Do you know how to be happy?
When I was younger I didn’t know how to be happy., I struggled a lot with my emotions. I was unhappy with myself—my size, my appearance, my character, my circumstances, with everything.
I thought that if I was physically bigger I would be happier. Or if I was more popular, or in better financial circumstances…if only I wasn’t so easily influenced by other peoples opinions, or… What made it worse was that I thought there wasn’t much I could do about these things.
Luckily, I was forced to grow up. I learned many useful lessons. One of the fundamental things I learnt was that happiness does not depend on anything.
I read what Abraham Lincoln had said about happiness: “Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.” So I figured that I was responsible for my own happiness.
I began to take a little control of my life, and then a little more… that effort is still going on. Along the way, I’ve learnt some useful things about happiness and how to be happy. These are the things I’d like to share with you today. I hope they help you in your quest to be happy too.
1. The most important person in my life
I was sitting at a tea shop with a very close friend of mine. We used to meet everyday after work, and have dinner together, followed by endless cups of tea. During those evenings, we often swapped notes about everything that was happening with us.
In the course of one of those conversations I got a key insight. It’s this: my happiness is directly affected only by my opinion of myself. It was true that other people’s opinions affected my happiness. But only because I allowed those opinions to affect my own opinion about myself. This gave me a handle on an important aspect of my happiness. And it’s made a huge difference to the way I feel about myself.
In this way, I’m the most important person in my life, the person I must be most careful to impress. This was,for me, the beginning of assertiveness, which is foundational to happiness.
2. Talking to myself
Round about the same time, I had a meltdown at work. I was then visualizer in a well-known ad agency. That particular week, the deadlines were impossibly close, tension ran high. I had an argument with one of the executives. I was able to control myself enough not to throw things at him. But when I got back to my little cubicle, I grabbed the table and threw it to the floor, yellling incoherently all the while. This brought the account executive running to my side, crying, “It’s only a job! It’s only a job!”
I stormed out of the office, and the copywriter I worked with came with me because he was concerned that I would do myself an injury. It took me all that day to cool down. In the evening at dinner, I talked about it with my friend, and I realized what had happened.
The evening before the incident and all the following morning, I had been telling myself, “This is not going to go well,” “I’m going to blow my top,” “I won’t be able to control my temper,” and so on. I was priming myself to explode. No wonder that when the time came that was exactly what had happened.
Self-talk is extremely important in managing my emotions. I learnt to tell myself “This is easy. I can handle this,” and “Nothing is going to happen that I can’t take care of, with a little help if need be”
“Talking to myself properly” became an important aspect of how to be happy. It still is.
3. Being present
Many years after the meltdown incident, I watched a video which talked about why negative emotions are opportunities. I learnt that becoming aware of the emotion was critical in being able to handle it.
The easiest way to do this, I learnt elsewhere, was to become aware of your breathing. “I’m breathing in”, “I’m breathing out”. Monitor your breath. This allows you to be present in the moment and aware of what’s happening. It creates space between yourself and your emotion.
Then let the emotion be. Feel it. Emotions have physical aspects. I often feel fear often as a coldness in the chest or abdomen, and sometimes a dryness in my mouth. Anger is a buzzing and twitching in my head and arms. I learnt to feel these feelings while staying apart from them and not allowing them to take control.
This is how, at least for short periods, I’ve learnt to be present, and not be lost in the past or worrying about the future. This has enabled me—sometimes, when I can remember to do it—to talk difficult things over, and come to an understanding. This has helped immensely to raise my overall level of happiness.
4. Keeping a journal
Rewind to many years before all this. I was in a real mess. My life was headed nowhere. I had become addicted to substance abuse, and generally had a very poor opinion of myself.
One evening, I was really upset about myself and I grabbed a notebook I had, and began to write. I poured it all out. It had been stewing inside me for years, and this was a blessed outlet. When I was done, I had written down many things I had never been able to tell anyone, and just the fact that I had let it out was a colossal relief. I discovered that a journal is a trusty confidante which will never fail you. There are many more reasons why keeping a journal is a good idea, but that’s for another day.
While I was still in college, a friend of mine noticed that I was getting unhealthily dependant on alcohol and drugs. Through him, I went to see a qualified psychologist was also a trained teacher of the TM method. So I was initiated into the technique. That first experience didn’t do much for me, but it did make me keep trying it on and off for many years.
And then I began to experience what I call the “quietness”. For example, when you’ve achieved the quietness, you can hear sounds you never could normally. The most vivid example of this is that the ticking of the clock becomes unbelievably loud—and that’s a sound I never know is happening unless I’m in the state of quietness. And in this quietness there is a joy that I can sometimes carry over to the humdrum, everyday routine of life.
6. Getting moving
“Action is the magic word”, says an old proverb, and it really is. Often when I’ve been in a state of dejection or even despair, getting active with something has got me out of it in next to no time. Even just some housework will do the trick. I often find myself whistling at work when just a little while before, I’d have been moping around. Physical activity has a great deal going for it. If you develop an exercise habit, you might find that you’re far less prone to depressive states.
There are many other skills and techniques that I haven’t explored. For example, there’s the old Chinese proverb that says there are many things you can do if you want happiness for short periods, but if you want happiness for a lifetime, help somebody. One of the best ways to find happiness for yourself is by serving others.
At the end of the day, the greatest skill we need for happiness is to able to build close, strong, loving relationships with other people, family and friends. All the skills that we acquire are steps in that direction. We’re never going to be perfectly happy while we’re still human, but our path is strewn with clues and hints about how to be happy.
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