When you ask people to get right down to it, they want to be…happy.

Consider anything that you do, even those things that are difficult: get up early in the morning for a run; work on your marriage; start a meditation practice. Why are you doing it? Because you want to be happy.

But then there are those times when, no matter what you do, happiness feels like a bus that’s just never arriving. You got yourself to the right stop, on time, and the schedule says that the bus should arrive, but the Happiness Bus is leaving you alone on that corner (and you feel convinced that everyone else is on that bus, without you).

In other words, you’ve tried all of the “stuff you’re supposed to do, to get out of this funk.” You’ve gone to yoga and had your green smoothies and you floss and wear a seat belt and perhaps even go to some workshops or read some self-help books on “how to be happy,” but it just isn’t happening.

I’ve been there (as you’ll see). This post is for you.

Yes–Happiness IS about what you do

Perhaps someone has said to you in their Zen voice, that “happiness is not something that you do; happiness is what you are.”

When I was clinically depressed (I don’t consider myself to be, anymore), comments like that made me want to say to the person, “Way to be an asshole, buddy.” I wanted to be met where I was at, seen fully, and supported as I lifted myself out–not told some pithy self-helpy nonsense that didn’t really make sense to me because I felt so lost and alone.

I do think that it’s true that on a fundamental, soul-level, happiness is what you are.

I also think that it’s true that if you want to be happier, if you want to tap into what you truly are, you’re going to have to make some choices. These choices will involve “doing stuff.”

At your core, you are light n’ joy–of course. But you can’t see the light when you’re hiding out in a dark room. The first thing you’ll “do” to decide you want to be happier will be make a choice: I want to be happier, and I’m willing to make different choices.

Biochemistry, or Choice?

A quick note: is happiness biochemistry, or choice? All the best research indicates that it’s about 50/50. We’ve got a basic “happiness set point” that we’re born with, and that’s 50% of the deal. The remaining 50%, however? It’s not genetics; it’s choice.

Some of the choices you make do influence biochemistry (the hormones and systems in your physical body), and emerging science indicates that biochemistry does influence how genes express themselves.

Bottom-line: no one is pre-disposed to be 100% miserable. You can capitalize on genetic gifts and even make choices that influence them.

The Basic Happiness List

When I was clinically depressed, I wasn’t miserable for lack of trying. In the Courageous Living Program, I share more of the story, but the long and the short of it is that for me, climbing out of clinical depression meant doing things very, very differently.

I was reminded of how tough depression feels, in the weeks after my daughter was born. I was sleep-deprived, recovering from a c-section, and trying to survive my body’s hormonal roller coaster. It is an almost impossible feeling to describe to anyone who has not had children; I simultaneously felt more joy than I could imagine when I held my daughter close, and yet I felt so hopeless and low as the weeks dragged on and I couldn’t imagine how I’d ever function in my life, again. I remember walking through Whole Foods one evening, looking at all of the other shoppers and thinking strange, surreal thoughts. I felt disconnected from reality.

I was falling, fast. I could feel an impeding meltdown–and I am not using the term lightly–in every cell of my body. It scared me.

So, I sat down and I made a baseline list of things that I needed to do, every single day, to pull myself out of this. It was a similar list to the things that I started to do to emerge from the clinical depression that has plagued me in my twenties. I didn’t necessarily phrase it this way, but in summary, it was something like this:

Drink a ton of water.
Get outside for a once daily walk, even if it’s only five minutes.
Meditation, even if it’s only five minutes.
Salad, daily. (Note: this does not say “eat a perfectly clean, organic, raw foods diet, with no chocolate for the rest of your life.” One salad, each day. That’s it).
Dance to a song.
Daily gratefuls with my husband.
Mild yoga stretches.

These were the things that I knew would be both mood boosters as well as biochemistry influencers. The hardest was number five, because I felt like a fool, swaying my loose, awkward, postpartum body to a song even in the privacy of my home office, but I did it.

The Harder Happiness Choices

But those are only the basics. There were other, harder happiness choices that I needed to make when I was emerging from clinical depression in my 20s. Choices like:

1. Distance yourself from negative people. This meant not speaking to anyone–family members, old friends, and at one point in graduate school, the world’s absolute worst Mean Girl roommate–who brought me down. Later, yes, I’d need to learn the lessons of personal responsibility, not giving others enough power to “bring me down,” and seeing the wounds that were behind their craptastic behavior. But when I was trying to throw myself a life preserver? No contact. Stay away. Wide berth.

2. Surround yourself with fabulous. Fabulous music, fabulous people, fabulous food, fabulous clothes. I systematically started to eliminate the un-fabulous and bring in more fabulous. This was a conscious undertaking into really understanding what I thought was fabulous, as opposed to what people stereotypically think of–things like gorging on sweets or blasting upbeat music. I was interested in what spoke to my soul, what was quality. I didn’t want to wear a single item of clothing that had me think “meh” when I looked in the mirror. I wanted song lyrics that felt like they’d been written as a love poem just for me.

3. Follow the whims. I took random drives, making turns down unexpected side streets. I grabbed a notebook and went to a cafe I’d never seen, before. I wandered around new sections of the book store. I drove past a trail head, turned around to park, and hiked it even though I wasn’t wearing the right clothes or shoes. I woke up and thought, “I want to go to the beach” and spent the entire day getting there, only to arrive at sunset when it was turning cold. (P.S. It was worth it).

4. I changed my language. I was working intensively with my coach at the time, and he challenged me to switch “had to” into “get to.” I turned “can’t” into “I’m not choosing to” or “I don’t want to,” because they were more honest phrases. The linguistic interruptions stopped me in my tracks, every time.

4. Conscious crying. I had to cry. I had to grieve. I imagine that from child hood alone, all of us have at least a year’s worth of crying in our bodies. I got to it.

What Happened After I Did All That Stuff

When I distanced myself from negative people, I was able to see more clearly what it was that I truly wanted, without being influenced by them. I was able to see how I could create it, without hearing their wet blanket womp-womps.

When I surrounded myself with fabulous, life started to feel more fabulous. I was more discerning about what really made me happy versus what “should” make me happy but just didn’t quite click.

When I followed whims, I met more interesting people, I laughed more, I got more curious about life. When I got curious, I felt like maybe more was possible than the misery I’d been mired in.

When I changed my language, I was confronting every single self-imposed limitation that I’d created in my head. When I confronted limitations, I realized how few of them really existed. Hello, powerful.

When I consciously cried, I freed up–on a somatic, bodily level–all of the pent up pain and hurt. I needed to cry it out. I found that when I gave myself full permission to cry, rather than trying to hold it all in, what was on the other side of those tears wasn’t as scary as I’d been afraid it might be.

This is how to be happy , really. To be happy is to be connected with ourselves and others. To be happy is to feel grounded in who we are, to feel our power. The joy can’t stop, won’t stop, when we pave the way.