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Bloom Where You're Planted
How to be content when life is less than perfect

By Mike McCurley

If you're a typical American, you're probably a pound or 20 overweight, you have too much to do and not enough time to do it in, your spouse isn't either Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie, and your checking account could use another $10,000.

To make matters worse, the daily headlines keep trumpeting layoffs and you fear for your or your spouse's job.

In this economy-living lives this stressful and imperfect-it can be hard to find the silver lining. But happiness isn't a pipe dream, regardless of our financial and physical shortcomings.

Finding happiness is simply a matter of exercising certain emotional muscles and improving our capacity for optimism. Studies have found no meaningful difference in happiness among people regardless of age, race, income, social class, gender, good looks or religious beliefs.

The truth is, you can be happy right now, today, even when your world is less than perfect. Here's how:

Forget "if only": "If only I could lose this weight/find a husband/get a new car, I'd be happy." The truth is, the things that are bothering you today will still bother you if you achieved your "if only." The dishes will still pile up, the bills will still come, and you'll still be running 10 minutes late. Accept that no one change in your life is going to make you happier.

Ignore Hollywood and Madison Avenue. Through TV and movies, we are fed a steady stream of fantasies about how we should look, what our Christmases should be like, and how happy we should be. But real life doesn't come with soft lighting, set designers or make-up artists. So quit comparing your life to what you see on screen. Remember: even Vogue models are airbrushed.

Make time for joy. If your to-do list is filled with errands, meetings, conference calls and deadlines, shake it up. Schedule in lunch with a friend, a manicure, time to read just for fun, or go to book club. Connecting with others and nurturing ourselves gives us "joy boosts" that make the rest of our tasks less dreary.

Exercise your Happy Muscles. Happiness correlates with how a person ranks in four areas: 1) how extroverted they are, 2) how high their self-esteem is, 3) their sense of efficacy, i.e. how much they feel in control of their own lives, and 4) their level of optimism.

These four areas are interrelated, and improving in one area often leads to improvement in others. Here are some ways to boost your capacity in these crucial four areas:

Notice and appreciate the fleeting joys in your day: Did you have a nice conversation with a stranger while waiting in line at bankruptcy court? Did the sun hit the flowers in the hospital waiting room in a pretty way? Even when things are bad, you can find little joys.

Quit comparing yourself to your peers: How come you were able to live, albeit frugally, on $17,000 a year when you got out of college, but you find it almost impossible to live on $100,000 now? That's because when you were just starting out, your peers were also just starting out, so none of you had much money. But the people you hang out with now are probably doing about as well as you are, or better, so you covet their massive flat screens, impeccably manicured yards, and seemingly endless stream of new cars. It's time to let go of comparisons. Do you have what you need? Probably. There will always be somebody with more money, better clothes, etc. Unless you're Warren Buffett (who Forbes says is the richest man in the world), there's always somebody out there with more money.

Appreciate what's not in your life: I have a friend who beat cancer, so her mantra now is "if it isn't cancer, it doesn't count." She knows what it's like to ponder leaving her son motherless and her husband a widower, so every day that she's cancer-free is a celebration. You don't have to have beat cancer to celebrate the absence of the bad. Just think back to when you had a cold that left you feeling miserable. Did you ever say "I just want to feel normal again"? Now that you're normal, appreciate the absence of your cold. Bonus: by boosting your optimism, you also boost your immune system, which may indeed protect you from getting another cold.

Bone up on your history: Think things are bad now? Talk to your parents or grandparents about living through The Great Depression or the Dustbowl. Read up on the 1918 influenza epidemic, the Civil War, or the Black Death. Yes, our economy's shaky, but we've made it through worse. Much, much, much worse. Some good reads in the historical fiction realm: "Cold Mountain," by Charles Frazier (about the Civil War); "The Last Town on Earth," by Thomas Mullen (about the 1918 influenza epidemic), and "Year of Wonders," by Geraldine Brooks (about the Black Death). There are plenty of others, both fiction and non-fiction. Check with your librarian or well-read friends for recommendations.

Life doesn't need to be perfect for you to be happy. But, particularly when times are tough, it can take a conscious effort to maintain a positive attitude. Those efforts can pay off, though, by making you more healthy and resilient for the rest of your life.

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