How to be Happy – 7 Rules of Happiness
I tend to see the concept of happiness as slightly misleading or let’s say, inappropriately used sometimes. On the one hand I don’t think that happiness is a permanent state where once you reach it, you’ll be forever free from moments of turbulence. On the other hand, it isn’t a fleeting and transient state which comes and go depending on the content of the experience.
For instance, feeling a mood uplift by an unexpected contact from an old friend isn’t really happiness when that experience suddenly melts away as you continue your day. I believe happiness is the way we relate to life and give it meaning and comes from a general attitude, or rather, a set of attitudes towards it.
If I had to short-list these attitudes on how to be happy, I would put in the following, not necessarily reflecting any priority or importance:
1. Emotional Freedom & Flexibility
Our emotional life is a roller-coaster. It goes from moments of exhilaration and joy to moments of denial, frustration or despair. Human emotions are a turbulent affair. Many would say that the key to self-mastery and balance in life is to have control of your emotions or keeping them under check. I think that control is too hard a concept and it doesn’t reflect the way things really work or should work out for that matter.
I believe that rather than ‘controlling’ our emotions, which might mean repressing them, we should give them space and freedom in a conscious manner. The keyword here is conscious.
After all, falling victim to our emotions or being overtaken by them is a question of losing our conscious awareness rather than not being able to control them. So when the proverbial stuff hits the ceiling fan and we feel a sudden surge of emotions such as anger, fear and resentment, we regain balance by momentarily giving space to these emotions and allowing them to pass us by without allowing them to linger for too long or take residence in our life.
Confronting them, analyzing them or feeling worse because you had them in the first place is not only futile but also counter-productive. In the Bon tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, it is believed that both negative and positive emotions leave so-called karmic traces that affect our lives and future lives.
The practice in this tradition is to be conscious when emotions arise, give them the space to emerge but let them vent off and dissolve as quickly as they arise. It is like opening both the front door and the backdoor at the same time and let them in and out of the building without stopping by.
This makes a lot of sense to me both in theory and in practice. The ugly side of emotions, and the one which makes them dangerous and harmful, is their ‘stickiness’. If they stay longer than they should, they turn toxic and start consuming us.
So the bottom-line is that, happiness requires a degree of emotional freedom as against repressing them, or worse, letting them stick for too long.
A common trait amongst people who lead a happy life is that while they do have their downturns just like anybody else, it passes them by quickly without leaving any long term trace or impact in their lives. It slides off them and as soon as it comes they are already back to their normal self and in their high spirits.
The biggest source of frustration, resentment and anger is denial or rather the lack of accepting the way things are or turned out to be. When things go wrong or don’t quite turn out the way we wanted them, we feel we have been shoved aside by life. We feel that life is a set of hostile forces that are always pushing against our will and intentions.
We feel embittered by loss, financial difficulties, layoffs, relationship problems and a million other possible things life can throw at us.
When we fail to accept things for what they are we are making it a hundredfold harder on ourselves. We create inner turbulence and end up in a battle within ourselves. On a similar note to the point about emotional freedom, lack of acceptance makes our low-key emotions sticky since we keep on ruminating over the same things without letting them go. In fact accepting is letting go without fighting or resisting.
This does not mean that we should be lethargic or resign to all adversities we face. What it means is that happiness requires an attitude which allows you to let go when you know you need to let go instead of banging your head against an unsolvable issue. It requires a certain amount of openness and flexibility to face the outcome and integrate it in your life without letting it break you or define you.
This reminds me of the serenity prayer which I believe goes:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
Some say it’s all about perspective. I tend to agree to a large extent. The way you look at a situation, be it a temporary setback, a difficult situation or even any normal set of circumstances, affects how you feel about it and how you go about it. The same situation can turn into an insurmountable problem or a stepping stone to a solution depending on our perspective of it.
We all have a sufficient repertoire of experiences to attest to this. How many times have you turned a seemingly dead end into a passage of life by shifting your perspective? Shifting your perspective, however, requires a certain degree of openness and playfulness.
Life often shows you that you cannot keep on fighting a problem by approaching it from the same angle no matter how much courage, force or stamina you pull together. You need to break free from your fixed point of view and turn the angle of view by a few degrees.
You need to change your evaluation of the situation or formulate different questions.
- “What if the situation is less critical than I make it to be?”;
- “What is the worst thing that can happen?”;
- “How will the problem change if I understand better what my end goals are?”;
- “Perhaps if I sacrifice this short-term goal for that end result, the situation can be an overall win”;
- “How can I use this obstacle today to sharpen my tools and learn how to approach the situation better next time?”
The above questions are mere examples which show how you can play around a given situation and access a wider angle of view through which you can change its meaning or its value. Changing your perspective can, more importantly, unlock you from your habitual emotional response to a given problem.
Looking at a situation from a different angle can quite easily change the way you feel about it. It can give you a sudden shot of courage, a surge of motivation or an a-ha moment where you align your view to the solution rather than the narrow lines of the problem itself.
4. Trust and Openness
Lack of trust naturally makes you close yourself in. Let’s say you’re in a circle of people you don’t trust – you end up concealing your intentions and opinions by fear of disclosing too much information to others who might use it to your disadvantage. You also end up interpreting, or perhaps misinterpreting, the others’ action as potential threats or as deceitful. This in turn shuts you in even further up to a point where you can no longer relate to the others in any meaningful way.
The same thing applies to life in general. If you distrust those things that life is presenting to you, whether they are opportunities or challenges, you will finally end up unable to relate to those circumstances in any meaningful way. You will look at those life situations as adversities rather than as opportunities for growth and improvement. This creates more friction and inertia which makes things feel harder than they actually are.
We very often over-analyze a situation and start relating it to other similar past experiences. Instead of opening up to it as a fresh new opportunity, we limit it by our expectations based on our past experiences. If something has seemingly failed us in the past we will look at a similar situation with distrust and caution. This rationality can be very helpful depending on the situation but when applied too liberally, it builds up a defense system which can end up in a general attitude of distrust.
Happiness has a lot to do with an attitude of trust and openness. When you open up to life, you change the way you relate to it and this it turns gives you that lightness in your step and the emotional freedom to glide through any circumstance with ease and less friction.
Try to remember of two typical situations in your life :
- In one situation you were fearful and worried about a problem. You were scared that things might turn bad or get out of control. You spent endless hours feeling anxious and perturbed with the problem.
- In another situation, you were trustful that things will eventually turn out all right no matter what. You were more relaxed an open to whatever life brings forward. You just let it happen without trying to keep control of the situation. Which of the two situations brought the better result?
Which one was an easier process? In which attitude do you think happiness fits in?
5. Pickup up & Amplify the Signals
Happiness can emerge both out of spontaneity as well as by conscious intent, particularly by being selective where we put our attention. Attention is central to conscious living. If we choose to focus our attention on the positive rather than on the negative, this can drive us towards feeling lighter, optimistic and happier about the things, big or small, happening in our life.
The opposite is also true; if we focus our attention more on the problems and the setbacks, it eventually drags us down and makes us feel heavier and less optimistic about life in general.
As in the point about perspective, we are free to choose the narrative of our life – whether we interpret it with a positive or negative overtone. Optimistic people are naturally skilled at picking up the positive signals no matter how small or interspersed they are amongst less positive ones. They focus their attention on those signals and amplify them while attenuating the negative ones. We all have this control at our disposition whether it comes natural or not.
So, the road to happiness is once again a choice rather than a mere happenstance.
It boils down to how we use our filters on life. The levers are there for all of us to push up or down but we have to be conscious that we have the choice and the freedom to do so.
6. Zooming Out & Zoning In
We often feel we are stuck in a moment and the whole world is tumbling down on us. Yet that is all it is – being stuck in a moment. In difficult moments, we put our blinkers on and subjectively feel that our difficulty is special or there to stay. All we need to do is zoom out of that moment and ask ourselves what force does that difficulty has in relation to our whole lifetime. Will it have the same hold on us in a year’s time? Did other bigger problems in the past stay or leave?
Seeing it from a zoomed out point of view helps us reach more objective grounds that jolts us out of the momentary feeling of helplessness or insecurity. Once again it’s also a matter of changing our perspective from the immediacy of the problem, where it feels more solid and threatening, to a longer view where we can appreciate the problem outside of its here and now.
Another thing which makes a difficult situation harder than it actually is, is when we put all the problems in one big pile. It’s like trying to make a tall inventory list of all the things not going as they should, then measure how much your life sucks. This is of course overwhelming and disarming. It’s definitely not a motivational boost.
What you need is to zone in on a problem at a time without connecting it to another. If you think you cannot tackle a problem now, leave it aside and zone in on another you know you can work on. Once again it shows that we have the freedom to be selective where we put our attention on.
7. Leveraging on the Human Connection
There are also moments where we feel discouraged or helpless because the problem is too big or taxing for us to solve on our own. This is perfectly natural. We don’t have to go alone all the way.
Sometimes we forget the obvious – that there are always friends and people we trust who we can rely upon for help. Do not shy away from asking help and don’t get locked up in pride either. Everyone has problems but not everyone has to sort out problems at the same time.
Hence if you feel that you can’t garner enough courage or energy to tackle a given situation, you can always leverage a bit on other people’s energy. You can use your connections to work for you.
Life can be a whole lot easier if we don’t always struggle on our own. More importantly, and relevant to the path to happiness, studies show that having a social safety net or having support when you need it leads to an overall happier life. In short, it is one of the rules of happiness.
Summing it all up
All the points above intertwine and intersect around a few important ideas on how to be happy. First and foremost, happiness emerges out of a certain set of attitudes we adopt towards life in general.
Emotionally, it is about allowing and accepting rather than forcing or controlling. We can also pave the way to a happier life by changing our point of view and being more selective on where and how to focus our attention on. In many cases, we have the freedom to choose what cues to pick up and reinforce and which others to filter out. Last but not least, we always have the favorable option to seek the help and support of others around us.
Put together, some or all of these approaches to life can work together in perfect synergy and change how you relate and give meaning to the currents of life in a positive way that is conducive to happiness.