I have been fortunate to have a lot of happiness in my life.
As I have aged though, I have gone through struggles. I believe most of us have. There have been times during those difficult periods when I succumbed to the unhappiness. I wallowed in it; I was not always nice (to myself or others); I surrounded myself with negativity. All aspects of my life suffered during those times – my health, my relationships, and my profession.
When I committed myself to this journey of self-enlightenment in my forties, I began to really think about the state of happiness. I read books discussing it. I informally talked to some experts. I observed people in my life that were either happy or unhappy.
I eventually decided that being happy was a choice that I could make. But it wasn’t always going to be easy. It requires consistent effort and, for me, involves focusing on three basic concepts.
In no way am I speaking to those of you who suffer from depression. I understand very little about that illness, but know that it is not a choice and that it is a constant battle.
Step one for me has been to attempt to set aside judgment. I judge myself most harshly; and now that I am more aware of the issue, I can see the damage that it does to me. I will catch myself internally beating myself up for something, and then I notice the almost immediate physical consequences of it. My shoulders round; my posture weakens; I retreat into myself. I am not projecting positive energy.
I also can be judgmental of others. I have lately started to examine those judgments and push back against them. I ask myself what is it in me that is causing me to reach that conclusion. I also try to look compassionately at what is in the other person’s life that may be causing them to act in a certain way. I have turned relationships around and incredibly deepened friendships by going through this exercise.
Secondly, I work very hard to recognize negative thoughts (in addition to judgments) in myself.
If you read my Fortytude post, you know that I tested very high with regard to cynicism on a personality test. You also know that I do not like personality tests. My dislike for them is largely centered around the fear and conclusion by many (including myself for a period of time) that what the test tells you IS your personality and you cannot change it.
I decided that cynicism is not part of my “personality.” To me, cynicism can be very negative. If someone says to me, “I can do a head stand in the middle of the room,” I want to immediately think “I am sure you can – and isn’t that amazing!” I do not want to react with an “I don’t think you can,” which is how a cynic would respond.
By my becoming much more conscious of the tendency to be cynical and questioning it, I believe my cynicism has faded over time.
I recently read a great article in the February 2012 Yoga Journal magazine entitled “Me and My Shadow,” in which the author, Sally Kempton, urges the reader to “shine a light” on their own negative tendencies and, over time, change them. “There is no magic bullet … for eliminating negativities. Instead, you need to bring them to consciousness, learn the lessons they have to teach you, and deliberately work with them.” As Sally concludes, “[c]hange doesn’t come from blindly trying to suppress or get rid of a negative tendency or by refusing to acknowledge a positive one. It comes through the power we gain by becoming aware of the actual tendency.”
There is one final concept that I try to focus on, and it is illuminated so beautifully through my work at a local homeless shelter. Once a week, I help homeless individuals study for their high school equivalency test, so that they can become more employable.
I have been so struck by the positive attitudes of these individuals. They have, literally, nothing from a material standpoint. Yet many of them have joy. They see lightness in situations in which I would never have seen it.
They have shown me that you can find happiness almost anywhere – you just have to make the effort to see it. It is so often within our control.
Another example of this came to me from one of my amazing yoga teachers. She told us how she was leaving the studio late one night just before Christmas and called her husband to tell him that she had to stop at Target for stocking stuffers and she was really dreading it. His response to her was that if she was going to go, she needed to “love it.” She embraced that attitude, went into the holiday rush at Target and was able to find joy.
My husband and I have both been trying this approach and have been amazed by its power. If I am dreading a situation, I find something about it that is positive, and I focus on it. I commit myself to “loving it” – and my whole attitude changes. I am able to find happiness in a situation in which I was anticipating misery.
By making these efforts, which may seem oversimplified to you, I have had tangible results in my own life. It almost feels like I am physically making room within myself for happiness and joy, by removing the negativity.
Try it. What do you have to lose?