Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Happiness Is An Inside Job

It seems to me that there are some misguided ideas floating around about happiness. It’s time to clear up some myths about creating a happy life, and clarify what is in our power to do to build more joy and contentment. I'd like to see most people enjoy their lives more, and part of getting there is an inside job—making a choice to be mature and wise about your expectations.

Here are some of the myths about happiness:

1. My partner is supposed to make me happy. Sorry, but happiness is actually an inside job and when you build some you can share it with your partner. You don't extract it from your partner. People that don't get this concept need to keep replacing their partner and getting a new one on a frequent basis, because they don't understand that your life partner doesn't supply your happiness stream. You do.

2. Happiness is about having the most stuff, or the most money. While it's good to be comfortable and have what you need, the relentless pursuit of stuff doesn't generally make people happy. When it comes to the accumulation of stuff, being organized and traveling light often makes people feel less stressed.

3. I'm supposed to be blissfully happy all the time. No, actually it's the challenges and dark moments in your life that help highlight and underscore what real happiness is. I don't think I've ever met an open, reflective person who doesn't experiences some mood variation day to day. That's called NORMAL.

4. I don't need to be grateful to be happy. It's actually quite the opposite. The people who are happiest and most content often have a profound sense of gratefulness for the people in their life and the opportunities they've been given.

5. Happiness has nothing to do with work. Not true. Even Freud knew that we need two things in life to be happy: we need love and we need work. People need a purpose larger than themselves. It gives you a reason to get out of bed in the morning. Life isn't supposed to be like a perpetual vacation. You need to contribute something back to our planet to truly be happy. It could be your profession, your art, or your selfless service to others. Realizing that you are not the center of the universe helps put things in perspective, and makes you feel purposeful and significant. Even my patients that are retiring—I want them to retire TO something.

6. Alcohol makes you happy. Alcohol is actually a depressant. When it wears off, you will feel worse. Authentic happiness isn't achieved through the use of alcohol or chemical substances. It's more real.

7. Happiness is the goal. In reality, happiness and joy often find you when you are giving your gift to the universe, in the creative flow, and engaged with people and causes you care about. Happiness is often a by-product, not the only target.

8. Happiness will be delivered by UPS and I can sit here and wait for it. That’s probably not the best plan. You need to be actively involved in life, relationships, projects, and plans to really get the happiness flow going.

9. Getting married will make me happy. Maybe, maybe not. Your own happiness set-point may have more to do with your happiness level. All couples have 4 or 5 perpetual, unsolvable issues they have to learn to dialogue respectfully about. Your partner will be a unique individual with their own wants, needs, and back story. You will need to learn to love, honor, and negotiate. A strong marriage will help you grow to become a better person, but it won't all be cake.

10. Having children will make me happy. There are lots of joys in parenthood, but be aware that sweet little ones who want to please you often grow into teenagers who have their own ideas and need to push back and reject you. The outcome takes longer than you ever think it will. Parenting is a rich life experience, but buyer beware that it's not always fun and full of laughs.

11. Moving will make me happy. It might, but be mindful, as Jon Kabat-Zinn titled his useful book, Wherever You Go, There You Are. A new house or a new area may be fun, but you are required to take you with you! A grumpy, moody person in a beautiful new home or locale is still a grump.

12. I will be happy later (when I am retired, when the children are older, when we have more money, etc). It's a better idea to count your blessings and joys all along the way, and not defer the joy until later. There is nothing certain about later.

Now that's we've debunked a few of those myths, it's time to choose to be happy today. Taking the first few minutes of your morning to meditate and reflect on the people and experiences in your life that you are grateful for is a terrific way to frame the day. Affirm that you choose to feel good, love life, and keep your emotional energy level high by being open to people and experiences that are positive and life-affirming. You can choose to be happy, even in challenging situations. Developing your sense of humor can help. Attitude may not be everything, but leaning in fully to your life and living in an enthusiastic way is sure to increase your happiness quotient.

Happiness is one of those paradoxical things. You have a biological set-point for it, but what you do with your thoughts and your life contributes also. If your thinking is stuck in a negative gear, the irony is that you won't be able to savor and enjoy any blessings or goodness in your life. Happiness is often hidden in appreciating petite joys in everyday life. Sometimes happiness comes in wanting and appreciating who and what you already have in your life. As Kent Keith wrote beautifully in his book Do It Anyway, the things that bring people the deepest happiness and personal meaning are deciding to love people, do good, succeed, be honest and frank, think big, fight for the underdog, help people, and give the world our best. And if people let you down, life disappoints you, others don't deserve it or are self-centered? Do good anyway, because the way to a fulfilled, satisfying, happy, and meaningful life that has integrity is yours, regardless of what anyone else does.

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