“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
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
- 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’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?
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.