The Happiness Habit
25th November, 20090 Comments
'Most people are about as happy as they make up their mind to be.'
I'm happy. My Email software has developed a frustrating problem, it's been raining for days, the car has sprung a leak which will be very expensive to fix - and I'm still happy.
How can I tell? How can anyone know when they're happy? What does happiness mean? Predictably, the term means different things to different people at different times in their lives. For myself, I like the definition 'An enduring feeling of contentment and capability' - a sense that life is good on the whole, and that you can deal with whatever happens.
What Do You Really Want?
Since Aristotle, many thinkers have concluded that everything we do is ultimately aimed at achieving happiness. We save for a holiday, long for an impressive car, have another drink, get to know popular people, strive for success - all because we think it will make us happy. A friend once told me, while I was hoping to sign a recording contract, 'Careful what you wish for - you may get it'. I was offered the contract, signed it and almost immediately it became a disaster. Soon after, I was spending a lot of effort on getting released from it. We tend to confuse what we actually want with things we think will get it for us - and we can learn from our experience.
One sure way to increase your happiness quotient is by making sure the things you do every day fit in with the things you find important - your values. I know successful businessmen who neglect their families by working sixty-hour weeks. When we discuss their careers I usually learn that all their effort is dedicated to giving their families the very best: a private education, a lavish lifestyle. I know wives of such men who feel lonely and unhappy and wish for a simpler, closer way of living. Whoever said 'Time is money' was wrong - you can lose money and make it again. Those businessmen often find ways of creating a different balance between work and home, often by learning to let go of things they had felt the need to control and learning how to trust others more and share the load.
Happiness is something you do
More recently, during training for my work, I realised a vital point about happiness: it isn't a thing or a place or something that happens to us, it's an activity. Now I think of it in that way I feel better. I have a lot of choice in what I do, so the chances are that I can do more happiness - hey, it works for me.
Author Andrew Matthews writes on happiness: 'It is like maintaining a nice home - you've got to hang on to your treasures and throw out the garbage.'
In his book 'Finding Flow', Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes how he and his team found ways of tracking just how happy people are at different times of day. The key is 'Flow' - a combination of high challenge and high skill. People experience flow in different ways, but some things are common to all. At such times '.what we feel, what we wish and what we think are in harmony. These moments are what I have called flow experiences ... athletes refer to it as being "in the zone". ' For me, flow is when I lose track of time because I'm so absorbed in what I'm doing.
We tend to feel some flow when working, travelling, talking, socialising and having sex. Our strongest experiences of flow tend to be our hobbies and sports, or when responding to a great movie or performance (not passively watching, but on the edge of our seats) or being swept away by music or an exciting football match. The opposite of flow would be deep in an apathetic trance, like the Royle family, gaping at the TV. Flow goes with active, rather than passive enjoyment. It involves stretching ourselves by operating near the limits of our skill. We do flow activities because we like doing them, rather than simply because we imagine they will bring us some benefit. In the process we may experience frustration, pain or expense, yet we still want to take part.
The Happiness Habit
The more I work with people to help them achieve what they want, the more I believe that attention is the key. We all know the story of the optimist and the pessimist looking at the same glass which contains water up to the halfway mark. To the optimist, the glass is half-full, to the pessimist it's half empty. The optimist sees the doughnut; the pessimist sees the hole. One looks for what's wrong, the other for what's right. What are they actually doing that's different from each other?
When you concentrate on something repeatedly, nerve cells in your brain link up to form networks that act a bit like electrical circuits, each designed to do a particular thing. The thing each circuit does is an unconscious programme, better known as a habit. People normally form habits through repetition. The first time you go somewhere you need to look for street names, maybe read a map. When you're used to going there you can do it without giving it any attention. The fact is, we spend most of our lives doing our habits. This is fine. As long as your habits are in harmony with your values, you tend to be pretty happy.
New Habits for Old
If your values and habits work against each other they can prevent you from growing as a person, stop you from being able to relax or cause you to dislike yourself. So is this just too bad, or can you really change? Well, it depends on how much of your attention you're prepared to commit to changing. You see, you form habits by shining the light of your attention on doing something until you can do it automatically. That leaves your attention free for the next learning. When you want to change that habit, you need to give your attention, first to unlearning, then to replacing it. (In my experience this is most effectively and quickly done in trance.) Much of my work is helping people to be in charge of the part of the brain that is the switchbox for their attention so that they can focus on things that bring them flow.
The formula is very simple: whatever you put your attention on fills your life. This fact goes way beyond the subject of happiness. Top athletes use techniques of mental rehearsal to prepare themselves for success. It's no accident that the term Vision is so prominent in current thinking. When top performers are studied closely, to find out what the vital difference is, they always create vivid images in their minds of what they want. It seems that the more detailed and desirable the images are the more powerful the effect. Naturally, they still have to do all the preparation and hard work but those factors alone don't guarantee success, it's the combination of all the elements that makes an outstanding performer.
Little Voices In My Head
When it comes to happiness, high achievement may not be as important as the way we choose to focus on certain aspects of our lives. Some people run a commentary in their mind's ear. Whatever they do, they criticise themselves.
'.there you go again. typical! Whatever you do it goes wrong.you fool.'
Some people act as if they could read minds. They usually don't like what they guess people are thinking about them. '.did you see the way she looked at you? You know what that means don't you? She thinks you're stupid.' or 'I wish I hadn't come.they're sneering at me because I'm not as successful...' Those little voices are auditory habits that were originally intended to help you, but have now become unhelpful. You can probably stop doing them by ignoring the words and turning the sound of the voice into something absurd - like Donald Duck, or whoever makes you laugh. People I have worked with have used the voices of Eddie Izzard, Harry Hill, Frankie Howerd, Victoria Wood and many others. Have a go and see what happens to how you feel.
Don't worry - Be Happy
Broadly speaking, anxiety is imagining what you don't want and then responding in your body as if it were happening in the present. Feeling down might involve focusing on past unhappiness and feeling as if it was still happening or only hearing criticism, never praise. These are simplifications, but they reveal the kinds of processes that underly these unhappy conditions. In each case, the individual is following habits of mind, often learnt early in life when we are inexperienced and impressionable. The good news is that these are only habits and habits can be changed. In many cases all you need to do is remember to do the behaviour you want for a new habit every day for three weeks continuously and it will become automatic. Some habits are easier to change than others. For losing the more persistent bad habits there are specialist techniques to help you succeed.
I don't mean to give the impression that everyone needs to go around smiling constantly. Tragedies and disappointments happen and it's important to let yourself feel what you feel at the time. Covering up your emotions can lead to bigger problems later on. What I mean is, just as you expect a cut to stop bleeding and heal after a while, it's reasonable to expect to move on after grieving or hurting. Nobody needs to put up with persistent unhappiness these days. We have learned more about how our minds work in the last thirty years than in the whole of history and the news is encouraging.
Accepting Your Own Power
I have known a great many people who have changed their minds about who they are and what they can reasonably expect from life. A woman I know decided that she could do more than work at menial tasks for low wages by accepting that she could learn new things. When she told her boss why she was leaving, the boss said 'You'll never amount to anything'. She signed up for a training course and found she was right - she could learn. She enjoyed it so much that she learned how to train others. Now she earns well over double her previous income organising courses and trainers and encouraging other people to believe in themselves. She altered the way she saw herself - from 'I won't expect much so I won't be disappointed' to 'I have the right to choose how I live my life and how I respond to the world'. She isn't pretending, rather she has accepted her own power and chosen to wake up to the possibilities life offers.
As Henry Ford said: 'Whether you think you can or you think you can't - you're right'.
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