How To Be Happier: Because who doesn't want more happiness right?
Updated: Oct 19, 2019
By: Chelsea Hudson, LCPC
Someone once told me that happiness is overrated. I truly can’t remember who said this to me, but it blew my mind, and I spent a significant amount of time wondering how on earth happiness could be overrated. Of course happiness can feel strange, especially if it’s an unfamiliar experience for you, and if you’re always worrying about when the happiness will end, then it can certainly be anxiety provoking too. But overrated? I’m just not yet convinced.
As I set out to write my very first post for my new therapy blog, I find myself pondering what my first topic should be. As a therapist, I have the privilege of sitting with so many brave, beautiful souls who grant me the opportunity to help them navigate this unpredictable concept that we call life. Every client that sits across from me presents with a unique and often heart wrenching struggle, and while the content of the clients’ struggles differ immensely, there is generally one core desire that unites them all: the desire to be “happier”. While this desire often presents itself in different forms, I’ve never met a client who wouldn’t take the chance to experience more happiness if they could, and for those who believed that happiness was no longer a possibility for them, they wished that they could once again BELIEVE it was.
Okay, throwing the word “happiness” around is making me uncomfortable. The scientist in me wants to define it. So I am going to attempt to do just that, at least for the sake of this post. Perhaps a good place to start is with what happiness is NOT. You might be surprised to learn that happiness is not the absence of pain, the absence of hardships or even the absence of sadness. Additionally, happiness, like many other emotions, is not an emotion that can only be experienced in isolation, or in the absence of other emotions. You can feel happy, sad, and scared, all at the same time. For example, when I left my steady job at a specialist treatment center and moved into private practice, I felt HAPPY about the flexibility, creativity and independence that lay ahead of me, SAD to say good bye to former clients and colleagues, and SCARED about the unknown. However, feeling sad and scared did not diminish the happiness I felt. I had space to hold all three of these emotions together. I opted to notice the sadness and fear and have compassion for myself for having these very valid feelings. However, I ultimately chose to turn my attention to the happiness and excitement I felt about the career move, and as a result, happiness became my prevalent state. Sounds simple enough right? Not quite, but I promise we’ll talk more about this later in the radical acceptance section of this post.
Okay, so what is happiness then? Well, the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines happiness as a “state of well-being and contentment” and/or a “pleasurable or satisfying experience”. Here’s the problem with that definition though. The words “state” and “experience” imply that happiness is something that is subject to change, which means that when we do experience moments of joy and contentment, that they are just that, moments. Those moments might last for as many as multiple hours or as little as a few seconds. This is true not only for happiness but for all other emotions, thoughts and bodily sensations, and really for our entire internal experience in general. Like waves, emotions come and go. They often rise to a peak and slowly subside but they are NOT permanent states. We are all living proof of this. No-one feels the same, single emotion ALL the time. We are also not always in control of what emotion we are going to experience at any given moment and this is largely because we are often not in control of what is happening in the world around us. I can arrive home in a state of “happiness” and turn on the television to see an animal in distress. I can assure you that as someone who is deeply sensitive about animals, no matter how intense my happiness state is when I walk into my home, upon seeing the distressed animal, new emotions of anger and sadness will quickly arise. So if emotions like happiness are fleeting, and if you’re not always in control of what and when other less desirable emotions will visit you, then how on earth are you going to be able to attain more happiness??? As therapists, we don’t have the answers to everything. In fact, most of the time, we’re just here to help you find your own answers, but throughout my years working in the field, I’ve learned a few things about "being happier” that you might find helpful. That’s why you’re here right? I know you typed those words into your web browser for a reason J I am so excited that you landed upon this post. You’re not alone. It’s a common desire, and I think I can help.
Firstly, I’d like you to take a look at your life today and separate what’s currently in your control and what’s not. So what’s usually not in your control? Well besides the weather, other people’s feelings, other people’s actions, the appearance you were born with, genetics, the family you were born into, the past, external events, and what thoughts pop into your mind are all things that are generally not in your control. However, what usually is in your control, are YOUR actions, your perspective and interpretations of the world and HOW you choose to respond to what’s not in your control. Feeling relieved? You should be. The most important thing to remember in the pursuit of more happiness is that while there is SO MUCH that we have little control of, we ARE ALWAYS in control of how we choose to respond to that which is not in our control, and I truly believe that this is one of the keys to experiencing more happiness. This brings me to a concept you may or may not be familiar with: Radical Acceptance. Marsha Linehan, pioneer of Dialectical Behavior Therapy and a big name in the psychology world, teaches about the importance of accepting the realities we have no control over in order to free us from the suffering that results from the energy we spend on denying or resisting unalterable realities. Think about how much of your time is currently spent worrying about your future, regretting your past, or wishing that your current reality was different. Thinking, wishing, hoping, blaming, theorizing, and rationalizing does not change the fact that the past and future are largely out of your control. What you DO have control of, is where you choose to focus your attention in your current reality. Radical acceptance does not necessarily mean that you have to like or agree with your reality - (that mean sister-in law, the bully at school, your abusive co-worker, the fact that you have curly hair, the fact that your parents got divorced) but if you are not in a position to change any of these things then acceptance will help set you free. Remember to have compassion for yourself about these painful experiences but don’t let them infiltrate into other parts of your life more than they need to. Remember acceptance takes practice and you will likely need to radically accept certain things over and over again. This might involve noticing when your mind jumps to resisting reality, ruminating about the past or catastrophizing about the future and consciously “turning your mind” towards what is in your control. When concentration camp survivors were interviewed after the Second World War, those who were able to accept their reality showed better long term mental health outcomes than those who were not able to accept it. Of course accepting what had happened to them did not mean that they in any form liked or agreed with what they had been subjected to, but acceptance of the past allowed them to free up their hearts to focus on building up other areas of their lives that would bring them joy moving forward. Is there perhaps something you’ve been dragging around with you that you could practice some acceptance towards?
Okay, now let’s move on to what is in your control. It’s surprisingly more than you would think.
Perspective – Taking a non-judgmental stance
Reality truly is in the eye of the beholder. YOU are in control of how you choose to interpret your reality. The human brain evolved to support our survival and for this reason we were wired to be highly sensitive to threats. This is why our minds will often jump to the worst case scenario, or why we often find ourselves living in a constant state of worry. While we can’t always control the initial thought that jumps into our mind, we are in control of noticing what conclusions our mind has drawn about a situation and then choosing how we will view that reality moving forward. Sometimes it can be challenging to choose to interpret an event in a rational manner when your emotions are running high. It can be helpful to stick to the facts of the situation and choose to take a non-judgmental stance. For example, when my husband was immigrating from South Africa to the USA, I had made an error on an immigration form that led to a two month delay in a gruesome three step process. I had been waiting for an email that would say he could move onto step three, but instead I got an email alerting me that I had made an error on his form and that it would be another two months until he could move onto step three of the painful process. Keep in mind that step one had taken almost a year and step three would take an unknown length of time. Not to mention, we had been dating long distance for six years at that point. It truly was the ultimate situation of having “no control”. When I received the email, my heart literally sank. An array of emotions arose in me – shame for making the error, fear about what the delay would mean about our future, sadness about the delay and anger towards the process. It was not a good morning for me but I had to decide in that moment that I was not going to let it destroy my next two months. I had to radically accept that I had made an error and that there was nothing I could do at that point to prevent the delay. I chose to take a non-judgmental stance towards myself and the process because blaming myself was pointless and unproductive. In changing my perspective, I reminded myself that in the big scheme of things, two months was not the end of the world as we were going to have our whole lives to spend together.
How you choose to spend any time that falls outside of your responsibilities (work, school, chores) is also in your control. With technological devices glued to us, I worry that many of us are spending our free time aimlessly scrolling through mind-numbing social media and news sites. While this can sometimes be educational and pleasurable, for the most part, it doesn’t lead to the experience of true pleasure or feelings of mastery – two components that are crucial for experiencing more happiness. Take some time to make a list of non – internet activities that you could engage in that would be pleasurable for you. Below is a link to DBT’s “Adult Pleasant Event Schedule”. http://www.dbtselfhelp.com/html/er_handout_8.html - you can of course add your own ideas to the list. Be sure to incorporate at least some of your chosen pleasurable activities into your schedule on a weekly basis and make a point of being fully present in the moment while engaging in your pleasurable task. Notice any judgments that may arise during the activity such as “I shouldn’t be doing this” or “this is so unproductive”, thank your mind for the random thought, and turn your attention back to the activity. While not a necessity, happiness can be further enhanced if you choose pleasurable activities that also provide a sense of mastery such as baking, knitting a scarf, going to an art class or building a piece of furniture.
Who are you spending your time with? We work in a world of conflict, competition and uncertainty and under these conditions, people aren’t always the kindest. For this reason, choose wisely who you spend your spare time with. Surround yourself with people who share your values, who will build you up, and who will share your optimism. When it comes to friends, quality is better than quantity. If you are consistently not feeling energized and hopeful following a particular social interaction, you might want to reconsider how much time you spend with that person. And don’t forget about your furry friends. Studies show an increase in the happy hormone oxytocin upon petting animals. Additionally, your pets never judge you and love you unconditionally.
Ringo and Jade - The furry loves of my life
Even just writing the word exercise makes me cringe a little. I’ve always had a bit of a love-hate relationship with exercise. I usually feel happier and accomplished after exercise, but it’s the “before” and the “during” part that can feel like such a drag. If you happen to be one of those lucky people who enjoy exercising, more power to you, keep it up. If you’re like me, I would encourage you to find a form of exercise/movement that you can enjoy. Nowadays there are plenty of fun and interactive indoor and outdoor classes of varying levels. For mood enhancement, the type of exercise is not that important. Just be sure that you are moving in some form and raising your heart rate. Studies have shown that exercise can be a powerful anti-depressant. A 2005 study found that brisk walking for 30 minutes/day, five times per week had a significant impact on reducing depression symptoms. This is because exercise naturally increases mood enhancing chemicals such as Serotonin, Norepinephrine and endorphins. While exercising, think about how you are serving your body. Notice the tendency for your mind to jump to negative thoughts about your body and abilities, thank your mind for the random thoughts, and turn your attention back to the activity.
Own who you are
I was never the prettiest girl, the sportiest girl or even the most talented. I won a couple “top of the class” awards in high school but by the time I got to college, those awards became pretty irrelevant. While there was always someone prettier, fitter and more talented than me, I was able to embrace what God HAD given me. I decided that I liked my eyes, my legs and my shoulders, so in the personal appearance department, I chose to accentuate those. I realized that I had a strong sense of humor, good interpersonal skills, and a passion for showing kindness. I cultivated these traits as well as my desire to help people struggling with mental health issues and chose to pursue a career in psychology. Instead of thinking, why didn’t I get any special talents (I’m a terrible singer L), I decided to use what I had and roll with it. I can honestly say that I love my job and I know I make a difference. Forget about who you’re not and OWN whoever you are, whether you’re quiet, loud, beautiful, cute, funny, nerdy, sporty, or green…. ROCK IT!
Values and Spiritual Beliefs
Lastly, if you are not living a life in accordance with your values and spiritual beliefs, you will constantly struggle with internal conflict. To enhance your happiness, ensure that you are frequently making decisions and participating in activities that are in line with your values. Examples of values include: acceptance, achievement, bravery, charity, compassion, diligence, excitement, faith, fitness, passion, self-control, solitude, thankfulness. For an extensive list of values, see the following link: http://liveboldandbloom.com/05/values/list-of-values Make values based activities a priority. If travelling brings you joy, be sure to incorporate this into your budget. This year I decided that I wanted to pursue gratitude. I make an effort on a daily basis to name out loud what I am thankful for. When times are tough, I make an even bigger effort to be thankful.
So there you have it! As my husband always says, “please just give me a super summary”. So here’s a super summary of how YOU can be happier starting today. Remember, you don’t have to be void of all negative emotions to experience happiness, you can hold happiness along with other emotions. Radically accept what’s not in your control, have compassion towards yourself for any difficult realities you face, and CHOOSE to turn your attention to what IS in your control: your perspective, connection, how you spend your time, exercise, owning who you are, values and gratitude. Oh yes, and in case you were wondering, I still don’t believe that happiness is overrated.