How to find enduring happiness in your life.
Is it possible to be happy and sad and the same time? This might sound like a trick question, but it really is not. The answer to the question lies in understanding that there are at least 2 ways to understand what happiness is.
The first way of understanding happiness takes happiness to be the opposite of sad. Here we are talking about how you are feeling at the moment, and what your emotional state of the moment is.
Having a great time with friends? Happy. Having a serious disagreement with your friends? Not so happy, perhaps even sad. Want to be happy? Just keep doing fun stuff.
These states are situationally based and tend to be transitory, coming and going all the time. Even when your life is filled with these pleasant states there is likely to be a vague sense that something is still missing in your life. More about that later.
Thinking about happiness as a transitory emotional state leads us to two preconditions for enduring happiness. The first is to let go of the idea that you should always be in a state of happiness. Understand that as things happen your mood will change.
When things happen it is totally normal and part of human experience for us to feel sadness, pain, hurt or disappointment. Learning to accept those feeling and deal with them in constructive ways won’t bring happiness, but can help avoid excessive suffering, anxiety or depression.
This understanding of how things are leads to the second precondition for enduring happiness — accepting that there are things you can’t change.
Acceptance doesn’t mean you should be passive. It is simply an acknowledgment of how things are even if we don’t like them. Once you acknowledge the limits of your situation, you can begin to plan effective action to move yourself to a better place.
While these preconditions of letting go of fixed ideas about happiness and accepting how things are don’t generate happiness, they help to prevent us from getting stuck in sadness and to navigate through and around the numerous bumps and pot holes we encounter on the road of life. But to do this we have to look at the second way of understanding happiness.
In addition to looking at happiness as a transitory emotional state, we can also understand happiness as related to a more enduring sense of who you are, what you are and creating a life that you will find full, vibrant and meaningful. Happiness in this sense is simply the opposite of being unhappy. It is about knowing that you are living your life in a way that is consistent with what you value regardless of the circumstances.
This is the missing ingredient we spoke of earlier. In this sense of happiness, you and everyone else have an infinite capacity for happiness. Cultivating that capacity is the key to what I call true happiness.
So, here are 5 ways to cultivate the qualities which will put you on the path to a life of true happiness.
- Be clear about what you value and what is important for your life. I am not speaking about goals such as owning your own home or being a multi-millionaire. Once you accomplish goals, you will feel a sense of accomplishment, but that is not a guarantee of happiness. The real issue is what kind of a person do you want to be? What values will you embody in your life? Think about what kind of person you want to be in various contexts such as spouse or partner, parent, sibling, worker, employer or citizen of your community. Look at other domains of your life considering, for example, how education, intimacy, recreation and physical health are important to you, and how you behave in relationship to each.
- Once you understand the values and qualities that you want to embody, make a list of things you would have to do to behave consistently with those values. For example, if you want to be a loving spouse, what are the loving actions that you need to be doing consistently to really see yourself and be seen by others as a loving person?
- Look for things to do that will be both consistent with your values and will provide you with a sense of pleasure, accomplishment, connection or meaning. Do enjoyable things that are in line with your values. Be wary of doing things just because others tell you it will be fun. Understand that there may be times when valuing consistent action may be difficult or unpleasant, such as when you support a friend through difficult times.
- Cultivate those highly valued but sometimes challenging qualities you have identified as important, such as gratitude, responsibility, compassion, enthusiasm, humility, creativity and connection. Using meditation and imagery can be very helpful for this aspect of personal growth. For example, to cultivate gratitude, think about all you receive as a benefit for your body (air, food, clothing, shelter, care for your body) and for your spirit (companionship, support, love, guidance, education).
- Use mindful awareness to detect when you are caught in a negative mood or a mind trap of negative thoughts. Pausing briefly, focus attention on your breath and body. Then, determine what you can do next to move in one of your valued directions or to cultivate a desired positive quality.