Happy familyWhat lies in store for you in 2012? If you’re like most people, a huge portion of your life will be spent anxiously plugging away at a job you may or may not enjoy with coworkers you may or may not like. Sure, you work hard to build a better life for your family. But here’s the question: Will you have time to enjoy them? Will you be too exhausted to throw the ball with your son? And how many nights will you get home too late to tuck him in this year? If you’re not careful, you may suffer the same fate I did.

When I was 36 years old, I was successfully leading my family’s auto-parts business, was respected in my community, had a wonderful wife and son, and suffered a nervous breakdown. Yes, at that point in my life, I enjoyed what I did and was proud of my successes, but pushed myself too hard and prioritized the wrong things. Eventually, it caught up with me.

For months leading to my breakdown, I had paralyzing depression and anxiety, and found it difficult to complete tasks as simple as deciding whether to order coleslaw or potato salad with my lunch. But I still consider myself to be fortunate.

Horrific as it was, my breakdown was also my breakthrough. It forced me to realize I was driving myself too hard, and for the wrong reasons. I finally had to say, “Enough! I’m done destroying myself and ruining my life!”

A New Year's Resolution to be Happy

For the past decade, I’ve looked at what really makes people happy and unhappy, and have seen most of my goals and priorities shift. In the same way, it’s in your best interests to shift your habits and focus in 2012. Call it a New Year’s resolution to be happy.

How happy and fulfilled you are is largely under your control; it has less to do with accomplishments than you might think. I believe most people experience many of the stressors that led to my breakdown, so don’t wait until you, too, reach a breaking point to change your life. I believe true happiness is possible, so take the lessons I’ve learned to heart.

1. You have to choose and prioritize happiness—it doesn’t just happen.

If you believe your happiness depends on what happens to you, you’ll always be dissatisfied. Truth is, your fulfillment largely depends on the choices you make: how you see the world, what influences you, what you focus on, and how you react to circumstances, regardless of whether they’re good or bad. In other words, it’s not what happens to you; it’s how you look at what happens to you.

So make happiness a top priority each day. To remind yourself, put a note where you can see it—maybe on the refrigerator or bathroom mirror. If that sounds selfish, it’s not. If you’re stressed or depressed, you hurt more people than just yourself. And what’s more important than teaching your kids to be happy? Children learn by example. If they see you living a harried, stressed life, that’s the pattern they’ll follow as well.

2. Striving for work/life balance is worth its weight in gold.

Some of us have developed the work-ego addiction: you become hooked on the “high” you feel when you accomplish something, get a promotion, etc., and you spend more and more time at the office. Whatever the reason, if long hours are becoming a habit, break it. No matter how good your intentions, overloading on work will cause your relationships, mindset, and health to suffer.

3. We’re our own worst critics.

You probably focus a lot of mental energy on the things you mess up rather than on the things you do well—even though most of us do 100 things right for every one thing we do wrong. And though you may not realize it, focusing on that one wrong thing is dangerous, because our thoughts are powerful. Until you allow yourself to break the cycle of self-blame and negativity that causes you to demand perfection in every situation, you’ll never be a relaxed, content, and happy person. So build yourself up more and beat yourself up less.

4. It’s never too late to start living in the present.

How often do you think in the present? More to the point, how often are you fixated on your “disappointing” or “disturbing” past or worrying about your future? If you’re like most people, the time not spent in the present is too high. Thus you miss out on life itself. If you let what’s already happened eat away at you or fret about what might come to pass, you’re not enjoying the blessings around you. You’re exacerbating your anxiety and unhappiness by dwelling on things you can’t change.

5. Focusing on what you’re good at is best for everyone.

It’s natural to want to shore up your weaknesses, but this strategy tends to cause stress for (most likely) mediocre results. Instead of trying to be good at everything, focus on your strengths as much as possible. When you’re doing what you’re good at, you’ll be happier and higher performing.

6. Exercise is worth its weight in therapy.

For starters, it will make you feel more relaxed, stronger, and more capable. It will improve your sleep, and it’s a natural anti-depressant. In fact, exercise opens you up to future change by invigorating your mind and body. If working out is already a part of your life, great! If it isn’t, commit to walking 20 minutes every other day to start. You don’t have to join a gym, sign up for classes, or reorder your life to reap the benefits.

7. You need to feed your mind healthy “food.”

When was the last time you watched the nightly news and turned off the TV feeling positive and uplifted? If anything, hearing the headlines is more likely to be discouraging. The things we hear, read, and experience influence our attitudes and outlooks, so “feed” your mind positive materials. Learn new, constructive things. Expose yourself to fresh ways of thinking so you don’t get stuck in a self-destructive rut.

8. Surround yourself with positive people.

If you stop at the water cooler and find your colleagues griping about how much work they have to do and how unreasonable your boss is, you probably don’t think much of it. In fact, depending on how your own day is going, you might join in. And though you may not realize it, your attitude will start to deteriorate. The fact is, if you spend significant time around negative people, your outlook will begin to mirror theirs.

It’s easier for others to drag you down than it is for you to build them up. Gravitate toward positive people; distance yourself from those who bring you down. This might mean calling a positive friend and asking to meet for coffee or a beer, or walking away from the water cooler when your coworkers grouse.

9. Invest in your relationships—especially your marriage.

When we’re driving ourselves to the brink, personal relationships are usually one of the first things to suffer. After all, the more time you spend at work, the less time and energy you can invest in friends and family. This gradual deterioration can leave you feeling unappreciated, angry, alone, and anxious. Remember, though, that loving, supportive relationships will enhance your happiness levels, and that friends and family care about you and accept you in ways your employer never will.

10. Control what you can.

If you’re reading this, chances are your life isn’t exactly stress-free. It’s practically impossible to live in the modern world without a million worries ranging from work deadlines to bills to clogged gutters. While you aren’t omnipotent, you probably can influence a few of the things causing your anxiety. Try to eliminate or minimize situations that are stressors instead of constantly dealing with their effects. Often, it’s the little things that make the biggest difference when it comes to relieving stress.

Start by identifying the two or three things that consistently cause you the most stress—maybe having a messy house is one. Often, you’ll find concrete things you can do to ease the pressure. For example, you might have a discussion with your spouse and kids regarding chores. Or, you might hire a cleaning person once or twice a month if you can afford it. Also, if you can’t eliminate or change a stressor, such as a job you hate but can’t afford to quit, challenge yourself to handle it differently. Specifically, decide beforehand how you’ll react in a more enlightened way when certain stressful situations occur—actually visualize yourself handling them with poise. Having a game plan before the “beast” rears its ugly head can reduce your negative reactions to stressors.

11. Being friendly is a good investment.

It’s easy to be absorbed by your responsibilities—but you’re not helping yourself by shutting out the rest of the world. Even if you don’t have time to answer all your emails, you can smile at people in the hall and say a friendly hello to the cashier in the grocery store. Making positive connections will bring more happiness to you and to others.

12. Helping others is the soul food of life.

We tend to think mostly about ourselves: how much work we have left on that big presentation, how we’re going to take the kids to sports practice and pick up groceries, and more. No matter how busy you are, consider helping others. It can be an integral part of a healthy work/life balance. It will give you perspective, make you feel good, and will prevent you from staying in the negative me-focused cycle that made you unhappy in the first place.

13. Connect with something bigger than yourself.

Spirituality (like politics) is a touchy subject. But believing in something bigger than yourself is essential to developing the kind of perspective you need to be happy. Whether you accept God, Yahweh, Allah, Buddha, Krishna, the Universe, Nature, or another entity, being willing and able to see and feel His (or Her, if you prefer) presence in your life will enable you to move away from self-centeredness and focus on the greater community. It’ll also provide solace and give meaning to unfortunate events and troubling life circumstances.

14. A grateful heart is a happy heart.

It’s easy to take things for granted: the information your coworker emailed you, the fact that your car is running, even the food you’re eating for dinner. The fact is, most of us of ignore the good things in our lives. Instead, we get upset about what’s wrong and what we lack. Yes, cultivating an “attitude of gratitude” might be a cliché, but the humility that comes from knowing you owe so much to others will, in turn, spur you to give back more often to those less fortunate than yourself. Plus, studies show that thankful individuals are 25 percent healthier than their counterparts. 

To start tapping into the power of gratitude, just say “thanks” to the people who help you during your day. Beyond that, try to notice all the blessings in your life. You have access to great education, healthcare, and the freedom to worship and work as you choose. Those are huge things to be thankful for! We take these basics and more for granted, but we often have others—whether it’s an ancestor, a veteran, or a coworker—to thank for them. It’s important to be aware of all your blessings, and to thank those whom you owe.

15. Asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness.

Feeling anxious, overwhelmed, or depressed is serious. Don’t expect to easily fix these issues on your own.

If you feel you’re in over your head, or if your best efforts aren’t working, please reach out and ask for help. I might never have recovered after my breakdown without the help of my friends, family, and medical professionals. This is all big stuff. You shouldn’t—in fact, you can’t—make big changes in your life alone. At the very least, you’ll need the support of those who love you.

Todd Patkin is the author of Finding Happiness: One Man’s Quest to Beat Depression and Anxiety and—Finally—Let the Sunshine In (StepWise Press, 2011) is available at bookstores nationwide, from major online booksellers, and on Todd Patkin's website.

How have you overcome stress on a quest to find happiness?