Joy is the feeling of grinning inside.

Melba Colgrove

What do we want out of life? We want to feel good. We want to be in a positive emotional state (relaxed, happy, serene, confident, determined, calm, etc.) rather than a negative emotional state (worried, anxious, depressed, scared, angry, etc.).

If environment is everything that is external to your inner being, the true essence of power is controlling how you feel regardless of the environment. When I choose to practice what I know, I can feel good even when I physically feel bad. We reach a point in life (I’m there), where we experience what I call “pain de jour” (pain of the day.) I know that every morning when I wake up something is going to hurt, I just don’t know what it’s going to be. My body has a whole bunch of choices. Regardless of the physical ailment that chooses to celebrate its existence and have its day, I always have the choice to be in good spirits and emotionally up. This requires conscious living and focusing on the good aspects of life. Sometimes pain is unavoidable, but suffering is optional. Happiness is an inside job and we can choose to avoid needless suffering. My favorite example is Helen Keller, who was deaf, dumb and blind (that certainly puts my mildly arthritic elbow into proper perspective) and yet she led a very full, joyous life and was a genuinely happy person.

I have read several biographies of people who were crippled and confined to a wheel chair. After they recovered from their initial period of rage and anger about the unfairness of it all, they discovered it wasn’t as devastating to their happiness as we might imagine. The autobiography Moving Violations by John Hockenberry would be a must read, in my mind, for anyone who suddenly found themselves wheel chair bound for the rest of their life.

If happiness wasn’t an inside job and depended upon external circumstances, how can we explain the serenity often achieved by the terminally ill? If wealth, fame and outward success were all that mattered, how do we explain the suicides of those that we thought had it made (e.g., Marilyn Monroe, Kurt Cobain, Ernest Hemingway?)

We have the power to choose how we feel. Many things that people do are poor strategies for feeling good. Excessive drinking and the use of drugs might make us feel good temporarily, but there are unwanted and undesired consequences. If you don’t know how to feel good, you are probably not going to feel good. It’s a skill that can be learned and has to be practiced.

An excellent exercise to expand your awareness about what makes you feel good is the development and maintenance of a “ happy list.” Begin compiling a list of all those things and experiences that make you feel good. This list is part of my “portable therapist kit” that I carry in my wallet. Here is an excerpt from my happy list:

  • Counting my blessings
  • Happy marriage
  • Good health
  • Three wonderful kids
  • Unlimited possibilities for the future
  • Reading
  • Personal growth
  • Watching McNeil Lehrer news hour
  • Attending Kathy’s talks and meeting new people
  • Anticipating future fun things
  • Vacation in Florence
  • Annual men’s retreat
  • Reestablishing contact with old friends and places (Arlington, Virginia & North Augusta, South Carolina)
  • Seeing “The Creation” at the Vatican
  • Gaining expertise in Object Oriented Technology
  • Tuesday night men’s group
  • Making new friends
  • Intimacy
  • Witnessing personal growth (mine and others)
  • Walking
  • Northtown shopping center
  • Coon Rapids dam
  • Nature Center
  • Bicycle path
  • Personal ad writing
  • Masterpiece theater
  • English TV/movies
  • Hot luxurious showers
  • Riding in my car
  • Outside on nice days
  • Talking to my kids
  • Creating a new idea
  • Remembering a wonderful experience
  • Phone call from Holly
  • Glen Leet’s lunch with Margaret Mead
  • John Kennedy’s comments on system
  • Learning something new
  • Listening to music
  • Watching boxing
  • Watching basketball
  • Watching football
  • Flowers
  • Bookstore browsing
  • Flower Shop browsing
  • Buying books
  • Getting a bargain
  • Farmer’s market
  • Travel
  • People watching
  • New Yorker cartoons
  • Sunday paper
  • Winning Ways newsletter
  • Oprah
  • Mail
  • Telephone messages
  • Pet store browsing
  • Onions in Gibsons
  • Smile from a pretty girl
  • Innocence and joy of children
  • Kathy (love of my life)
  • Kathy’s relatives
  • Kimber
  • Duane
  • Greg
  • Riley Jr.
  • Randy
  • Sean
  • Our apartment after Karen’s cleans
  • Humor
  • Irony
  • Computer technology
  • Creative business cards
  • Yellow legal pads
  • Yellow pencils with erasers that erase
  • Updating happy list
  • Living in Minnesota (Friendly people, beautiful scenery, birds)
  • Attending first rate plays and musicals
  • Going to a play and having the best seats in the house
  • Sleeping in a king size bed
  • Glycerin soap
  • Scented candles
  • Peaches (my long-haired tri-colored cat)
  • Finding Subway stamps
  • Free cafe mocha at Borders bookstore
  • Reading in sunlit warmth at Borders book store
  • When I truly understand that I always have freedom and choice

The happy list makes you focus on what’s enjoyable in your life. I use this exercise in workshops and discovered that people who can make the longest lists seem to be the happier than those that struggle with the exercise. Gratitude can be learned and the happiest people are the most grateful people.

Happiness is a learned skill. If you don’t know what make you happy, how can you pursue it or experience gratitude for the many wonderful things in your life? When you are suffering from the blahs or having a blue Monday, the happy list can lift your spirits. Read the list carefully, slowly savoring each experience listed and your mood will change. If you are really down, read the list multiple times until you feel better. It is effective for changing emotional states

We want to continually develop awareness about what puts us into a positive emotional state. What makes you feel good doesn’t necessarily have to be logical and make sense. If you work for a large organization and receive an annual pay raise, it might not make you feel good. You might consider it as part of the job, an entitlement for working within a large organization. Contrast that feeling with the feeling you would experience when finding a twenty-dollar bill while walking to lunch. That chance happening might create much more excitement and good feeling than the routine salary raise which represents substantially more money.

I often eat Subway sandwiches for lunch. Each time you buy a sandwich, you are given stamps that you paste onto a little coupon card, and when the card is filled, you are entitled to a free sandwich. One of the highlights of my day is when I find a subway stamp on the floor or on the counter left behind by a previous customer. One day I found six stamps and you would have thought I won the lottery. I was over the moon.

Finding a great parking spot provides my wife a joy that quite honestly I don’t fully understand. Maybe it’s a gender thing.

It’s not important for the things that bring us joy to make sense, but it is important for us to know what does bring us joy. Nothing but good can come from this awareness. There are movie scenes that I can recall which will always make me laugh and bring a smile to my face. Build your own little virtual library of favorite movie moments that when recalled makes you happy. The point is that we have control over how we feel. We can change our emotional states.

You will discover that you can create specific emotional states for specific purposes.

When I would go for a job interview, I would find it important to go from a casual informal state to a more professional state. I would get a haircut, shine my shoes and have my suit pressed and carry my briefcase. It transforms me into more of a professional person. My demeanor became much more serious, my confidence increases, my body language changes and my language/vocabulary became more consistent with that of the business world.

When dating after my first divorce, I discovered techniques that would allow me to enter a “social/charming” state. For first dates, I would always wear something that I really felt good in and that was consistent with who I really was (Harris Tweeds yes, business suits no). I would also choose a setting (a favorite restaurant) that had the ambiance that I desired and that I would be comfortable in. Meeting someone for a quick lunch at noon never worked for me and would not provide an atmosphere that would allow me to put my best foot forward socially.

If I am trying something new, my strategy for putting myself into a state of confidence would be to put myself in touch with prior successes that were related and supportive of my new venture, when I had taken a risk and had achieved success. I would visualize and relive those successes. I would review what I know about handling fear and would make it my ally rather than considering it the enemy. When I began doing seminars and three hour lectures, I would relive all the positive experiences I had when I was a member of Toastmasters and replay in my mind all the supportive, nurturing feedback received.

When I write, I want to be in a creative state. I pay close attention to what creates an environment that stimulates my creativity. Understanding the connection between a high-energy state and creativity, I coordinate my creative activities with my high-energy phases. I know what rituals are necessary to induce creativity for me. I know what components of my environment enhance or detract from my creativity – what types of background music are optimum, what type of lighting, how much exposure and interaction with other people was permissible, etc.

With awareness we can learn to manage our emotional states.


About Riley Harrison

Likes to write (books- Are You Stuck? (is life passing you by), Getting Unstuck & Dare To Date), loves to travel and is married to a wonderful woman (Kathleen Baxter)
This entry was posted in PERSONAL GROWTH. Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Hi Riley,

    I am a big fan of Martin Seligman’s concept of ‘Learned Optimism’ which covers techniques to the break the cycle of negative thinking and replace it with an optimistic and resourceful state. If you aren’t familiar with him you may be interested in his work as he has similar concepts to your post.

    Thanks for the great post with a highly practical focus. Too often blogs contain generic information without being readily actionable.

    • Hey Brenton,
      I am also a big fan of Martin Seligman’s. Neuroscience (how to get that dopamine flowing) and positive psych are two genres that I love to delve into. Can’t get enough of those type of books.

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