I was in paradise. It was my second trip to Kauai in the same year, but something was missing. I felt restless. Suspended. So I did what I usually do when I feel stuck: I think back to a time when I was both energized and happy, and try to remember what it was like. It was harder than I expected. This time I had to go way back. Sixteen years.

I’m not saying I haven’t been happy in seventeen years. In fact, I’ve been very happy in many moments, and even stretches. But it had been seventeen years since I had put all six ingredients of my personal formula for happiness into practice. And as they say, if you don’t use it, you lose it. Or you forget.

Seventeen years ago I had no children or grandchildren. My husband and I had our own business. We had just decided to adopt a child, then two, then three, then four. From Siberia. What the heck–we had three dogs, how hard could it be?

And that was, I think, the last time I can remember a nice thick dose of exciting anticipation. The good kind of anticipation. Like when you start a new project or have something amazing to look forward to. Positive anticipation is the first secret to happiness.

We had to get creative. We finished the basement and moved our home offices there. We redecorated the bedrooms and bought clothes. The little ones were easy: a five-year-old boy and a seven-year-old girl. But what would a thirteen-year-old boy and a sixteen-year-old girl want to wear? What music would they like? How would they want to spend their time? We made a lot of guesses, some of which were right. Stretching those creative muscles–that’s the second secret.

We sprung into action. Interviews, police checks, apostilles, meetings, deadlines (times four children), Russian lessons, travel plans, in-Russia itineraries. and court preparation. We could see it all coming together. Get busy doing something fruitful and satisfying. This type of action is the third secret to happiness. 

Once we got to Russia, the kids were rationed out to us. We were anxious to meet them right away, but our in-country helpers were wiser than we. First was a good night’s sleep. Then, one by one over several days, we met our children and formed our family. Along the way we got to experience the art and culture of Siberia, and this was how we were able to spend focused time with each child. No one was overwhelmed. Buffers and boundaries are the fourth secret to happiness.

I will never forget the kindness of the adoption people who walked us through the process from the USA, and of those who cared for us in Russia–cooking us meals, offering a place to stay, taking us all over town to museums and festivals and embassies, translating for us and helping us get to know our children. And thank God for our lifelines–our families and friends who encouraged us and were waiting at the airports as we made our way back home. Kindness and anchors are the fifth and sixth secrets to happiness.

As you may imagine, it’s been an exhausting seventeen years.  Some days were easy. Some are still very hard. It felt like I’d lost myself along the way.

But I didn’t. I’d just forgotten about the six secrets.

Now when I feel listless, this is what I do:

  1. Create a project that’s exciting, fulfilling and energizing.
  2. Take action.
  3. Set up boundaries to rest and rejuvenate. (For me, it’s buffers of time and space.)
  4. Be kind, and be grateful for kindness. Every single day.
  5. Stay anchored in family, friends, teachers, faith, curiosity, and meditation.
  6. Feel that building anticipation of a project completed, a product launched, a story written, and that next great thing to come.

(Photo: The kids, me and my mom. First full day back in the USA. My husband, Mike,  was taking a well-earned nap. My dad snapped this photo.)