Everything I Need to Know to Have a Happy Life


Do you want to know the secrets to having a happy life? All you have to do is spend four days on a trip with five kids with special needs … they have all the answers.

It’s really simple to “live your best life,” as Oprah says, if you only follow the example my students showed me this weekend. Here are the 10 things I learned that, if implemented in our lives, will make us all happier:

1.  Never hurry – We tried to hurry Katie to our first rehearsal and the result was a complete and total come-apart. As all of us tried to calm her down, she said, “You shouldn’t have rushed me.” She’s right. There had been no reason for us to hurry her. We should plan our activities well enough that we don’t have to hurry and sometimes, we just might have to be late … the world won’t fall apart.

2.  Ask for help – Us “normal” folks are too prideful to ask for help. We think we have all the answers, we don’t want others to know we may not have it all together, we view asking for help as a weakness. My students know when to ask for help and they don’t mind accepting it. Whether it’s opening a ketchup packet, tying their shoes or getting their hair combed, if they need help, they ask for it.

3.  No is a complete sentence – There are many times when our students tell us “no” and sometimes we try to persuade them to say “yes.” Most of the time, when a child with special needs tells me “no,” they mean no…not maybe, not later…they mean no! They don’t overcommit themselves, promise things they can’t deliver, agree to do things they don’t really want to do. They just way “no” without justification, without explanation and without hesitation. Say “no” more often to those things you don’t really have your heart in and you’ll be amazed at how much lighter you feel.

4.  Know when you need a moment to yourself – After lunch on Saturday, Anna C told me that she needed a nap. As Katie was collecting herself after her meltdown, she said, “I just need a minute alone.” We go to hard, we push ourselves, we do too much, we don’t take naps. Sometimes, we need to recognize when we need a moment for ourselves.



5. Express your feelings and be excited about the small stuff – We play guessing games with each other. We don’t say what we really feel or feel what we say. When Anna G was gripped with stage fright right before “Change the World” was to go on, she didn’t hold it in. She wasn’t ashamed to say, “I scared.” She told everyone she was scared and told them why – there were way too many people in that audience for Anna G. Carolyn talked about how much she missed Zach several times. Due to his father’s emergency heart surgery, Zach wasn’t able to make the trip. Carolyn didn’t hold in her feelings or worry that it would be inappropriate to say how she felt – she missed Zach and she said so. Anna G didn’t think it was a sign of weakness to admit she was scared. If we all expressed our feelings – good or bad – more often, there would surely be fewer people on anti-depressants!

Another thing our students do is greet you with exuberant enthusiasm – even if its only been 15 minutes since they last saw you. Anna G told me she missed me when we’d only been away from each other for about 5 minutes and each time we met up with each other, all of our students acted like it was the reunion of the century – now that makes a person feel wonderful! And they were excited about everything…the burritos we had for lunch, the movie stars we met, the little tram that ran outside our hotel…it didn’t matter what it was, they were excited about it and expressed that excitement. It’s contagious – just like being around someone who complains all the time can make you feel negative, being around someone who is excited about life can make you feel excited too, even when you aren’t (I wasn’t too excited about the burritos at lunch but when everyone else was acting like we were in a five star restaurant, it made me enjoy them more).

6.  Hold hands with someone often – Hugs are great but they are more impermanent than holding hands. Our students reach for our hands all the time – for support, for help, for comfort and just for fun. I held hands at one time or another with all five of the kids who went to LA and sadly, I never held hands with any of the five typical kids who were in our dance piece. I plan to hold hands with them the next time I see them! Holding hands makes you feel connected to another person and it puts a spring in your step to know someone you care about is connected to you. I wish I had held hands with the Element dancers, with Hayley, with my kids, with Alan more while I was on the trip. From now on, I’m going to remember how very lovely it is to hold hands.


7.  Support others when they are down – It’s easy to look the other way when someone is hurting. It’s simpler to not get involved when someone is having a problem. My students don’t take the easy way out. If someone is upset, or angry, or sad my students ask, “What’s wrong?” And they listen to your answer. They offer simple condolences, like, “It will be okay,” or “I love you” and more often than not, that’s all a person needs to hear when they are feeling bad. Nothing can make us feel better than helping someone else – no matter what bad things are going in your own life, supporting someone else usually puts your own problems into perspective.

8.  Accept compliments and believe them – We told all 10 dancers that they were stars, they rocked it out, they brought down the house, they are magnificent dancers. Do you know who believed us? The five kids with special needs. Four of the five typical dancers deflected compliments, said, “Thank you, but I messed up,” or “Thank you but I’m not as great as those other dancers” or some similar remark. Why are we programmed to ignore compliments? Because we don’t want to get big-headed and egotistic? My students don’t have one ounce of ego in them but they believe people who give them compliments. They believe they are beautiful, they believe they are stars, they believe they have done their best every time they dance. They don’t bog themselves down with self-doubt or envy or jealousy – they love themselves, just the way we all should love ourselves. Peyton was the only typical dancer who didn’t deflect my compliment – when I said to him, “You know that was your personal best…you’ve never danced that fantastic in your life,” he answered with a grin, “I felt it.” Good for Peyton that he recognized he was great Saturday night…he’s great all the time in my book!

9.  Believe in yourself – Would you have enough courage and belief in yourself to try to dance if you couldn’t walk? I know I wouldn’t. But I have students who do – kids who cannot walk but who believe in themselves enough to enroll in a dance class. I asked Elianna once, “What makes you love dancing so much?” She answered, “I love it because I never got to try it before…I just wanted the chance to try.” That takes a tremendous amount of belief in yourself. When I think of Anna G, Anna C, Katie, Connor and Carolyn taking the stage in front of 3,100 people, I’m blown away by their belief in themselves. At the first rehearsal, they took my hand, followed me into the theatre and believed in themselves enough to get on that huge stage and perform for Nigel Lythgoe, Adam Shankman and Jeff Thacker…at the next rehearsal, they performed in front of some of the most talented dancers in the world and at the show, they didn’t exhibit one ounce of self-doubt. If they can believe in themselves – kids who are told every day that they aren’t “normal,” aren’t “good enough,” aren’t “smart enough,” – then why can’t you and I believe in ourselves that way?

10. If you love someone, tell them often – Anna G, Anna C and Katie told me they loved me at least ten times every day. Connor and Carolyn may not have said, “I love you,” but they held my hand, hugged me, sat by me, smiled at me and thanked me constantly. I know those five kids love me because they tell me often. I tell my kids and my husband that I love them every day but even if I said it 50 times a day, it wouldn’t be enough.

The more time I spend with people who have special needs, the more I see that Alan’s right…they are the way God intended us all to be and we are the ones who are “different.”

I’d love to hear from you about what you’ve learned from people with special needs! Please leave a comment on this blog and let’s start a dialogue!


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