Is it Hard to be Happy?

24 Apr
“Happiness is a butterfly, which when pursued, is
just beyond your grasp, but which, if you will sit
quietly, may alight upon you.” ~Nathaniel Hawthorne

Some rights reserved by @boetter

Does it require work and effort to make ourselves happy? Or is it like Hawthorne says, something that will manifest itself if we are just still enough to let contentment find us?

In my personal journey and experience, I’ve found that it’s both. I think there are two different elements to creating happiness for ourselves: an easy way and a hard way – and they both play a role in our lives.

I’ll talk about the hard way first, and leave the easy one for the next post, because the hard way is the one that I experienced first, on Day Two of this project. The more difficult, conscious, striving way toward happiness is the one we have to work at: being introspective so that we truly get to know ourselves and figure ourselves out; making a real and continued effort to communicate with those close to us and improve our relationships; exploring and strengthening our own psyche to create our path in life.

I started off my Happiness Project in the first week with several practices. First of all, I created a list of simple day-to-day things that made me happy, with a commitment to have at least two of them in every day. My list, which I am sure I will add to, at the moment looks something like this (in no particular order):

  • Reading a good book
  • Cooking
  • Kisses and hugs from my guy
  • Yoga and Meditation
  • A nice hang-out with my daughter
  • Playing with my dog or taking her for a walk
  • A good movie
  • Planting flowers

I took this photo in a shop in Cuttack, India - 2010

I’ve also been reading the book The Art of Happiness by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Dr. Howard Cutler. When specific things come up in the book that are actions I want to take to increase my happiness, I make note of them. For example, one thing that greatly adds to my happiness is “Having close, intimate relationships with people I care about.” So my action associated with that was to write to people closest to me, expressing why I am grateful for them. I also started a Gratitude Journal where I jot things down that I’m grateful or appreciative of when they come to me.

These are all specific actions I’m working on to achieve greater happiness, rather than things that are more a matter of simply “being,” which I believe is also important. However, the aspect of the effort to attain greater happiness goes deeper than that. Sometimes, we have to go through greater suffering, uncomfortable or even painful times of growth that are difficult at the time, but ultimately lead to greatly increased happiness in the long run.

The very first Appreciation Letter I wrote, on the second day, was to my guy. It wasn’t a general expression of gratitude, but rather addressing a specific incident from the previous weekend, and why I was thankful to him about that. Well, it felt like that totally backfired on me. As we exchanged a few emails that morning, issues about the subject quickly appeared and suddenly, it was a conflict. We both latched onto things the other did or said that were upsetting, and we were at odds.

How did this happen? A fat lot of good it did me to try and be appreciative, I thought. After all, by that point, I was anything but happy – and so was my guy. Did it backfire on me? Was it worth it? How could an exercise in happiness actually make me unhappier?

Some rights reserved by katerha

But ultimately – and very quickly, within 48 hours – this misunderstanding and the issues it raised led to a number of things being clarified, communicated and discovered between the two of us. It was part of the path of our relationship, which gave us a chance to learn something new about the other and ultimately, understand each other just that much better. After it was all said and done, I felt even closer to him than before – which actually happens after every disagreement the two of us have. They bring us closer in the end.

So, that’s what I mean – this is a relatively minor example, and many such things are way bigger and more earth-shattering in our lives – but there are many times when we have to suffer a little, go through the rough spots in order to grow and learn in a way that creates more happiness in the long-term.

Two specific points in The Art of Happiness book that I related to this incident, and added to my Action list to incorporate:

All too often we perpetuate pain, keep it alive, by replaying our hurts over and over again in our minds, magnifying our injustices in the process. It is our own reinforcement of those negative emotions that makes them so much worse. Through constant familiarity and thinking, we ourselves can make our emotions more intense and powerful.

We also often add to our pain and suffering by being overly sensitive, overreacting to minor things, and sometimes taking things too personally. We tend to take small things too seriously and blow them out of proportion, while at the same time we often remain indifferent to the really important things, those things which have profound effects on our lives.

Therapists call this personalizing our pain – the tendency to narrow our psychological field of vision by interpreting or misinterpreting everything that occurs in terms of its impact on us.

Whether you suffer depends on how you respond to a given situation.”

I know that I do these things, and in our relationship I believe that we both do these things sometimes, to some extent. It’s human nature. But by being aware of it, we can make efforts to control it. That went on my action list: the next time I’m in a disagreement with my guy (or anyone else), I will try not to personalize it and focus on the minor “injustices” so that they become bigger; by leaving those less attended mentally they will become weaker. And at the same time, I will write down and focus on 5 things I really love and appreciate about the other person – by giving those my mental focus, they will become stronger. After all, if constant repeating and familiarization makes an emotion more powerful, don’t we want that to be the good emotions?

Where the mind goes, energy flows” one of my yoga instructors is fond of saying. You bet.

8 Responses to “Is it Hard to be Happy?”

  1. Leslie April 24, 2011 at 4:20 pm #

    I love this Shelley, I will definitely try to incorporate it into my life as well..:)

  2. Alexi April 25, 2011 at 3:33 pm #

    Great article, Shelley. A few thoughts that are in no way meant to take away from the wonderful observations you have made:

    I agree that is very important to ferret out nasty self-defeating, selfish, judgemental, and unkind thoughts. Often thoughts that come up over and over again because something significant has not been dealt with. These things need attention and quite likely require changes in relationships and choices for the thoughts to subside. Making changes in persistant dynamics in one’s life can be incredibly hard to do. Wallowing is one thing, but being unhappy because of very real circumstances is another. I could give many examples. It never ever hurts to acknowledge the good in life and to be grateful, of course. I practice this daily. But it does not solve all problems and does not make one immune to unhappiness.

    For a lot of people, whether you suffer also depends on whether you have mental or physical illnesses. Those are often a chicken or egg question. Which came first? And like a lot of other conditions (my sister’s numerous autoimmune and neurological diseases, for instance), pulling oneself up by the bootstraps and overcoming the illness may not be possible, in my opinion. There are many degrees of many illness. Fibromyalgia can be something one person has who can still lead a full and active life and go kayaking, for instance. Others suffer from the same disease to a far worse degree and can’t get out of bed. And sure, some people could have prevented the onset of many diseases. Type I diabetes can be prevented and cured by changing dietary habits. But others may have a predisposition for the disease that is far more difficult to control. I even know of cancer patients who were told they caused their disease by negative thinking and they could get rid of it with positive thinking. This may be true, but it certainly sounds simplistic and carries a lot of blame. I am just saying it is very slippery slope, and it is quite invalidating and hurtful to hear that being positve is the answer as the one suffering. I have been told by family and friends that I don’t need medication for my depression, but just needed to believe in myself and have a better outlook on life. I went off medication due to such peer pressure, and my depression came back and I became suicidal. I have had doctors who wanted to overmedicate me as well. It is a tricky balance. Now, I know that I am taking all this very personally, which is part of what the article suggests we do not do. But I am just throwing these thoughts out there because I think it is a small part of a very big and complicated picture.

    • Shelley Seale April 25, 2011 at 4:07 pm #

      Hi Alexi,
      Thanks so much for your thoughtful reply. I absolutely agree that when a certain thought or emotion comes up repeatedly, it is indicative of something that needs to be addressed. No doubt. I was certainly not implying, and didn’t get that impression from the book at all either, that one should ignore these things. It’s not at all a “positive thinking, pollyanna” attitude. What the book, and I, were more saying was that when we repeat things from the past over and over in our minds, or when we focus overly much on the negative aspects and emotions from any situation rather than the positive – then these things become much more powerful in our minds and feelings, and create part of our unhappiness.

      Absolutely, I also agree 100% that physical and mental illness can greatly affect all of these things. I would never say or believe that these are not factors. I am not at all saying that simply “positive thinking” cures all. Physical and mental illnesses create very real, difficult situations that must be realistically dealt with.

      However, one thing in your comments that I don’t agree with is the idea of being unhappy because of circumstances. That certainly doesn’t mean I’m not unhappy because of circumstances around me – it happens to me a lot! But I think ultimately, happiness is a completely internal thing that we create for ourselves. We cannot rely upon external people or situations to be happy. This is harder to do than to say, and is something I constantly work at. But if we can be made unhappy by outside factors, in the long run, then I don’t think we’ll ever be happy.

      A friend of mine posted the following comment on Facebook today in relation to this post; and he is someone who has battled cancer that came back to him TWICE. So, he has certainly dealt with significant challenges, and still says this:

      “I find that I can choose to be happy regardless of what is happening to me or around me. TRUE happiness is internal work and is wholly independent of outside forces such as relationships and such. To consistently be happy one cannot allow anything outside them to determine if they are happy or not. It may be self love, self esteem, healing old wounds, whatever that clears away the blocks and allows the realization that happiness is a choice. Once the person is willing to be happy they can be happy always if they so choose.”

      • Alexi April 25, 2011 at 4:18 pm #

        Yes, I hear you and agree for the most part. Acceptance of circumstances is huge. That is where I get hung up. I definitely counter feelings of hopelessness and frustration and even anger with thoughts along the lines of “it will be okay” and “things will improve.” But, one of many issues I am dealing with now is not having a job for over a year. I try to take it in stride and generally do feel happy. So, I think we are basically saying the same thing. But I just wanted to acknowedge that it is normal to have the full spectrum of emotions and there are times when not being at peace may even serve a purpose. Of course, trying to cause confict and adding to distress and being mean and so forth are not productive and not what I would encourage. It is all about being genuine. Sometimes you have to act happy before you are happy, and doing your best to being open to happiness is huge. Having a good attitude is huge. Not letting life pass you by while you sit in a puddle of self-pity is huge. I am overly sensitive about this whole line of thinking only because of my own personal situation. I had a horrible childhood and people in it constantly told me things were fine. That set me up to constanty be the one to point out problems. That seems to be what I am doing here, even. So, I don’t know. Something for me to look at.

  3. Shelley Seale April 25, 2011 at 4:51 pm #

    Alexi, I so agree! And I actually think that this line of thinking validates that concept of blame or other people telling you it’s okay, when it’s not. That is where our own internal happiness and thinking comes in – if we rely on what others say, their perceptions and their thoughts of us, and allow ourselves to dwell on that kind of negativity, how can we be happy? I also don’t think that is at all the same thing as saying “everything will be okay” or just denying the real problems. I think it tremendously HELPS us to deal with the real problem, when we don’t allow ourselves to focus on only the negative or replay the past in ways we can’t do anything but feel bad about. It’s simply not constructive to change and fixing the real problem and happiness, which is the whole point.

    I don’t think you are pointing out “problems” but engaging in very real, important ideas and I love your thoughts. Especially this one:
    “Sometimes you have to act happy before you are happy.”
    Absolutely. Acting the way we want to feel sometimes helps, especially if we’re just in a blah, stressed or rotten mood for no huge, important reason.
    Thanks for sharing!

  4. alexi April 26, 2011 at 9:12 am #

    Do you think if I act rich I will become rich? Ha ha! Of course, there is the law of attraction…


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