Last weekend, I went on a snowboarding trip. I almost canceled because I had a lot of anxiety. A couple of the people on the trip were friends, but there would also be new people there. Meeting new humans is never been something I look forward to:
“What will they think of me?”
“What if I say something stupid?”
“What if I embarrass my old friends?”
A couple days before the trip, I read through the guest post that you’re about to read below. Rainbows and unicorns appeared when I read this part:
It is said suffering is excessive focus on the self.
Damn. There was the answer. I had anxiety because I was focusing on myself. Quite selfish and stupid. Immediately, I thought:
To hell with it. I’m just going to be me and not worry what anyone else thinks.
I felt better and had a great time on the trip.
Today, I’m thrilled so share a guest post about happiness from The Happy Philosopher. This one hits home because I’ve been working on my happiness for a while.
How to be the Happiest Person in the Room
I came home from work and told my wife we needed to talk. I had been soldiering through severe burnout for months now and I could not do it any longer. Something had to change. I simply was not happy anymore. I told her I could work at most five more years and then I was quitting. That was my plan. It was not a great plan, but it was something.
This was the final punctuation in a conversation that we had been having for months. But as satisfying as it was to have an end date, I still had the same problem. I was not happy. I needed to become happy now. I was not willing to wait 5 years.
No one taught me how to be happy; not my parents, teachers or friends. There was no elective in my high school or college class I could take. As I sat down later that night with a glass of wine I took a deep breath reflected upon this.
What did I know about happiness and what was I doing to achieve it?
Unfortunately, very little and next to nothing were the answers to those questions. I was trying to find happiness by reaching for things that I thought were supposed to make a person happy. I watched what made other people happy, both in real life and through entertainment like television and movies. I looked at people I thought were happy and tried to reverse engineer it. I suspect this is what most of us do.
Society was my teacher, and as it turns out a pretty rotten one. From that day on I have been on a quest to become happier, and it is not an exaggeration to say I am now usually the happiest person in the room.
It’s been over 5 years now since I’ve hit rock bottom, and I would like to share my observations with you.
You cannot force happiness, it must emerge
First, know that happiness is sort of a hard concept to get your arms around. It is like smoke, and the more you grasp at it the more it disperses and becomes unpredictable. You can’t just tell yourself to be happy. The mind doesn’t work that way. That strategy works about as well at telling yourself not to think of a pink elephant.
You must cultivate happiness and, by doing so, create the conditions for it to emerge. It is like seeds in a garden. They will not grow in spite of your wishes if you do not give them enough water, sunlight, or the proper temperature and nutrients.
Focus away from yourself
It is said suffering is excessive focus on the self. I have found this to be true time and time again. When I am most concerned with me is usually when I am least happy. Sometimes I cannot avoid it. When I get trapped in my head, the way out is to focus on the other.
Think back to the last time you were truly happy. Not just feeling pleasure or mild positive feelings, but deep seated happiness. My guess is that you were not focused on you, but had the feeling of “living in the present moment”. You just became the experience and got lost in it. You stopped watching the movie and became the movie. There was no anxiety of the future, no fear, no regret, no ego. You were in a state of beauty and flow, but where was the “you”? By completely immersing in an experience we increase our capacity for joy.
One of the most powerful tools for happiness is a meditation technique called loving kindness. It is the practice of mentally sending goodwill, kindness, and warmth towards others. I am skeptical that the good feelings ever make it out of our heads, but there is a surprising effect on you that is nothing short of spectacular. When you focus on the other you become happier.
Meditation is one way to achieve mindfulness that I have found particularly helpful, but anything that gets you into the present moment can be powerful. You have to practice this however; it will not just happen. Which brings me to my next point:
Happiness is a skill
I was not always happy; in fact there were times in the not so distant past where I was kind of miserable. Part of the reason was that I didn’t know how to become happier. I thought happiness was just something that manifested once you did all the things society told you would make you happy. This is a naive viewpoint.
Happiness is a skill you develop like any other. It is no different than becoming good at basketball, neurosurgery or computer programming. Right now we have a skill level at everything we do. Maybe your happiness skill is underdeveloped. In this case you actually need to practice being happy.
I know this all sounds like metaphysical nonsense but I’m convinced it is true. I used to become absolutely enraged driving through rush hour traffic. I remember several times driving into downtown Chicago during rush hour wondering how many more people cutting me off would drive me into a homicidal rage. I could not be happy in this situation if you paid me.
Since then I’ve practiced.
You could drop me in any traffic jam in the world right now and I would not have the same negative reaction as before. I may not be delighted or bubbling with joy, but I could still be happy. For years I have practiced being happy in difficult situations.
Recently I was on a plane for about three hours experiencing the worst back pain of my life. In spite of powerful pain medications, muscle relaxers and a complimentary strong drink I was absolutely miserable, but interestingly I was not unhappy. I put the skills I developed over the years to good use and actually became content.
Gratitude is everything
Gratitude is the foundation of my happiness. It is a skill which is like no other. If it were a drug it would probably be illegal because of how good it makes you feel. Gratitude is the soil in which happiness grows.
Every moment we exist is a gift. Every moment is of infinite value. Having constant gratitude for each emerging moment is probably one definition of enlightenment, but this is easier said than done. When we are stuck in traffic or the anesthesiologist got our sedation a little too light during our colonoscopy gratitude is probably not at the top of our mind.
Much of the time though, we are simply not grateful enough for what we have. We take things for granted, and as a result we leave happiness on the table. I know this sounds kind of woo woo, but you really need to think of life this way. Every moment you do not have gratitude you are sacrificing your happiness. It is the equivalent of paying more income tax than you need to or leaving your windows open all summer with the air conditioning running.
Whatever your situation right now, you can instantly feel better by reframing and having gratitude. I’ve done this exercise so many times throughout my life and I’m still amazed at how well it works. Here is an example.
If you live in the United States I’m assuming you have running tap water. I do, and I completely take it for granted. According to the United Nations 783 million people do not have access to clean water and almost 2.5 billion do not have access to adequate sanitation. For many people simple access to water is their biggest and potentially deadliest problem each and every day of their lives.
There are so many faucets in my house each one of us could go into a separate room and with the simple turn of a handle have an endless supply of clean, cool, beautifully pure drinking water for a few dollars a day. I don’t have to walk a mile with a bucket on my head or have to worry about getting cholera. I have it easier than most humans who have ever lived with respect to water access. How can I not have gratitude when I frame it this way?
When is the last time you had gratitude when you turned on your water faucet? Listen to Jocko Willink discuss gratitude here better than I ever could (start around 24:30).
I could do this with endless amazing things in my life, and I do. I have a phone which connects to infinite information and entertainment. The two cars in my driveway are marvels of engineering. I can drive hundreds of miles in any direction in perfect comfort for a few dollars. I can drive this wondrous tool to the store and purchase food grown in every climate zone in the world, which was impossible throughout most of human history.
And if I’m too lazy to even get up to go to the store in my magical comfort controlled chariot of hedonism? Well, with a few clicks of the mouse I can have nearly anything delivered to my doorstep within a day or two. Modern life is fucking amazing. It really is. To be happier, simply think about how great your life is and the infinite number of ways it could be worse.
Be relentless with gratitude and your life will change.
Sometimes it just won’t work
If you are in a place of extreme suffering you may be angry with me right now. This article probably seems very hollow. You may want to yell at me through the screen and tell me how wrong I am; how I cannot possible know your suffering.
I know how this feels. I have been there. I’ve lost friends to suicide, and have seen (and felt) the deep despair of depression. It is true I cannot know your suffering, in the same way you cannot know mine.
Nothing is guaranteed in life, including your happiness. It is possible to do everything right in life and still suffer greatly.
I don’t write this to discourage, but I acknowledge sometimes our mechanisms fail. At times we need help. Some people need a village of help just to get back to zero; to get to a stable enough place to even think about happiness.
I do not have all the answers for everyone, but I do know that if you don’t believe you can become happier…you are right. Our minds are the most powerful prison of all. Without the fundamental belief that things can get better, they simply won’t. Whether you believe you can become happier in your life or not, you will be right. Choose your beliefs wisely.
Unfortunately there is another way to be the happiest person in the room, and that is to be in the room alone, to isolate ourselves and get trapped within our despair. If this is you and you can’t find a way out please get help. Find someone to get you to your feet again and never let go of the belief that you can be happy.
But most of the time it will work
We tend to focus on the negative most of the time. It’s what we are programmed for. We constantly perseverate on “What if”.
- I lose my job
- My relationship fails
- Someone laughs at me
- I’m never happy again
Most of the time we are wrong about the future. Not the mundane stuff. We can be pretty sure the sun will rise, there will be oxygen and gravity doing their thing, and the morning traffic on the Bay Bridge will be just as crappy as it was yesterday. But most likely we didn’t lose our job (or we get another), our relationships stay strong (or they were better off ended). People may laugh at us but 5 minutes later are too self-absorbed in their own problems to even care.
I’ve noticed the vast majority of the bad things in my life never actually happened. I’ve wasted years of my life worrying them, but they never happened. Either that or they did happen, but I wouldn’t have been able to predict or control them anyways.
Let go of your limiting beliefs. Don’t make the same mistakes I did. Happiness is an oil tanker, not a speed boat. It takes time to change direction when you have been going one way for such a long period of time. Small changes over long periods of time make a difference. Lean about happiness. Practice the skills of happiness.
You can become happier.
You will become happier.
Thanks so much for this wonderful guest post Happy Philosopher!
Make sure you visit The Happy Philosopher at his site, Facebook and Twitter. Dr. HP also appeared on the Physician Financial Success podcast and it’s a worthy listen. Finally, check out his 10 Questions from January.
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