“OK, so what is the secret to happiness?” a friend asked over dinner together.
Being a Licensed Social Worker and Buddhist minister, I suppose that people believe that I should have some secret to being happy. The truth is that I do know what makes for a happy life, but it isn’t a secret.
Here is the problem. Most people know how to be happy, but they think that knowing is the hard part. The hard part about being happy is the doing what is needed to be happy.
Regardless of what religion you follow, psychological model you adopt or philosophy you embrace—there are three themes that remain in all: Positive Emotions, Engage with the world, find Meaning to life.
Oh wouldn’t it be awesome if we were experiencing happy emotions all the time? I have yet to find anyone who is happy all of the time, and if you know someone like that then you probably haven’t looked too deeply at them.
Our lives are continually in flux. Sensory pleasure experiences are fleeting (e.g. a good meal, a happy moment) and soon we are faced with pleasurable experiences. From childhood, we are taught to interpret these positive and negatives with judgments of good and bad. Developing a positive emotional outlook is changing the judgments of the experiences we have.
Let us look at the big negative topics that we face most commonly: sickness, heartbreak and death.
Each of these experiences we would like to avoid. When these experiences come into our lives we react with emotional, biological and social coping mechanisms that are very unpleasant. On occasion, we have known someone who struggled so profoundly with these negative experiences and the emotions related to them that they become depressed, anxious, maladjusted. We have even known people who are so prepared for the negative experiences to enter their lives that their entire world outlook is seen through sad blue spectacles casting a shadow on every aspect of the world around them.
LIFE IS IN THE REFRAME
Whether it is stubbing a toe or losing a loved one, our brains put our experiences in the context of a story that is our lives.
“No one wants to date me,” a client told me.
“Didn’t you say that X asked you out?”
“Yes, but I didn’t like him. He wasn’t my type.”
We can see already that the story narrative that focuses so narrowly of “no one wants me” when reframed into a larger context of “no one I want to date wants me” (which is also probably untrue in a larger context) changed the narrative of our story and thus how we evaluate our lives and the world around us. By pulling back the lens from the tightly focused view of one detail into a larger world context we change the narrative and create space for possibilities.
LIVING A POSITIVE LIFE
I asked a friend to do a thought experiment. Every time she started to get angry being cut off in traffic that she adopt a mantra. She chose, “I wish you well on your journey.”
When I spoke to her a few weeks later, she told me that it didn’t work. “All I did was say it and felt my jaw clench as I really wanted to say FUCK YOU!”
I asked her to continue the experiment for a few more weeks and I am sure she was thinking that I was a total nut job with mumbo jumbo talk.
A month later we met again for coffee, and I asked her about the mantra.
“You know. At first, I was really annoyed at saying this phrase. It didn’t do anything and it actually made me angrier. Then one day I decided to pretend to believe the phrase, ‘I wish you well on your journey,’ as a sort of sarcastic joke. I actually felt better. Pretty soon, I was saying it before the car would even cut me off. It actually did make the drive home better.”
Changing a habit and world view is not easy, but possible. It can’t be done just mechanically, but within the wiring of our heads. We are what we believe we are—even though it may not happen over night.
EMBRACE THE STRUGGLE
Even the most positive person is going to have a crap day, month or even year. Life is not all puppies and candy bars. Nevertheless, being authentically happy isn’t about always being positive. It is about excepting the negative.
We will have bills, taxes, sickness, and heartache. These are unavoidable. We have the ability to change how we chose to deal with them. And that can be difficult.
When we are pinched on the arm, we say “ouch” and pull our arms away. This is survival instinct. So to are the emotions we have. We often ignore that fact—that our emotions are evolutionary psycho-physical survival processes.
Nothing is more discouraging to me than to hear, “I am just an angry person and that is how it is.” There is some truth that all of us have a certain temperament and develop our personalities based on that temperament combined with our life experiences—but that doesn’t mean we don’t have choices to change.
When we pant a seed it takes time for a flower to grow and flourish. When we want to lose weight it takes time and effort to make those physical changed. So to, when we want to change our worldview, it takes time and cultivation.
The single greatest challenge to developing a happy life is embracing the struggle as an excepted part of life—and eventually a positive tool for growth.
RESILLIENCY—BUILDING THE TOOLBOX
Resilliency is our ability to adapt and cope with the world around us.
If you look at a toddler, you may have seen him suffer the “terrible twos.” This is the stage of development that a child that a child is learning to do things on their own. They are testing boundaries. They are starting to walk. They are terrible because the crying they used to use as a tool to communicate what they want is now turning into tantrums to get what they want: often unsuccessfully.
As that child grows, they learn new skills. They learn to say “please” and share and steady routines. They have learned another set of tools in the tool box. As they grow and develop, they get more tools to deal with life and get what they need.
When we do not have the right “tool” to deal with life then we have to use imperfect tools to cope. How often have you found an adult who always tries to yell and threaten someone to get what they want, and never understands when you offer them other alternatives to solve the problem?
Being resilient means being open to the idea that the tools for living we have had before may not always be the right tool for the job. Sometimes you need a Philips screwdriver and not a flathead. Sometimes you need a Philips with the pointy tip instead of the flat tip. Sometimes you need the pointy Philips screwdriver meant for softer metals than harder so you don’t strip the screw head.
Have you ever had those moments when you are just totally engrossed in the moment?
I love to paint. When I paint, I sit in front of a canvas and lose all track of time. I am totally focused and present. Some people call it “being in the zone.”
One way to get into the flow is to find something challenging that we want to be engaged in. The more challenge to a skill we want to use requires us to put forth our effort and it takes all our attention.
Another way is to find what we are passionate about. In Mihalyi Csikzentmihalyl’s book “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience” when we do something we are passionate about totally engages us. “Being complete involved in an activity for its own sake the ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement and thought follows inevitably from the previous one.”
The third way to find flow is to develop focus. In pop psychology and Buddhism we call this mindfulness. This is often done through meditative focus, while it is not necessary to sit on the floor with legs crossed doing nothing. This can be done by consciously putting effort to doing any task: washing dishes, walking, having fun with a coloring book. Developing focus is to the mind what lifting weights is to the body.
Human beings are a surviving machine; both physically and psychologically. When you break your arm the body starts to heal itself through a complex process of biology. When we are ill, we automatically know to get rest. When we hurt emotionally, we too have a process of protecting ourselves so that we can heal.
Being social creatures we cannot live alone. It is emotionally and psychologically harmful. We may have times of solitude but we must always return to the human race and engage.
In fiction, we admire those who are able to withstand solitude and be “loners” but in reality we know that solitude is eventually harmful. Prisoners who are kept in solitude have proven that we cannot be solely alone as human beings.
“Evolutionarily we need to connect with each other. This is part of our survival mechanism. Think of a baby, unless they came with an ability to entice their parents to care for them they would not survive. Also in working together in groups we can do more than as individuals and connected we are stronger. Basically Maslow got his hierarchy wrong. Social connection is a primary need for humans.
The brain feels social pain and pleasure in the same circuitry as physical pain. We probably underestimate the impact of social pain: social rejection, public challenge, public criticism and the like in organizations all create pain. We would never expect someone to be at their best with a broken arm but do not extend the same consideration when social pain occurs.” Matt Lieberman
When living a life of negative emotions, poor resiliency and resisting the acceptance of struggle, our minds will often automatically react as if we are ill. We will disconnect from others. Many people who are sad or depressed will talk about feeling totally alone even when in a crowded room.
Happiness requires that we engage with others. We develop those connections that bring meaning and purpose to living. Connecting with others releases hormones that promote a sense of well being and happiness.
Most people misunderstand gratitude. Often people confuse humility with gratitude. Humility is self-oriented while gratitude is other focused. Humility is a secure sense of self while increasing the valuation of others. Meanwhile gratitude is a sense that we have benefited from the actions of others (“An Upward Spiral Between Gratitude and Humilitary” Elliot Krus et al, 2014/ (Algoe & Haidt, 2009) Algoe, S. B., & Haidt, J. (2009). Witnessing excellence in action: The ‘‘other-praising’’ emotions of elevation, gratitude, and admiration. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 4, 105–127.).
Gratitude is the “feeling of joy with the knowledge that another person has instrumentally benefitted yourself,” said Simon-Thomas, science director of the University of California, Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center.
An interesting aspect of gratitude is that it is unconditional. You can not put limits on being thankful, you either are or you are not. In Buddhist practice, there are chanting meditations called “metta” meditations. (Metta, means loving kindness or unconditional friendliness. )
Developing a continual sense of gratitude works all that we have talked about so far: positive emotions, reframing, living positively, and appreciating the struggle; developing resiliency and flow.
Developing a life of gratitude is a tool that can increase the sense of our life-satisfaction happiness quotient, reduce depression, build connections and bring a greater appreciation to the quality and meaning of our lives.
POSITIVE EMOTIONS, ENGAGE WITH THE WORLD, MEANING OF LIFE
The secret of happiness? It isn’t a secret.
Live life. Appreciate the Now. Appreciate others. Develop a world view that focuses on what is important to the quality of your experience and not the quantity of the things in it.
Most importantly—the secret/non-secret to living is embracing the experience for all that it is worth