You’ve heard that saying, “happiness is a choice.” Though like other self-help statements, when we hear them, we understand the concept but have no idea how to do it.
So how do we choose happiness?
Our cultural belief is that in the pursuit and achievement of success we will find our happiness. However, from my experience, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Shawn Achor, Harvard researcher and author of The Happiness Advantage has found that actually, pursuing happiness will lead to success.
There’s a large body of research in the field of positive psychology that has shown that happiness is a choice that anyone can make.
According to psychologist Tom Stevens, Ph.D., happy people choose to make happiness one of their top goals in life. Stevens adds that, "The persons who become the happiest and grow the most are those who also make truth and their own personal growth primary values."
What I’ve noticed in my coaching work is that most of us are very committed to our thoughts. We believe them as if they are the gospel truth. Including the self-deprecating ones. We also believe that when we whip ourselves into self-improvement, we are pushing ourselves towards happiness. If only I…lost weight…went to the gym more…found my true love….made more money….had more followers….was better at (you fill in the blank here,) then I will be happy.
What’s ironic is that one of the most effective pathways to happiness is through the mindfulness practices of letting go of our thoughts. This allows us to tap into the vast nothingness and peace within.
Richard Davidson, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin, and Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, co-authored a study on the effects of meditation on the brain. Activity on the left frontal area of the cerebral cortex coincided with feelings of happiness, enthusiasm, joy, and alertness. Activity on the right frontal area corresponded to feelings of sadness, anxiety, and worry. Their research demonstrated that meditation redistributes the balance between the left and right frontal areas and sparks more left-brain activity, thus stimulating positive emotion.
Try this with me for just a few moments. Sit down and close your eyes. Open your awareness with all your senses to the space around you. Just notice what you hear, smell, taste, and feel. Herbert Benson’s research at Harvard University found that opening awareness through the senses reduces stress hormones.
Being in the Now
Most of us tend to get so lost in our thoughts that we don’t have the mind space to notice happiness if it was standing right in front of us. This morning as I was out on my morning walk, it took the honking of a skein of Canada Geese flying over me to get out of my head. I was reminded that in every moment there is something to notice that can bring us joy.
We need only to get out of our heads to experience the now. Yet most of the time we dwell in the past, rehashing old hurts, failures, and disappointments. Or we are in the future, worrying about the what ifs and worst case scenarios. Happiness is a now thing. You must be right here, right now, to experience it.
Another key determinant of happiness is our level of self-acceptance. When we believe that we can only be happy if something about us is different, then we are viewing ourselves as flawed, rendering happiness unattainable. We all carry the residual scars from the past, we all have things to work on. Instead of seeing these as flaws, see them as what they are – the ways in which life has shaped you into becoming the person you are today.
When we compare ourselves to others to see how we fall short, or judge ourselves as too fat or too skinny or not enough of something, we are self-berating and causing ourselves pain.
Find what you love and appreciate about yourself. Each of us has a unique set of gifts, talents and strengths, some we were born with, others the result of how life has formed us. Each new day is an opportunity to be a better human being, to learn and to grow. Accept who you are today and reach for how you want to be better, not because you’re flawed but because you want to discover your limitless potential for love and happiness. With the past behind you, and with all that you have learned from it, it’s time to accept who you are now.
Allow Yourself to Feel
Are you letting yourself be happy? Are you letting yourself feel the full depth of your life experience? Because if you are avoiding negative emotions, then you are also blocking your ability to feel positive ones too.
Instead of numbing through food, alcohol, social media, or whatever your distraction might be, sit with negative emotion long enough to feel the pain of it move through your body. The sensation of emotion lasts about 90 seconds in the body if we allow it to move through us. If it lasts days, weeks, months, even years, then there’s a story we’ve been telling ourselves about it, most likely to prove the worst that we believe about ourselves. That’s the negativity bias in action.
Feel the full range of your life experience. Feel it and then move on.
Cultivating positive thoughts improves our mood. One of the most effective ways to encourage a positive perspective is through practicing gratitude, or the appreciation of the simple things. This means focusing on the goodness that is already evident in life.
Our brains are wired to look for what’s bad – as neuropsychologist Rick Hanson puts it, “the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones.” This "negativity bias" causes the brain to form stronger bad memories than good ones. We can counteract this negativity tendency by noticing, appreciating and feeling the sensations from the positive moments, no matter how small they may be.
The practice of gratitude puts us in the state of receiving. Gratitude is a positive emotion that is felt after being the beneficiary of some sort of gift. It is a social emotion that is often directed towards a person (the giver of a gift), though it is also often felt towards a higher power.
You can be the giver of that gift to yourself.
Happiness is an inner experience that is yours to claim. Here’s a simple way to begin and end your day.
When you first wake up in the morning, before you get out of bed or do anything (including checking your phone) ask yourself this question: “What is the greatest ideal of myself that I can be today?” Take a moment to teach your body the sensation of how you want to show up today. How do you want to BE, so that you can FEEL happy? Teaching your body in advance of the day will program your brain that it has already happened. Then affirm what you want to create and attract into your life – “I am healthy. I am prosperous. I am content. I am happy. I am loved.” Whatever you desire.
The last 3 minutes before you fall asleep, instead of reviewing what went wrong in your day or tallying up everything that didn’t work out, or underscoring who you felt hurt by, program your subconscious brain with positivity and gratitude. Really feel the sensation of gratitude in your body by going through your day and giving thanks for everything that went easily and worked out on your behalf. Think of all the moments of connection, kindness and compassion from family, friends, co-workers, or neighbors. Remember the blessing of the warm water in your shower and the food that nourished you. Think of the beauty of nature as you drove home from work. Give thanks for your life.
Believe that you can feel happy. This is within your power. Believe in it, excavate it. It’s right there within you.
"Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it." Rumi
I believe in you.
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I would love to hear from you. What are you feeling grateful for? Please share your comments below or email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org