This article has been reprinted with permission from Dr. John C. Maxwell’s free monthly e-newsletter ‘Leadership Wired.’

The pursuit of happiness. It’s one of our inalienable rights spelled out in The Declaration of Independence, but what does it mean to pursue happiness? When so many of us are unhappy and empty, how can we find joy?

To begin with, we must learn to reconcile the ambition to do, with a willingness to be.

As change agents, leaders sense all is not well in the world. We see problems and search for solutions. Yet, if we focus only on what is wrong, we miss the joy of the blessings in our lives – family, friendship, health, and freedom. We have to offset our discontent with the status quo by finding contentment in the life we have been given.

As leaders, we are lean and hungry, looking for opportunities to improve and grow. However, we find joy by being comfortable in our own skin. Happiness comes when we learn to take pride in our talents and to smile at our quirks.

We have an inner drive to do something – a restlessness to make something happen. At the same time, joy is discovered in the peaceful quiet of a soul at rest. Alongside our restlessness for change, we have a need for relaxation and recreation.

We won’t fully experience joy until we’ve answered life’s biggest question: Why am I here?

Without a life purpose, we flounder around without direction or joy. Life coach SuEllen Williams encourages clients to write out their life story in five-year increments, noting life-altering events and influential people. During the exercise, clients will often discover a predominant theme that has brought them fulfillment. By realigning with what has brought meaning in the past, Williams feels her clients put themselves on track toward the pursuit of happiness.

If we don’t nourish ourselves, joy will elude us.

We nourish ourselves whenever we enter into activities that build our energy reserves. Consider this list of common nourishment sources:

Music – What songs lift me?
Thoughts – What thoughts speak to me?
Experiences – What experiences rejuvenate me?
Friends – What people encourage me?
Recreation – What recreation re-creates me?
Soul – What spiritual exercises strengthen me?
Hopes – What dreams inspire me?
Home – What family members care for me?
Giftedness – What gifts activate me?
Memories – What memories make me smile?

To find joy, we must clean up our vocabulary.

We pursue happiness when we banish the shoulda, coulda, wouldas in life and decide that everything is fine the way it is. To reconstruct our vocabulary, it’s important to understand the difference between facts of life and problems. A fact of life is something we cannot change, but we can adjust our attitude about it. A problem is something we can change, and becomes possible when we take responsibility to fix it.

To discover joy, it’s important to celebrate success.

Timing is critical to celebration. Be sure to celebrate after the fact and not before the job is done.

The Kentucky Wildcat football team learned this lesson the hard way. In 2002, the Wildcats led the heavily favored Louisiana State Tigers 30-27 with two seconds left to play. The Tigers had the ball, but they were 75 yards away from the end zone – an impossible distance to cover in one play. 

Wildcat players dumped Gatorade on their coach to celebrate the win. Kentucky students poured out of the stands and waited to charge onto the field after the final whistle. The Kentucky quarterback waved his arms toward the adoring fans in a salute of victory.

Then, the impossible happened. The LSU quarterback lofted the football as far as he could throw it. The ball bounced off the fingertips of a mob of players, and landed in the waiting arms of an LSU receiver who raced to the end zone! LSU had won the game on a desperation pass!

Shocked and silent, the Kentucky fans were left to stare at their soggy coach as the LSU Tiger players celebrated their stunning, last-second victory.

In closing, happiness doesn’t always find us, we have to pursue it. Doing so involves a number of steps:

Willingness to Be Who We Are
Searching for a Life Purpose
Nourishing Ourselves Regularly
Cleaning Up Our Vocabulary
Celebrating Success

Best wishes as you pursue happiness!

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