Thursday, March 9, 2017

How Do We Maintain Happiness?

Image Credit: Huffington Post

Just recently, I finished The Book of Joy by His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. These two men provide such wonderful wisdom, sharing the same belief that joy or happiness come from within. This is something that few of us cultivate and something that which our materialist society insists can be found externally. The message we receive from our larger culture is that we will be happy when, and if, we have a bigger house, a better job, the right clothes or more money. Yet, these two men maintain that this is not where true happiness resides. It is not about acquiring more things or more money; These are not the sources of happiness. Nor is happiness solely reliant on self-interest. Rather, it is about taking care of yourself, and expanding that care towards others as well. It is about mindful living, emotional resilience and being generous towards others.

The narrator of the book sites a research study that I found very interesting, and in many ways, parallels the thoughts of the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu. Sonja Lyubomirksy discovered there were ultimately three factors that significantly affect happiness:

1. The ability to reframe our situation more positively

2. The ability to experience gratitude

3. To choose to be kind and generous

Reframing Our Situations Positively

How does one reframe a situation in a more positive manner? The Dalai Lama had to flee his home in Tibet because of Chinese aggression. How has he reframed this experience? It seems that, without minimizing the loss, he realized that in some ways it gave him greater freedom. He had more access to the people, could be less formal, could engage more with other cultures, and could broaden his knowledge and ultimately, expand Buddhism itself.  The Archbishop struggled through apartheid and came out believing that the struggle was worth the freedoms and equality Africans now experience. It gave him the opportunity to speak out, become a leader, and cultivate patience and optimism.They both serve as examples in how to reframe our own difficult experiences. We can each challenge ourselves to find meaning in our experiences, positive and negative. We can ask: What was there to learn and in what ways have we grown? How can our experience frame new ways of being in the future?This happens all the time when I work with clients. We process difficult experiences. Those that can accept their reality and find meaning, can move on. Others who struggle with denial or anger, get mired in negativity. If, without denying the harm done to you, you can also forgive others, you can free up enormous energy, experience more ease and create new opportunities for yourself.  


It is much easier to focus on the negatives in our lives than the positives. We are, in fact, primed to attend to negatives. Our biological imperative is to survive, and we are wired to notice when something is amiss. That’s the job of our fear center, the amygdala, on alert 24/7, constantly checking to see if danger is near + if we’re safe of not.   Of course, we need it, but it does skew things. In response, we have to consciously account for the positive things, so we can balance out the negative appraisals that happen automatically.   This can helps us have a more realistic appraisal of our experiences. I find it helpful to acknowledge the things I’m grateful for first thing in the morning. Or, you might like the morning gratitude prayer of Thich Nhat Hahn which one of my friends often recites. I think making this a routine practice gives us more lightness and genuine appreciation for all the ways our lives harvest ease and privilege.  

Choosing to be Kind and Generous

I think the biggest obstacle to being kind and generous is the tendency to see yourself as a victim. To then feel your anger/unkind gestures are justified because of someone else’s behavior. While people do act in ways that are unthoughtful or unkind, let that be a statement of their character. We can realize it’s not about us, not our faults. We can feel what we feel, because something hurtful has happened, but learn to be thoughtful about our responses. I think it is that, a moment of pause, that allows us to consciously choose to be kind. A long time ago, I read a statement by Dr. Wayne Dyer that has stuck with me: “When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.” This is something we can all aspire to practice.