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Top Ten Practices in the Pursuit of Happiness
Growing up I sensed my mom was happy in spite of many struggles. I saw that her values and appreciation of life’s simple pleasures played an important part. Even so, I needed to personally experience what she modeled before I could apply her wisdom to myself and others. From a young age I observed human nature, always wondering, “What does it take for a person to feel happy?” My quest for that answer has continued.
Now, as a Marriage and Family Therapist, I have the privilege of sitting with clients every day who share with me the intimate details of their lives. Clients come to therapy in part because they want to feel happy! They come to seek solutions to regular life problems. They may need support and guidance to achieve their life goals. Whatever the case, they benefit from talking with a therapist. It is my belief that each individual is the expert on their life and ultimately the best solutions will come from within them. I also know if we can change our self-defeating thoughts, our feelings and lives will also change. Dale Carnegie said, “Remember happiness doesn’t depend upon who you are or what you have; it depends solely on what you think.”
Thoughts are powerful! In therapy people can develop the tools, self-awareness, outlook and confidence to transform life’s challenges into a meaningful life infused with energy and optimism. As a therapist, part of my work is to listen and pose pertinent questions to help clients accomplish their goals. Sometimes the issues are more complex and many layers need to be gradually uncovered. What follows are ten healthy practices people find of benefit as they navigate the variety of challenges in their lives.
Practice #1: TAKE CARE OF YOUR-SELF
To feel happy, it is important to pay attention to the basics—sleep eight hours a night, eat healthy foods, and exercise daily. This will sustain the energy you need to accomplish your goals. It also helps stabilize your mood. Eliminate or reduce substances such as alcohol, caffeine, sugar, marijuana or other drugs that may be draining your energy and distracting you from self-care. Repeat the mantra “Breathe, just breathe” while taking slow, deep breaths to relax your body. Other techniques such as visualization are useful as well. Think about what relaxes you, what makes you feel good and incorporate those things into your daily life. When we prioritize these basics, we take care of ourselves on a daily basis. Without self-care, other parts of life may dominate, to the detriment of our physical and mental health.
Another part of self-care is time management. Our society is fast paced and demanding of our time. When we are so busy or overwhelmed and do not take time to rejuvenate, we are likely to burn out or become less effective. In the wise words of William Wordsworth, “Rest and be thankful.” List the things that drain your energy and find ways to appropriately delegate or eliminate them from your life. It is also important to ask for help when needed!
As infants, we are dependent on our caretakers, usually mom or dad. As we become independent some of us are reluctant to ask for help, thinking it a weakness. In fact, “interdependence” is necessary for success in life. As stated by Isaac Newton: “If I can see further than anyone else, it is only because I am standing on the shoulders of giants”.
One thing you can do right now is make a list of the people you rely on. Then you can make use of it when you feel stressed or unhappy. Recognize that we are all social creatures who are connected and need each other. Mental health improves when we are involved with a healthy community. Do your best to distance yourself from people who are destructive or drain your energy. When you connect with supportive people and disconnect from toxic people it makes a world of difference.
Practice #2: FIND BALANCE IN DAILY LIFE
There are many areas of life that need our attention, yet too often we focus on one thing at the expense of others. Work and children can be the squeaky wheels, but what about our physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and relational health? Ernest Hemingway enlightens us: “I still need more healthy rest in order to work at my best. My health is the main capital I have and I want to administer it intelligently.” Americans work more hours than people in other countries and are the most productive, yet all too often our health and relationships take a back seat. This contributes to illness and divorce. When you maintain balance in your life, even if you struggle in one part of it, you can feel good that the rest of your life is going well. Continuing to invest in the good parts of your life helps you feel strong and satisfied, all of which helps you deal with your difficulties.
Marital research by John Gottman suggests that to sustain a marriage, couples need a 5 to 1 ratio of positive to negative interactions. When counseling couples, I help them increase positive interactions while they are developing skills to transform the negative ones. Get a babysitter, take dance lessons, express your appreciation of each other, do things you know your partner will enjoy. If things are basically going well between you and your partner except in one or two areas, be sure to spend time together enjoying what is positive. Your worries or disappointments may diminish, and you will feel happier.
In addition to the practices that lead to happiness, developing flexibility will help you adapt to the challenges you face in life. “Extraordinary flexibility is required for successful living in all spheres of activity.” (Peck, 64) Parenting tends to focus on structure, routine, and consistency. By the same token, if nothing else teaches us the need for flexibility, parenting will. When people are inflexible they get stuck in one mode all the time. Be willing to learn, grow, bend, change your perspective or even admit when you are wrong. Not only is it no fun to be around people who lack flexibility, it is not healthy. When we allow ourselves to change, we not only surprise others, we might also surprise ourselves with how enjoyable life can be.
Practice # 3: BE PRESENT – ONE MOMENT AT A TIME
Take a look at how much you “stay and be” versus how much you “go and do.” We tend to get so busy that self-care, rest, and time with friends and family may fall to the wayside. Most religions and spiritual guides talk about the value of prayer, meditation and other rituals of just being still and quiet or Being. A book I recommend on this subject is The Power of Now, by Eckhart Tolle.
Those who have not found their true wealth, which is the radiant joy of Being and the deep, unshakeable peace that comes with it, are beggars, even if they have great material wealth. They are looking outside for scraps of pleasure or fulfillment, for validation, security, or love while they have a treasure within that not only includes all those things but is infinitely greater than the world can offer. (9)
This practice of “Being” is accomplished by “staying in the moment,” which is simply being in, and bringing our attention to, the present. In Taoism, there is a term called wu wei, which is usually translated as “actionless activity” or “sitting quietly doing nothing… regarded as one of the highest achievements or virtues.” (Tolle, 179) When overwhelmed, we worry about all the things that might go wrong in the future. Try to surrender to the moment and determine what you need right now. More often then not meeting your current needs will lift your spirits.
Practices that may be savored in the moment include eating, drinking, sleeping, dancing, playing, painting, drawing, coloring, exercising, reading, writing, gardening, and being with other people, animals, and nature. As I write, my cats linger at my ankles, looking for attention, as the setting sun lights up the tree outside in a magnificent golden hue. In this moment I can honestly say I feel truly happy. While you seek this kind of awareness in daily life, you are not consumed with the past or future, but are present in the moment, and this is where you can find peace.
“Surrender reconnects you with the source-energy of Being, and if your doing is infused with Being, it becomes a joyful celebration of life energy that takes you deeply into the Now.” (Tolle, 173)
In their play, children and animals teach us to celebrate the moment. Find joy in doing what you need to do today! You have the power of choice, and every moment is valuable. “Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. / Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.” – Goethe
Another book that speaks to the benefit of making the most of our time and energy is The Power of Full Engagement, by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz. They assert that we actually become less productive if we do not take breaks or change activities every thirty to ninety minutes. Our physical and mental health are related and we must commit to taking care of both. Persistent stress actually kills neurons in the brain, and multitasking impacts memory. Therefore taking one moment at a time is part of self-care, contributing to our overall health and happiness.
Practice # 4: SEE THE BIG PICTURE – VISION
Albert Einstein knew that intelligence and imagination are highly correlated: “Imagination is everything! It is the preview of life’s coming attractions.” Living with a vision for your life gives it meaning and purpose. Imagination connects us to our gifts and passions where we discover our love for living. A lot of research supports the power of intention and visualization. If your current situation is difficult and you are at a loss as to what you can do, remember your past strengths and imagine where you want to be in the future. This can help you realize what you can do today to get you where you want to go.
Self-discipline is accomplished when you can delay gratification, knowing your hard work will pay off in time. Sometimes we enjoy the immediate, other times we make different choices that lead to our long-term satisfaction. Learn to trust yourself when deciding what you need to balance today’s pleasures with tomorrow’s goals. “Every moment is a golden one for him who has the vision to recognize it as such.” (Henry Miller)
Practice # 5: APPRECIATION
When I was young, each morning as she drove me to school my mom would say, “Look at the morning glories.” Tired, and still trying to wake up, I would roll my eyes and wonder why she said this every day. Later, when I moved away to college, I thought of her when I saw morning glories—-finally appreciating her desire to share with me on a regular basis the beauty in nature. Now I walk as often as possible in lovely neighborhoods, by the ocean, lake or mountains, to appreciate and connect with nature to remember what a beautiful world we live in. Baby ducks or geese waddling around always lift my mood. Weekly I play fetch with a dog and daily I pet my cats and bask in their peaceful purrs.
“Do not pollute your beautiful, radiant inner Being nor the Earth with negativity. Do not give unhappiness in any form whatsoever a dwelling place inside you.” (Tolle, 178) Stop and smell the roses and observe the miracle of life around you, regardless of your circumstances. Be grateful in everything. “Not what we have But what we enjoy, constitutes our abundance.” Epicurus
This is one of the most powerful tools in life and relationships. Focus on the good, and more good will come. Ancient religions and modern spiritual guides will tell you the same. The Dali Lama, in The Art of Happiness describes it this way:
Happy people in contrast, are generally found to be more sociable, flexible, and creative and are able to tolerate life’s daily frustrations more easily than unhappy people. And, most important, they are found to be more loving and forgiving than unhappy people. (17)
When you focus on and give voice to what you appreciate about someone, it reinforces their positive behavior and creates intimacy. No one enjoys being criticized. Find the good in others, express the positive, and you will have long lasting relationships. Jesus said, “Turn the other cheek,” and promoted servant leadership, with humility and love. Compassion for your enemies is difficult but forgiveness can lead to your own sense of peace. “Peace of mind or a calm state of mind is rooted in affection and compassion. There is a very high level of sensitivity and feeling there.” (Dali Lama, 26)
Others who know our strengths and weaknesses can help us view things in a more positive way. As a child I was playing outside when a bee stung me. I ran inside crying to mom. She sat me on the counter, pulled out a glass in which she began catching my tears. She held the glass up to the sunlight shining in through the window and said “Look at how beautiful they are!” I saw the rainbow of colors in my tears and suddenly I was laughing. There was joy and beauty even in my pain. It was one of the most valuable lessons I have learned.
Practice # 6: ACCEPTANCE
“The pain you create now is always some form of nonacceptance, some form of unconscious resistance to what is,” (Tolle, 27). The story I shared about my mom catching my tears in a glass to show me their beauty also taught me that it is okay to cry. One of my roommates told me she felt uncomfortable when I cried because she did not know what to say. I told her, “Just tell me I am beautiful when I cry!” From then on we enjoyed the experience of laughing and crying, knowing tears are a natural physical release offering relief. Now my child clients will tell their parents when they cry “It’s okay to cry. It makes you feel better.”
Scott Peck’s A Road Less Traveled begins, “Life is difficult.” Once we accept this fact, we are no longer so disturbed by it. The first step in both Science of Mind and 12-Step programs is to relax, or surrender, and come to know our limitations. Sometimes this feels strange but once we do it, the steps that follow are manageable, as we realize we are a small part of a much bigger picture. It helps put things in perspective and allows us to focus on our place in the universe. For a year my mantra was “Let it be,” as Paul McCartney sang so eloquently. Now I frequently recite the Serenity Prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Serenity, courage and wisdom allow me to problem solve when I feel unhappy. Therefore, unhappiness can be an indication of a need to change—if not my thoughts, then my circumstances. I figure out what I can not change, focus on what I can change and how to go about it. Problem solving gives meaning to our lives and develops courage and character. When problems are avoided, mental illnesses and destructive patterns develop, stunting our growth, rather than relieving our discontent. For more on this topic I recommend reading The Road Less Traveled (and the other books listed at the end of this article). Self-help reading is also known as biblio-therapy and can add to the tools you develop to bring about changes that you choose to make.
We make our choices, but we cannot determine the paths of others. Couples often come into counseling wanting the other person to change. They struggle with the truth that they must change themselves in order for their relationship to change. It is the same with families. “If only my son would listen.” Or “my mom just needs to back off and leave me alone.” While these certainly provide clues to relational dynamics that are not working, the key here is that they are dynamics. If you change, the dynamic changes. No longer are you at the mercy of and frustrated by someone else. Now you are empowered to do something yourself, and to know you cannot change the other person’s choice, regardless of what it is.
Practice # 7: BE PATIENT, REALISTIC AND KIND TO YOURSELF
Many people are hard on themselves and actually make themselves, and others, miserable. As the Serenity prayer reminds us, much of life is beyond our control, and what others think of us is “none of our business.” People have their issues. They will sometimes try to project them on you so as to blame you for their problems. Many are neither aware of their issues nor willing to take responsibility for them.
Learn to be true and good to yourself. You are on a journey. It is perfectly normal that you will fall down sometimes. Just pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and keep walking. If you are not making mistakes, you are probably playing it too safe and may not be challenging yourself by taking risks in order to learn and grow.
You do not have to be perfect. You can be human; we are all human! It is more interesting than being perfect anyway. If you do not love and accept yourself, how can you expect anyone else to? You cannot give to others what you do not have yourself. Take responsibility for your life, and have compassion for yourself and others. Be as kind to yourself as you are to others. Recognize that even failures are accomplishments because you are taking risks, living courageously, and learning lessons.
“There are cycles of success, when things come to you and thrive, and cycles of failure, when they wither or disintegrate and you have to let them go in order to make room for new things to arise, or for transformation to happen.” (Tolle, 152)
Just as nature has four seasons, in life there is a time for everything and everything has its time. We must trust we are divine creatures, a part of larger community, where not everything makes perfect sense, but in every sense we are being perfected. Like gold that goes through fire to be refined, we grow stronger as we overcome obstacles, building character and integrity. Realistically we are all sad at times, but overall we hope to have the joys in life outweigh the sorrows, and often a change in perspective can shift things dramatically. There are mountains and valleys, but within each experience, whether high or low, joy can be found.
“Honor your inner worth. Let your heart’s desire breathe. Cherish your gifts. Treat yourself with tenderness, gentleness, and forgiveness. Open your heart and listen. Love is calling you to the mountain top” (Peck, 29).
Practice # 8: PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY
Ultimately people choose to be happy: to find the silver lining in each cloud. If you continue to wait for happiness to arrive, you will be waiting a long time and wondering why you are not happy yet. You are responsible for creating a life that makes you feel happy, accepting the life you have, and finding the joy in each moment.
“The happiness that is derived from some secondary source is never very deep. It is only a pale reflection of the joy of Being, the vibrant peace that you find within as you enter the state of nonresistance.” (Tolle, 156)
Some people do not take pleasure in their time alone. However, we need to stay connected to ourselves. When we are too busy, or always around others, we may lose perspective on what is most important to us. Taking some down time allows us to focus, think things through and be more aware of our choices. I have learned that down time, time I spend alone and contemplative, restores me emotionally and spiritually, helping me stay honest with myself, and on the path that is best for me.
Self- awareness is necessary in order to “own your part” in conflict with others. It is easy to blame others for our pain, avoiding personal responsibility, yet as adults we have the power to choose who we relate to and how we relate to them. We must empower ourselves to take responsibility for our choices and let go of trying to change others. It takes courage to admit our faults and to recognize we have the ability to shape our own lives.
While limitations exist and there are things beyond our control, we can always turn things around for ourselves if we are creative and brave. When we are honest, and have the integrity to do the right thing, even when it is difficult, we discover solutions we can feel happy about. We need to challenge ourselves, stop blaming others and see what we can do to create change. Mahatma Gandhi led by example and persuades us to “be the change you want to see in the world.” This is essential to personal growth.
Practice #9: COMMITMENT TO TRUTH – OPENNESS, HONESTY, AND INTEGRITY
Trust is the foundation for healthy relationships. I have found tremendous healing in relationships where we have both been true to ourselves, direct, open, and honest with each other. If I am not being honest or doing the things I said I would do I feel bad about it, and I am sure the other person is not happy either. Sometimes we do not want to be around people who challenge us because we are trying to stay in our fantasy world where there is no pain or suffering.
“Insofar as the nature of the challenge is legitimate (and it usually is), lying is an attempt to circumvent legitimate suffering and hence is productive of mental illness.” (Peck, 56)
I strive to be a person of integrity, dedicated to being truthful. I can also find it difficult to admit my faults and trust others with my more vulnerable feelings. I understand the desire to lie, withhold, hide, avoid or pretend to be someone you are not. What I have learned is that sooner or later the reality of those choices catches up with us and we must face the consequences. The truth always reveals itself in time.
It is difficult to assess or treat a client if the therapist does not know the reality of the client’s situation. When relevant information is left out, the therapist’s guidance may be ineffective or compromised in their ability to challenge a client’s thoughts, feelings and behaviors. “The healing of the spirit has not been completed until openness to challenge becomes a way of life.” (Peck, 54) If you are not dealing honestly with your therapist about your most important and often painful issues, you might want to examine your relationships and ability to trust. It can be difficult to be vulnerable and trust the therapist with secrets, yet this is where change and growth can occur.
Addiction is well-documented as an illness where people lie to themselves and others. Justifications and deception allow a person to continue their behaviors and ignore the destructive nature of their choices. Families who keep secrets are confusing to be around because nothing is as it seems. As the therapist challenges these behaviors you are able to develop trust, honesty and integrity which will translate into your personal life. Healthier, open and direct communication will allow people to feel safer and happier.
Practice # 10: COMMUNITY SERVICE AND GIVING TO OTHERS
Once you are grounded in joy and peace, you are ready to spread joy and peace to others. The best way to sustain happiness is to help others feel happy too. Pass it on, pay it forward. Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us “If we are peaceful, if we are happy, we can blossom like a flower, and everyone in our family, our entire society, will benefit from our peace.” (3) We are social creatures who need others, and they us. Random acts of kindness can change the course of a bad day into a good day. Simple things like smiling, treating others with respect, or offering to help can spread happiness. When I first moved to California I had the unexpected pleasure of a having my bridge toll paid by the stranger in front of me. It immediately lifted my spirits and I talked about it for several days. Often people say, “If I were rich I would give generously to others.” Money is not the only thing people need. Kindness and giving of your time to another person can make a world of difference. Do what you can. Compassion for others will help you feel better, distract you from your problems and expand your perspective. It is in the journey we find joy, not in the destination.
I hope this article encourages you and brings you closer to feeling happy more often. Like a boat whose rudder is moved slightly to change coarse, small changes in life can lead to entirely different experiences. The more you incorporate these healthy practices, the more you will find yourself laughing and enjoying your life. Best wishes as you enjoy your journey and spread the joy to others!
Burns, David D., M.D. Feeling Good. New York: Avon Books, 1980, 1999.
The Dali Lama and Howard C. Cutler, M.D. The Art of Happiness. New York: Riverhead, 1998.
Gottman, John. Why Marriages Succeed or Fail: And How You Can Make Yours Last. New York: Fireside, 1994.
Loehr, Jim, and Tony Schwartz. The Power of Full Engagement. New York: Free Press, 2003.
Moore, Thomas. Care of the Soul: A Guide for Cultivating Depth and Sacredness in Everyday Life. New York: Harper-Collins, 1994.
Nhat Hahn, Thich. Being Peace. Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 1987.
Peck, M. Scott, M.D. The Road Less Travelled. New York: Touchstone, 1978
Ryan, M.J. The Happiness Makeover. New York: Broadway Books, 2005.
Tolle, Eckhart. The Power of Now. Novato, CA: New World Library, 1997.
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