“Happiness cannot be pursued. You do not find happiness; happiness finds you. It is not an end in itself, but a by-product of other activities, often arriving when it is least expected.” ~ Mick Brown
“It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” ~ Krishnamurti
I spent the last fifteen years reading every self-help, Spirituality-made-simple, Happiness-for-dummies, mindfulness, yoga, DIY-psychotherapy book known to god and man. To reduce thousands of years of religion, psychology, and philosophy to a 1,000 word blog would be unwise if not vulgar. And yet, once you parse the semantic differences between the sundry religions, psychologies, and philosophies and the plethora of derivative “transformational workshops” (like the ones I teach) and therapeutic modalities (like the ones I use with patients) it is easy to see how many of the problems we encounter are culturally contingent and how many of the proposed solutions are tantamount to serving old wine in new bottles.
Here is what I have learned, what I teach, and what I live:
10. Pursuing happiness actually causes misery. The irony is that if you want to be happy you need to release your desire to be happy – for desire is the root of all suffering, according to the Buddha, and happiness – when it occurs – is actually a by-product and not a direct result of particular actions. The best way to engender and maximize the by-product of happiness is to embrace a lifestyle and incorporate tools that are scientifically proven to keep you at the high end of your happiness spectrum, such as meditation, yoga, exercise, ample sleep, community, self-discipline, secure attachments, intimacy, authentic communications, delayed gratification, and eating to fuel your body instead of eating for self-destructive psychological/emotional reasons. If you live in America then you have been raised to believe that the pursuit of happiness is an inalienable right, which was grand and appetizing for the oppressed pilgrims who settled these fine shores many moons ago; however, we now know that pursuing happiness causes misery because your mind is akin to an hedonic treadmill: as soon as a desire is sated it is replaced by another desire. If you think you will be happy when you get a new car, house, partner, or job, scientific studies inform us that those shiny new objects lose their allure in 12-18 months.
9. Release expectations. The future is a void. One of the primary features of our minds is to imagine potential future scenarios in an attempt to stave off possible traumatic surprises. This defense mechanism, which was so essential to helping you survive your highly competitive and often disappointing childhood, is now hindering you from showing up authentically in the relationships that are integral to your healing journey. Thus, learn how to observe your mind’s incessant leaping into possible future scenarios and gently correct it by teaching it to BE HERE NOW.
8. Your mind was trained to want more, better, different. If you want to be happy you need to untrain it and replace those “woulda-coulda-shouldas” with GRATITUDE and ACCEPTANCE.
7. Your mind is plagued by the irrational thought “Something is wrong… I’m different from other people… I don’t feel safe…” Everyone has experienced traumas and our minds have clung to those past events and kept them alive as if they were still happening. FORGIVENESS and ACCEPTANCE are tools that we must continuously employ in order to release or at least reframe past traumas.
6. Your mind is plagued by the irrational thought “Something must be wrong WITH ME.” Children assimilate negative energy around them by having the voices in their heads say, “There must be something wrong with me… if I had been different then… (mommy and daddy wouldn’t have gotten divorced, my brother wouldn’t have died, my best friend wouldn’t have moved away… fill-in-the-blank happened”). It is just as easy for the narrative to be “My life is perfect. It’s not my fault that… (my parents got divorced, my brother died, my best friend moved away…fill-in-the-blank happened”). Reframe your narrative in order to eliminate the resentments (resentment = “This should not have happened”) that your mind creates.
5. You have an internal barometer that was shaped before you could speak that either informs you that the world is an inherently scary place with finite resources, or a loving place of abundance. Your “way-of-being” in the world, your core-issues, and your disposition are not as dynamic as you have been informed to believe. The current wave of “neuroplasticity” sweeping self-help books is belied by false syllogisms such as:
Brain cells are malleable
Meditation relaxes people, thus,
Meditation changes brain cells.
This is inaccurate and misleading. Tools such as meditation were not and CANNOT be designed to change particular brain cells. Specifically, meditation was designed to alleviate suffering by learning to transcend or tame the restless mind. Why is the mind restless? Because your society has trained you to think (8, above) more, better, different will make you happier, that (7, above) you are not safe and must keep your guard up and adrenaline pumping or you will get hurt, and (6, above) there must be something wrong with you. However, it is equally possible to train your mind to believe that you are not presently in danger, there is nothing wrong with you, and your life is unfolding exactly as it should be unfolding. So don’t worry about your prefrontal cortex or synapses or neurons or limbic system or anything that you cannot directly experience through your five senses; worry about showing up and being present for your life.
4. Self-discipline = self-worth. We have an epidemic of people in our culture who suffer from low self-worth, low self-esteem and “negative self-talk” that manifest as alcoholism, infidelity, gambling addictions, shopping addictions, eating disorders and a host of other afflictions. Whenever patients think that their accomplishments are “not good enough,” I ask, “Whose voice is that?” Usually it is a teacher’s or parent’s or sibling’s voice. No bonobo ever thought, “Yes, I’m enjoying this delicious fruit right now but I’ll only be truly happy when I have an entire plantation!” If you suffer from low self-worth and want to correct this, then cultivate personal discipline: make commitments such as eliminating high-fructose corn syrup and sugar from your diet, meditating every day for a month, going someplace you’ve never been once a week, etc. and stick to those commitments. I’ve noticed in my psychotherapy practice that people with low self-worth have problems with self-discipline and and vice versa; one way to raise self-worth is to be sufficiently disciplined to have daily practices that you can be proud of accomplishing.
3. Realize that most of the things you learned through popular culture – acquiring money, power, sex, materials possessions, “bling” – do not correlate strongly with happiness. We all know alot of people who have more money than god and are still miserable. Ironically, it turns out that givers are happier than takers in the long run. Being generous and helping others is infinitely more satisfying than looking at your bank account statements; only an idiot wants “Richest Guy in This Cemetery” on his tombstone. The only thing that correlates strongly with authentic happiness is trustworthy, positive, loving relationships; being giving and generous helps build those relationships.
2. Authenticity. You created a false self, a facade, a persona to survive your childhood and the defense mechanisms you developed became your “way of being,” your personality. There is a good chance that your facade/personality is quite functional and even seductive; however, you know that underneath it lies an authentic self that is rather messy and unseemly. Relationships based on facades crumble so you must be brave enough to be vulnerable, show your authentic self, and express yourself authentically and compassionately in order to cultivate vibrant, positive, loving relationships.
1. This moment is everything that you will ever have. If you say, “Yeah, yeah yeah… I’ll do these things (meditate, exercise, eat healthily, speak authentically, explore new places) tomorrow,” studies show that you will never do them. Happiness is a choice and it is up to you to embrace a lifestyle and incorporate tools that will keep you at the top of your happiness range TODAY.