Do you know how to be happy? This could sound like a strange question, but too often people think happiness is something that happens TO them. Let’s stop a moment and see if we can properly define happiness. Webster’s seems to think it is the following: “a state of well-being and contentment.” This seems about right, but let’s talk about HOW to achieve a state of well-being and contentment.
The Apostle Paul (of the New Testament) learned to be content no matter what his circumstances. That’s pretty amazing. How did he do this? Paul knew his purpose, his mission in life, and he carried it out while trusting God to completely provide for his needs. Paul talked a lot about thinking about things that are good, righteous, truthful, and of good report so it becomes obvious that Paul knew the secret of transforming his thought-life. If you want to read more, follow Paul on his life-journey by reading Acts, Romans, Philippians, Colossians
Groucho Marx said, “Each morning when I open my eyes I say to myself: I, not events, have the power to make me happy or unhappy today. I can choose which it shall be. Yesterday is dead, tomorrow hasn’t arrived yet. I have just one day, today, and I’m going to be happy in it.” (Maybe we should call him Happy Marx instead of “Groucho”.)
The Dalai Lama believes that happiness can be achieved through compassion and training the mind. He often emphasizes creating contentment (happiness) in the mind by thinking compassionate thoughts toward self and others as well as doing compassionate behaviors.
Most experts concur that happiness is indeed a state of mind. But what contributes to our state of mind? As a holistic-oriented counselor, I believe that all three parts of us (mind, body, spirit) can contribute to our state of mind. If our physical body is ailing, it affects our brain, our clarity of thought and our mood, so it behooves us to nourish our body and mind with proper foods and nutrients. If our spiritual life is out of whack, this too impacts our whole being. I’ll be addressing the physical components in future newsletters, so stay tuned.
For the purpose of this newsletter, let’s focus on the mind. We know that thoughts drive our feelings and feelings drive our behaviors. Behaviors then in turn help to create thoughts and feelings within us and thus, the loop continues around. Ideally, we can get into a positive loop, but life sometimes deals us difficult cards.
What does it take to interrupt a negative loop? What if your thought says, “There is no way I can get up and speak in front of this large group of people.”? Then, we feel nervous, our voice shakes, our knees quake, we feel sick to our stomach and wouldn’t you know it – we get up to speak and feel terrible so we perceive that we performed terribly. Then we say to ourselves, “See? I stink – let’s not do that again,” and the phobia becomes more deeply entrenched.
Let’s see how we interrupt this loop. Perhaps we change our thought to, “I feel nervous about speaking, but I know that I can work through the shaky voice, the quaking knees and deliver my well-thought out presentation if I have notes and cues.” Then the behavior is that we get up and speak, we feel the nervousness, but we use our notes and speak through the fear. This completes the feedback loop and gives our brain feedback that we can indeed do something even while we feel fearful. Then, the next time we get up to speak, we feel a tad less nervous and it lasts just a little less longer.
Okay – so back to how to be happy. How about giving yourself the feedback (thoughts) that happiness resides in you – your state of mind. Then, determine right then and there to find something beautiful in that difficult moment. Focusing on something you are grateful for or that gives your artist’s brain (yes, we are ALL artists) something beautiful to appreciate.
It may be different for you, but for me it helps to look around me in nature for nearby beauty. If I’m feeling discouraged, or sad, or overwhelmed, I can still stop, breathe in some air, and look around for some sort of visual aid. My visual aid might come in the form of the creamy but bright yellow petals of a nearby tulip. It might be the crease right down the center of a leaf or a snapshot view of the blue sky behind the leafy-green branches of a tree. See what works for you – perhaps you can find visual aids that speak happiness to you.
As you tune in to the present moment and actively seek out that which is good or beautiful – you distract yourself away from the negative thought and replace it with grateful, appreciative thoughts. Grateful, appreciative thoughts create positive feelings and our behavior tends to follow suit.
Another approach might be smiling. What?!!! That’s right. Research has found that the act (behavior) of smiling, even if you don’t feel like it, sends messages from the nerve endings in your face to your brain that say, “Oh, she is smiling, we must be happy”. Then your brain works to create that state of happiness. Along the same lines, doing something good for someone can stimulate happy thoughts and feelings.
If happiness is a content state of mind, then anxiety comes from a discontent state of mind, so a quick word about anxiety. Anxiety typically comes around when we focus on thoughts about the past or the future. When we purposefully bring ourselves back into the present moment while keeping an eye out for beauty and goodness, we banish anxiety and invite contentment. So, the lesson from this is – STAY PRESENT. When your thoughts wander to that bill you’re worried about paying (future), pull your thoughts back to your present moment. Use your visual aid, your breathing, or smile, and do a behavior that provokes happiness in your brain.
Here’s one more quote I just couldn’t resist – “If you observe a really happy man you will find him building a boat, writing a symphony, educating his son, growing double dahlias in his garden. He will not be searching for happiness as if it were a collar button that has rolled under the radiator.” – W. Beran Wolfe
Here’s to your experimenting with creating happiness within yourself – Shalom.