans.  They don’t assume that things have to go a certain way, and they are willing to approach each day with flexibility.  To them, rigidity causes unhappiness.”

“Happy people approach life differently.  They use divergent thinking, the consideration of many prospects without a sole outcome in mind.  This is discovering possibilities and developing scenarios.  They told us, in effect, ‘The conclusion will take care of itself.’”

“If we look back over our lives at our most thrilling accomplishments, they were likely things we never dreamed were realistic or measurable.  But we gave them a shot anyway.  Happiness requires this kind of unfettered creativity.  If we only do things we already know to be achievable, we will rob ourselves of some of our greatest moments.”

“To happy people, limitations are challenges.  And how do they rise to the challenges?  Creativity.  They are much like sculptors who envision beautiful shapes and forms inside rough blocks of granite.  Give them what appears to be nothing and they revel in the search to make it something.  Each new day presents the potential for relationships, education, personal growth, professional development and just plain fun.”

The seventh choice is Appreciation.  This one isn’t too surprising.  “Appreciation is many things and assumes many forms.  Appreciation is transformation.  It is awareness.  It’s how we acknowledge others.  It’s the way we open our emotional floodgates and let our happiness flow into the world.  And appreciation is our way of living fully in the moment.”

“Appreciation like this is existence in the moment.  Nothing is taken for granted.  Life is a gift, and happy people look for what can be appreciated now.  When they find it, worries from the past and anxieties about the future fade against the Technicolor experience of the present.

“The logic behind all this is clear.  It’s a physical fact that, no matter what happened an hour ago, a week ago or what might happen in an hour or in a week, happiness can only be felt now, in this moment.  It can’t be experienced any other way.  We can anticipate the future and we can remember the past, but it is only in the present moment that we can feel.”

“No experience is entirely bad or entirely good.  No event is without something that can be appreciated.  No feelings ever go to waste.  And here’s the good news:  Unlike just about everything else in life, there’s no down side to appreciation.  It never works against us.”

The eighth choice is Giving.  “True giving, radiant giving, comes from the same inner place as deep happiness.  It’s a desire to share our personal sense of worth and values.  It’s having the self-esteem to feel that what we have to offer is valuable—our advice, wisdom, expertise, skills, physical labor.  The manner in which we give these gifts is a reflection of who we are.”

“Happy people don’t expect a return.  They give because it is a decree of their heart, letting their internal sense of contentment and joy overflow into the world.  They want no other payoff.  The more they give, the happier they feel, and the happier they feel, the more they give.”

“Giving is a complex behavior, made even more complex because we receive so many cultural messages about how, where, when and why to give.  But giving in its purest form—as when a father shares something of himself with his son—is powerful in its directness and authenticity, and it has the potential of changing the entire course of a lifetime.”

The final choice of extremely happy people is Truthfulness.  It completes the circle, going back around to Accountability (with Intention in the center).

“The choice to be truthful is a rich and deeply personal statement that happy people make about themselves, to themselves.  It is a kind of truth that speaks to the ability to confront our personal mythologies, to look at our behavior honestly, and to do what is right for ourselves, regardless of the social pressure to do otherwise.  This fundamental honesty to ourselves also becomes the wellspring of truthfulness with others.”

“Unfortunately, in our most important relationships we often assume that we need to be strategic, discreet and withholding to protect ourselves.  From what are we protecting ourselves?  If the truth were told, we fear rejection, retaliation and embarrassment.

“But not telling the truth to ourselves and others is the source of many of our greatest problems.  Without truth there can be no real intimacy in our most important relationships.  At work we don’t feel genuine.  We lose connection to our children.  But, most important, we lose contact with our true selves.  Can we, in fact, know ourselves if we don’t tell the truth to ourselves?”

“Truth is like a crossword puzzle.  If one small word is incorrect, you have to manipulate all of the words around that one inaccuracy to complete the puzzle.  This is why even ‘little white lies’ are stressful.  We have to remember the lie and who we told it to.  We have to worry about being caught or that someone will expose us.  But most of all, like the word in the puzzle, we are out of alignment with what we know is true.”

“The word truth can be terribly abused.  We’ve all seen it used as a weapon.  People who use personal attack masquerading as ‘just telling the truth’ will often say, ‘I’m very honest.  I just tell it the way it is.’  But under the guise of honesty, that statement translates into the license to say, ‘It’s your fault.’  ‘You blew it.’  Or ‘Honestly, you’re a jerk.’  Accountable truth-telling has nothing to do with blame.

“Happy people view truth as something precious, and they nurture it carefully.  Using the truth as a tool to hurt someone, or to abuse a truth in any way, would not only be unaccountable but also intolerable.”

“People are drawn to the truth.  They want the truth.  It’s like a magnet.  They are attracted to those who are honest.  As we heard more and more stories that illustrate how honesty invites intimacy, we began to refer to this phenomenon as ‘the truth magnet.’”

The authors add a final chapter to their book, called Synergy.  This chapter talks about how all the choices come together in a beautiful synergy.

“Does the wheel end at truthfulness, our last of the nine choices?  No.  As with any circle, this is only one segment in an ever-moving design.  As giving has flowed into this segment, truthfulness now flows back to accountability.  Because, after all, how can you be fully accountable to yourself unless you know your truth?

“Once again, all of the choices are driven by intention.  What is our intention when we’re dealing with ourselves and others?  Is it to hide, to protect, to hurt, to manipulate, to punish, or is it to enlighten, to help, to be authentic and genuine?

“We continue to move around the wheel, as the adventure of ever-increasing contentment, centeredness and capability continues.  We are on a lifelong journey when we choose to be happy.”

If these ideas and choices intrigue you at all, I highly recommend this book.  The authors expand greatly on these excerpts I’ve presented, and they provide stories from the happy people they interviewed to illustrate each point.  This book can be life-changing—the choice is yours!

Check out the authors' website at

Review of another book by the authors:
Choosing Brilliant Health

Copyright © 2006 Sondra Eklund.  All rights reserved.

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