Achieving goals is one route to happiness

What’s your pie-in-the-sky goal?

Achieving goals is one route to happiness. A kiss from Booker is another.
Achieving goals is one route to happiness. A kiss from Booker is another.

What’s your pie-in-the-sky goal? Mine is to get an Agility Championship with my dog. I can’t do it in one, two or five trials. And there’s a lot of training to get done before that goal is even approachable. And that’s the key. Achieving smaller, intermediate goals is the route to happiness.

Of course, life is multi-faceted. There’s work, family, home, hobbies. I advocate setting goals for every facet of life. Last year one of my goals was to make chocolate macarons. I’m not the best baker in the family (that’s my sister) but I did my research and made a batch of really good chocolate macarons. That’s another key to achieving your goals. After you think of something you want to do, figure out if you have the skill sets you need to accomplish it. If you don’t have the skills – right now – then figure out the skills you need and how to go about learning them.

Goals that are just the right size

You know that setting goals is the first step to getting stuff done. (As I wrote in “Set goals – big and little.”) And achieving a goal will certainly give you a sense of satisfaction. Without goals your life can seem directionless. Goals can indeed give your life purpose and direction, but goals that are too strict can be rigid and confining. Similarly, goals that don’t challenge you will leave you feeling incomplete. And setting goals that are too huge can be overwhelming. So, the secret is to set a series of smaller goals that set you on the path to the big goal you really want to attain. Achieving the goals that really matter to you and clarify your path will surely set you on the road to happiness.

Set your intermediate goals

Finding direction for every aspect of your life is the way to a life with purpose. I don’t specifically look for a purpose to my life, but at the same time I don’t want to just drift along aimlessly either. A recent study from the journal Frontiers in Psychology found that more internally motivated workers felt more satisfaction in their roles. We can extrapolate that to everyday life. People who are motivated to do things are probably happier than those who drift along aimlessly. 

Once you have your big goals, set those intermediate goals that will put you on the path to that pie in the sky. Happiness is on that road.

Five ways to maintain positivity

I often write about happiness and optimism, because happy and optimistic people are generally healthier and live longer than those who are unhappy or see the negative in everything. But even when you start the day with a positive outlook, sometimes it can be hard to maintain that optimistic mindset. Here are five ways to maintain positivity.

When the sun is shining it’s easier to be positive and optimistic. Everything looks better when it’s bright outside. But how about when it’s nighttime, or it’s gray and gloomy outside? How can you maintain positivity then?

#1 on the list of How to Maintain Positivity: Smile!
#1 on the list of How to Maintain Positivity: Smile! After a workout, I have a big smile on my face.
  1. Smile. That’s it. Just take a breath and show some teeth. Even if you don’t feel like smiling. When we smile, our brain releases the hormones dopamine and serotonin, associated with happiness and reducing stress. Believe it or not, a study performed by a group at the University of Cardiff at Wales found that people who could not frown due to botox injections were happier on average than those who could frown. So, that’s the “fake it until it comes true” path.
  2. Journal your gratitude or express it in some other way. Say, “Thank you” to more people for even the smallest of favors. There is no place for unhappiness in you when you’re feeling grateful to others. Even having others in your life is something to be happy about.
  3. Take a walk. Increase your oxygen intake. When you breathe more deeply, your body is doing something positive. If you exercise regularly, that “exercise high” you feel lasts longer, plus you’re sleeping better.
  4. Listen to a favorite tune. I keep a playlist of songs that make me feel happy. Listening to one usually does the trick when I’m feeling down. Almost anything by the Zac Brown Band puts a smile on my face and gets my toes tapping.
  5. Meditate. Thinking of absolutely nothing for a few minutes helps me maintain positivity. Just breathe. If that’s hard for you, a short guided meditation will also help clear the cobwebs and help you maintain your positivity. If you’d like to try meditating but don’t know where to start, download the Garden Walk Guided Meditation.

These days, it’s important to grab happiness and optimism wherever you can. Practicing one or more of these techniques will help you maintain your positivity.

Do a deep dive to settle your brain

Turn your brain off by using more of it. Do a deep dive to settle your brain.
Turn your brain off by using more of it. Do a deep dive to settle your brain.

It may seem counterintuitive, but one of the best ways to stop your brain from going in a zillion directions is to hunker down with a difficult project. You know the times when you’re thinking about all the things on your to-do list that you haven’t done, and about your sick dog, and about the war overseas, and about the pandemic, and about when you’re going to have the time to go to the store… When your brain says, “Enough! Or I’m going to explode!” So, to stop your brain from exploding, that’s the time to dive into a complex project, one that requires all your mental powers. Turn your brain off by using more of it.

The harder the project the less you’ll be distracted

It may not make sense at first thought, but, really, it makes perfect sense. The more you have to think about the task you’re performing, the less you’re thinking about other things. And you’ll be distracted less by random thoughts. A paper published a few years ago in the Association for Psychological Science journal studied complexity and distraction. It described how subjects were more likely to finish a complex task on a computer when flashing letters appeared on the screen than an easier task.
I’ve described my process to truly focus on a task, and it goes right along with this study. If you have a task that needs doing but you’re finding it difficult to focus, first decide what you want to get done. Then break it down into manageable chunks so it doesn’t seem overwhelming. Turn off your phone and remove any other distractions you can. Now take a deep breath and clear your mind. And then do it. If you’re finding it hard to concentrate, pick a more complex task to accomplish. You’ll need all your concentration and won’t have the opportunity to be distracted.

Or, if you’re too tired and just don’t have the energy, go to bed. You need more sleep (like most adults). Make any notes about your project off the top of your head. That way they’re not churning along with everything else in your mind. Turn your screens off. And attack that project when you’re fresh and energized tomorrow.

Figure this out before you work out

So you’ve been told you should exercise. It’s not just me who’s telling you that… It’s the Mayo Clinic – did you know that you’ll sleep better if you exercise? And Harvard Medical School – did you know that exercise can help prevent cancer? And yet so many people tend to avoid exercise. It’s easy to not exercise if, for example, your parents were not especially active. And it’s easy to keep on watching TV or reading when a show or book is engrossing. So, what will get you out of the chair? Before you work out, you have to figure out your motivator.

Figure out your motivator

In order to keep on exercising – because exercise is not a “one and done” thing – you have to have a really good reason to keep coming back to it. You’re not going to keep on exercising several days a week if you hadn’t been exercising before, unless you have a particularly strong reason to do it. Because, let’s face it, exercise is not the most fun thing on the planet.

I hate to exercise

A great workout eliminates stress.
I do not like getting sweaty… And yet…

I’ve said it before, I do not like to exercise. Not one little bit. And yet, I’m on my exercise mat or on the treadmill 4 or 5 days every single week. Even after all the years that I’ve been exercising, I despise it. The best part of exercising to me is when I’m done for the day. I do not like getting sweaty and out of breath. And the promise of fighting off cancer or getting better sleep are not good enough reasons to work out. So why do I do it?

My 3 big reasons

  1. I get to eat what I like
  2. I’ll be in shape to run my dog in agility
  3. I’ll be more able to face life’s challenges. I’m a big scaredy-cat. I figure if I have the discipline to do what I don’t like to do, I’ll be better able to face anything life throws at me.

What will make you lace up those sneakers day after day?

Those are my reasons. Everyone does different things for different reasons. The prospect of 7 or 8 uninterrupted hours of sleep might very well be your big motivator.

Or playing with the grandkids in the backyard. Or even having a backyard with a beautiful garden is your reason. Last week’s article was about how gardening can relieve stress. But in order to have a garden you have to do the work. Are you able to dig your garden, to kneel down and get those weeds? Perhaps you’ve figured out your motivator and that garden is it.

The key to getting the benefits of exercise is consistency. You have to keep on exercising to get anything out of it. So, you have to think about what will make you lace up your sneakers and get on that exercise mat. You have to figure out your motivator that will keep you working out six months from now, a year from now, for your best life.

Dig in the dirt to ease your stress

I’m watching the snow fly out my window as I’m writing this. It’s kind of strange to think about gardening when it’s snowing, but now is the perfect time. I’ve described ways to ease your anxiety in the past, and digging in the dirt can ease your stress too. 

Gardening promotes health

Dig in the dirt to ease stress.
Digging in the dirt helps to ease stress.

“There are a lot of studies that show how being outside and gardening promotes health. It provides relaxation, enhances mood, and puts our bodies in a state to better handle stresses,” says Dr. Lori Walsh a pediatrician at Advocate Children’s Medical Group. “Our nervous systems are in a hyper state of overdrive, which, if not turned off, puts our bodies in a state of inflammation that contributes to diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease,” Dr. Walsh says. “Gardening helps to take your mind off stresses and starts to focus us on what is happening in the moment, shifting us from overdrive to using your senses and being mindful.”

Planning comes first

But in order to have your garden, your place of refuge, things have to start growing first. Now is the time to plan your garden. If you have a yard, a corner of it is perfect for your garden. Start to research the kinds of things you want to plant – do you want to grow vegetables? Or perhaps a beautiful flower garden. Keep in mind if your planned garden has many hours of sun, or if it will just have a few hours of sun a day. Different plants have different sunlight requirements.

Is your soil optimal for the kind of garden you want? Keep your garden’s soil and fertilizer requirements in mind as well. Know the soil supplements you’ll need to add. And, many of us beginning gardeners overbuy seeds. Your little plants have space requirements too. Research is supremely easy these days – just Google the kind of plants that do well in your area, with the sunlight you get. 


Container gardening is another option, if you don’t have a yard or don’t want to plant in your yard. My dogs would certainly make short work of little plants unless I invested in sturdy barriers. Planting in pots could mean different fertilizers and soil additives.

You can certainly start seeds indoors now so they’ll be ready to plant outside when there’s no danger of frost. Or keep doing your research and visit a garden center when you’re ready to plant. 

Just thinking about your garden, your refuge to escape from the world, can’t you feel yourself getting calmer? Plan to dig in the dirt to ease your stress this spring and summer. And you’ll be able to enjoy the fruits of your labor too – whether it’s good stuff to eat or food for the eyes.

Choose happiness

I choose happiness almost every day. I say almost because, sometimes, reality is too much to bear. Some days the crushing weight of all the bad news in the world combined with bad news closer to home make ear-to-ear grinning happiness impossible.

Day-to-day irritations don’t matter

But most days I can let the day-to-day irritations fade into the background and choose to be happy. Yes, the dog ate something in the yard that didn’t agree with him – all over the rug. And gas went up another dime a gallon. And we had to deal with another unhappy customer wondering why the supply chain issues affected her order.

But those things aren’t enough to make me choose anything other than happiness. 

Think of your happiness as a muscle

Happiness is like a muscle. Use it or lose it. Now, I don’t mean the chocolate cake type of happiness. I mean the deep-down, central to my soul kind of happiness. Yes, chocolate cake will make my taste buds very happy while I’m eating it, but a half hour later it’s a memory. But the happiness I feel when I think of my family, my dogs, my health, the little plants starting to grow outside – that doesn’t go away.

You’re probably laughing to yourself, thinking, “This Fran is a nut. I can’t choose happiness like I would choose a pair of shoes!”

To which I say, “Why not?”

Take responsibility for your own happiness

Deepak Chopra, one of the leading voices in well-being, says that we should take responsibility for our own happiness. It is in our power to be happy. If we leave it to others to make us happy, we can never be happy if we’re alone. That is unacceptable to me. I’m an introvert and I like being by myself much of the time. I like to be happy, so I choose happiness for myself.

I choose happiness.
Work your happiness!

I’ve written about how that happiness comes about in the past. And many times it’s not simply, “OK. I’m happy now.” Sometimes that works, but not very often. What usually does work for me is just closing my eyes and thinking about all the great stuff I have now in my life. I disregard the not-great stuff, because some of that will always be there and there’s not a whole lot I can do about it. 

Or I put on my workout clothes and move. Exercise is a great mood-lifter. After exercise I always feel better than I did before. I not only feel happier but I feel less stressed. And after a shower I feel better still.

If you’re feeling blue, you can do something about it. Choose happiness.

Friends can help us navigate tough times

Sometimes watching the news or scrolling through our social media feeds it seems like we’re alone. Bad news everywhere, rising prices, rising interest rates, long lines, supply shortages (still!) It’s easy to get frightened, anxious and stressed and keep ruminating about all the bad things that might happen. That’s the moment you take a deep breath and call your best friend! Our friends can help us deal with the stress as well as lift us up and make us feel better. We know that friends can help us through tough workouts, but friends can help us navigate tough times too.

Friends lift us up

Our best friends lift us up by being near, and friends can help us navigate tough times.
Our best friends lift us up just by being near.

We all have a friend, or if we’re lucky more than one, friend who lights up a room and just makes us feel better by being near. That’s the friend to count on when we’re thinking those dark thoughts. That friend lifts us up emotionally just by being herself. And spending more time with that friend can help us get healthier too.

Dr. Vanessa Chang at Aurora Behavior Health Center says that friends can help us live longer. It’s been shown that people with strong relationships tend to be healthier than people without those relationships. 

Friends help us deal with stress

Friends help us deal with stress. Turning to best friends during tough times can make it easier to cope with life’s knuckleballs. “Knowing people we can count on during difficult times can lessen the burden and even make some events seem not stressful at all,” says Dr. Chang.

And having a friend we can count on can also help keep our mind sharp. A study found that lonely people are 40% more likely to develop dementia than those with solid friendships.

Time to reconnect

So, now is the time to reconnect with friends. During the pandemic you may have grown apart from friends, but now is the time to get back in touch. And despite how in-depth some conversations may seem on social media, the people you’ve “friended” on Facebook may not be the ones who will stick by you through thick and thin. If you still don’t feel comfortable meeting in person with friends, Zoom is still a great way to meet “face to face” without masks. And a free account gives you 45 minutes of uninterrupted chatting. I still “get together” with a few good friends every week over Zoom. Friends can help us navigate tough times, and these days we need all the friends we can get.

An ending is a time for reflection

An ending is a time for reflection, and the end of the year is no exception. I don’t much like to look backward, but the year-end is a natural time to do it.

No looking backward

I don’t like to look backward because the past is done. If it didn’t go well, there’s nothing I can do to change it. If it did, well, that’s great, but you can’t live in the past. But if you’re going to look back, the end of the year is the time to do it.

No resolutions

I also don’t like to make resolutions. “I resolve …” has a negative connotation. More often than not, the sentence continues, “… to not eat sugar.” Or “ … to work out every day.” But, really, how realistic is that? I don’t believe in absolutes – I believe in moderation. Everything is a possibility in moderation. Chocolate? Definitely. Financial stability? Working on it. A little bit at a time, and everything will get done.

But an ending is a time for reflection. Take a look back. Look at the good, the lessons learned, the things we wish we’d done differently. 

And if there’s an ending, it follows that a beginning follows. I like the idea of a fresh start. Clean slate. 

Be smart and plan

An ending is a time for reflection - and highlighters are tools for the next step - looking forward.
Highlighters are great tools for categorizing my brain dump.

But to ensure that my year starts the way I want it to, I have to be smart and plan for what I want to achieve. So I start with a brain dump. This can take me a while, because I have many, many thoughts flitting around my brain. They’re the ones that keep me up at night. Get everything I have to do, want to do, or think I might need to do, down on paper. I find that actual paper and pen (or pencil) is most useful for this exercise. Sometimes taking a walk around the house can spark a reminder. There are no filters with this – get everything down so there are no stray thoughts in your brain. Now I classify everything. Business-related, personal, dogs, or anything else. Colored highlighters are helpful with this.

Now for every classification, prioritize. Things that are urgent, necessary at some point, and the “It would be nice” priorities.

Look at the big picture

Take a couple of days for this. Make sure you take into consideration the things that you really want to accomplish in the coming year, or quarter, or month. Because you can do this exercise whenever you need to. Any given Wednesday is fine, or at the end of a semester, or the start of a week. It could be that you decide to take a different route in your business or things happen in your life that change your direction. No matter – you’re not tied to a specific date.

An endings is a time for reflection, and a time to look forward.

Have fun this holiday season

Have fun this holiday season! Have a snowball fight with your siblings!
Have a snowball fight with your siblings! Have fun this holiday season.

Have fun this holiday season! Loads of fun! Never, ever moderate your fun. That’s what the season is about – fun and family. Cherish your time with loved ones. Enjoy every moment you have together. Watch that cheesy old movie. If you have snow, go out and build a snowman with your siblings – you’re never too old to build snow people. Or have a snowball fight – no rocks, though.

Watch the whipped cream…

And then when your toes are all cold, go inside and enjoy a hot beverage. Warm up from the inside – tea warms me up the fastest. Hot chocolate cools down too quickly – especially with cold whipped cream. (It does sound good to me, though…)

For people like me who’ve struggled with my weight my whole life, I keep a calorie count in my head of what I’m consuming. Hot chocolate with whipped cream has more than I’m willing to spend. I’d rather save those calories for something else.

Never, ever deny yourself!

I always say, “Moderation in everything” and I never deny myself anything I really want. But I have to really want that something if it’s super-high in fat and / or calories. Much of the time when I think I might want something, I do something else for a few minutes and after that I don’t want it so much anymore. In the hot chocolate example – what’s for dessert? If that’s something I’d rather have – like chocolate cake, I’ll skip the hot chocolate or the whipped cream and save those calories for dessert.

Don’t rely on food for happiness

I’ve learned that most of the time food is not the thing that makes me happy. Sure – I’m happy when I’m eating our Pasta Bolognese or pizza from my favorite pizzeria, but I don’t need food to be happy.

If one of your goals is to be fit, an essential part of fitness is eating right. And chocolate – anything – in large quantities cannot be considered eating right! Once in a while a major chocolate indulgence is great (and a little chocolate every day is a necessity!), but if you’re trying to get fit, a daily sundae is out.

Happiness must come from things other than food for us to become fit, healthy and happy. In fact Deepak Chopra told Oprah Winfrey that true happiness comes from within – aiming for internal fulfillment rather than external fulfillment, giving to others, and appreciation for natural beauty, among other things.

Have fun this holiday season – be happy with your family and other loved ones. Gain fulfillment from your surroundings – go outside for walks. Enjoy the world.

Don’t overthink it

It's easy to think and think and never act on a great idea. Don't overthink it!
Fran’s twirling an idea in her head…

It’s easy to do – we’ve all done it. Twirl an idea around in your head and not act on it. I’ve done it more times than I care to admit. You think about it, approach an idea from all different angles and sort out the “What if’s …?” and not do anything. It’s called “analysis paralysis” – when you think about something for so long that nothing gets done. Here’s some advice: Don’t overthink it.

So you think you have a great idea. It doesn’t matter what context it’s in. You have this idea and start thinking about all the eventualities and then you decide it’s not so great after all.

But what if it is and you just over thought yourself right out of acting on your idea? You’ve spent so much time thinking about it that it’s impossible for you to act on it. And then you feel guilty about spending time on nothing.

You’re never not going to have ideas

So – here’s the plan. You’re never not going to have ideas. We’re people. We think. That’s a good thing. But a while ago you set goals for yourself: Set goals – big and little. So you don’t overthink this idea – ask yourself first if this idea fits into your overall plan. Will it help you achieve a goal you set for yourself? If not, then move on. Unless the idea is so attractive to you that you can’t put it aside.

Don’t overthink it – don’t think

If your new idea is still appealing, let your mind go blank for a little while. Just forget about it for a few minutes. Then come back to it and think about how to go about this idea. If a really great plan comes to mind – revise your goals and go for it!

Give it a time limit

If you keep cogitating about this new idea and whether or not you should go for it, give yourself a strict time limit: “I’ll decide whether or not to go for this by noon on Thursday.” You’ve given yourself a deadline. Act on it.

Go for the gut feeling

And when all else fails – write down your options on small pieces of paper. Fold them up and shuffle them around. Pick one. How do you feel about it? If your gut clenches, it’s the wrong decision.

Now, don’t overthink it. Go do it. Plan for it. Embrace it – whatever that “it” is.