Coming up this month is a conference on Happiness and Its Causes. There are many international speakers – scientists and health practitioners, authors, business people and professors – all talking about one little emotion, happiness. I won’t be able to attend this year, but thought I might put in my two cents worth on the subject, one that I haven’t before – a surprisingly major gap for something that is such an important, and at times illusive, feeling.
Nature or Nurture?
Are we born happy? What are we taught about being happy? I know that when looking at little ones, their feelings are not concealed in any way, they are immediate and active. Hungry or a dirty nappy – you know it! Food or a cuddle – you know it too! Looking at little kids playing I’m overwhelmed with a sense of presence in the sheer joy of playing. Even in the most heinous living conditions, you can still see children playing happily wherever they may be. I believe that there is a big ‘happiness’ component present in all. Unfortunately, our teachers on happiness –the adults around us – have usually been around for a while, taken a few hits, experienced a few disappointments, or been hurt in different ways and feel angry, stressed, fearful or sad. Often times, licking their wounds, they are like injured animals who slink away to protect themselves from further onslaught (giving the indication that the world isn’t safe or that you can’t be too careful), or lash out or pass on their negative experience (indicating that life isn’t evenhanded and you’ve got to be tough or they’ll get you). This may even come from the environment, rather than those immediately around us – studies have shown that people who watch more television and media are less happy. As little people we suck this all in without even realising it, and our glossy, resilient natures and worn or tarnished by this exposure. The naturally high level of happiness tends to be toned down over time.
Looking forward, looking back
So, we picked up stuff from others in the past. Most adults have also had their share of challenges and defeats. While we might not be overjoyed that they happened they, especially our own missteps and experiences, have given us valuable lessons to take with us. However, happiness, in some ways, is a responsibility. We may have been accidental victims (or tourists) in our past, but we need to reclaim our right to feel right. Often, in hypnotherapy, people discover messages (you’re no better than anyone, why are you so happy?… Just wait. You’re happy now, but the payback in pain will be coming…) and ideologies (life is suffering…because of the ‘sins’ of the family, we will all pay…) that may have been inhibiting them from accessing the joy in their life. However, it is their choice to break from that tradition that sets them apart from others. By noting the past, but having a willingness to use that muck as fertilizer to plant a seed of happiness and nurture and grow it, that makes all the difference. Positive psychology tends to look from the present to the future, and from clearing our past, we can set in motion the components that can create a life of contentment. Even though we may not have played on the jungle gym in decades, it’s that sort of simple ‘being,’ rather than ‘doing’, of happiness that tends to support us in experiencing a good life.
I’m rubber, you’re glue…
What bounces off me, sticks to you. That was a schoolyard chant that rebuffed bullying or name-calling. Might it have some value in life? In studies on happiness, resilience is used over and over again as an indicator for contentment in life. Those who roll with the punches and are able to have little insults or setbacks ‘bounce’ off seem to have a more positive and sunnier perspective on life. Those who allow situations and influences to ‘stick’ to them often seem bogged down in discontentment. We have a choice of what we catch and what we drop. More and more I find that people need help righting wrongs in their life, not by fighting or proving that others were in error, but by moving above the petty to realise that wounds can heal, and that washing clean speeds this process. As a question posed by A Course in Miracles asks, “Would you rather be right, or would you rather be happy?” I know that often I need to let go of my attachment to being right, and suddenly the positive wealth of the true outcome returns to me tenfold. Yes, in answer to that question (when I do remember to pose it) between the choice of right or happy, is happy.
Is it a Happy Face or a happy face?
Authentic Happiness is another topic I’d like to briefly talk about. I’ve worked with people, who, finally given permission to feel negativity without labeling it ‘bad’ express to me, “I’m supposed to have been the #^%!@ “happy person” in my family/work/school for so long, I guess it’s good to realise that I don’t have to be” – and most feel truly happy for the first time in a long time for allowing themselves to be up AND down along the way. While we may do it for some very good reasons, forcing happiness sometimes backfires and feels like a lie. While we needn’t show our emotions (in full force) all the time, it’s ok to have off days. Even if we are labeled ‘always happy’, ‘jolly’, ‘the life of the party’, we can take a back seat to them whenever we need to. At the same time, studies have shown that you can ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ and smile, laugh or express happiness, even when you’re not, and there is a tendency for the mood to follow.
Happy, Shiny People
There are other advantages to happiness – you look better! Looking at people who are worried or angry or stressed, you can see it on their faces. Why do brides (for the most part) look beautiful? It’s often because it’s seen as one of the happiest days of their lives. And as reflective beings we often react positively to people who look positive and well. I’ve written about the emotional face-lift that happens when we let go of negative emotions that are weighing us down, and when you look at a smile it’s certainly going against gravity, which is a good thing as we get older! Another benefit is that when we are truly happy, we tend to have more energy and look after ourselves better. While it’s a bit of a Catch-22 to get into the virtuous circle, exercise is one thing that promotes health and the production of endorphins (happy impulses). People who exercise their right to move and use their body tend to be happier, and happy people tend to exercise their bodies!
For now we’re happy… if not overjoyed
I recently watched “Avenue Q – The Musical” (if you haven’t and want a bit of a chuckle, it’s fun – don’t take it too seriously) and there was a song about the temporariness of the ups and downs in life. Often people catastrophise the down bits of life or hold on to the feeling that it will always be this way. A quick look at stories and your own history will probably reveal the flow of change, especially the lows in our life (unless we choose to hold them near and dear to us). Just for now is a modern take on a phrase made popular by King Solomon and even Abraham Lincoln – This too shall pass. There is no permanence in life but change, and even in the darkest hour, this, too, shall pass away. It helps to keep things in perspective so we can refocus on the good fortune that actually surrounds us. (for even more incentive to do so, refer to my October 2003 newsyletter and you’ll find that people who focus on the positive rather than the negative are actually luckier as well!
Lights, Happy, Action
While I could go on and on about support for happiness, there are a few tips collected on activities or approaches which round out the list of happy-making tools. Happiness for happiness sake tends to be key – not attached to money, or a set idea of success, or ‘when I _______, I’ll be happy’. After the basics have been covered, there’s very little influence money has on happiness. Connecting with others and building meaningful relationships, however, is a big indicator of prolonged and deep happiness. In addition to exercise, enough sleep supports positive moods. While not the only thing in life, for many, work is a major component, so finding one that engages your personal skills and doing something you enjoy (or focusing on those aspects of the job) can make the days joyful. Taking time to reflect or meditate on the good things in life can be well worth the time spent – leaving most people with a sense of well-being and inner calm.