The Four Keys To Happiness
It’s supposedly what we’re all striving for. Also, it is what this blog is all about.
Americans are so focused on it that one of our founding principles is the “inalienable right” to the pursuit of happiness. Oftentimes it seems that happiness is just out of reach, however. We think that with just a little more money, just a little more free time, or just a few more fancy toys, we’ll finally reach the happiness we’ve wanted for so long.
When you really take time to examine happiness from the perspective of those who have actually attained it, you may be surprised to find that many of the things you think are required really aren’t all that important.
Money? Sure, it can make things easier, but desiring more and more often gets in the way of true happiness.
Material possessions? They can certainly bring joy to your life, but they also come with great responsibilities that may outweigh their benefits.
So much of what is required for real happiness comes from within us, rather than from external sources. It makes sense when you think about it. Happiness is a feeling, not a tangible material object. Our feelings are dictated by our mood, perspective, and attitude. Therefore, taking control of those things has far more potential to create happiness than having all the money and “stuff” in the world.
Key #1: Gratitude
“Gratitude” has become a bit of a buzzword as of late. It seems that everyone from Oprah to your kids’ schoolteacher is talking about keeping journals of the things that make you grateful or cultivating an “attitude of gratitude.” These ideas may seem a bit trite, but the fact of the matter is that they really do seem to have a very positive effect on a person’s overall happiness.
The key here is to learn to truly become grateful for what you have. Rather than always comparing your situation to everyone else’s, you are able to recognize the blessings that you have in your own life. Some people take this idea to extremes, being grateful for the lessons they’ve learned from severe illnesses or surviving a natural disaster. While this can be a wonderfully enlightened outlook on life, simply being appreciative of a roof over our heads and enough food to eat is a great place to start.
Being grateful for what you have doesn’t mean that you can’t desire more or strive for more. In fact, you probably ought to include the ability to continually work to better your situation as one of the items in your gratitude journal. If you don’t already keep this kind of diary, it’s a great exercise and helps you to automatically begin to focus on the positive aspects of your life. Simply spend a few minutes each day or evening writing a list of those things for which you are particularly grateful that day. If you make a point not to repeat items, you will find that after a few weeks, you have a lot to be grateful for in your life!
Key #2: Letting Go
When you are consciously pursuing happiness, you will discover that you probably need to change your old thinking patterns from time to time. This can be an extremely difficult thing to do. Not only do our patterns make us feel safe, but in many cases, they have been hard-wired into our brains after years of working in a certain way. Changing our automatic thinking can be uncomfortable at first, but the payoff is huge.
One of the most powerful ways to change your thinking, as well as to allow yourself to truly be happy, is to let go of old emotional baggage. Obviously, this is much easier said than done. For some people, taking such a huge step may actually require counseling. For others, though, it is a matter of making your happiness a priority.
In order to do this, you may need to let go of old grudges, excuse previous slights, and possibly even extend forgiveness to yourself. You might start by making a list of those things that have been bothering you for a while. For example, maybe your mother-in-law offended you at your wedding or your own mother wasn’t as affectionate with you as you would have liked when you were a child. Your list can also include things you’ve done that you regret.
Once you’ve made this list, take time to go through and forgive yourself or the other person for each item. Some of them will be harder than others, and when you get stuck, ask yourself if holding on to that old pain is really more important than creating true happiness for yourself in the present.
Key #3: Reacting to the World
It has been said that while we cannot control the world around us, we can control how we react to it. This idea, when really accepted, can have a huge impact on your personal happiness. Don Miguel Ruiz, in his book The Four Agreements, sums it up by saying, “Don’t take anything personally.” What this idea tries to convey is that others make their own decisions based on how they perceive reality; and you really don’t have any control over that. If you focus on your own perceptions instead of theirs, you create a much happier existence for yourself.
The Four Agreements also talks about the idea of not making assumptions. How many times in your life have you experienced unnecessary drama or pain because someone (even you) has made an inaccurate assumption? Rather than assuming you know what someone is saying or their motivation for certain actions, take the time to ask a few questions and to relay what you think you are hearing back to the person. Of course, this also means that you should try to communicate your thoughts and ideas as clearly as possible to try and avoid misunderstandings on the other end.
By not owning other people’s misunderstandings or even their negative words or actions, you are able to free up a great amount of time and energy in your own life. When you take responsibility for how you act and react in the world, you give yourself much more of an opportunity for real happiness.
Key #4: Being Present
Each of the ideas I’ve presented so far really has something to do with this one. Being present means recognizing what is happening in a moment and allowing yourself to be a part of it. After all, you’re not living this life in order to be a spectator, right? While you may have taken the above advice and let go of much of your old baggage, you may also recognize that you have a tendency to always look to the future. When you’re constantly focused on what you will have and what you want to have, it becomes harder to recognize and appreciate what you do have.
Part of being present includes being an active participant in your interpersonal relationships. Humans have a need to connect with one another, but with such hectic lives, many of us find ourselves doing so in a perfunctory way. When you sit down to speak with someone, for example, do you give him or her your full attention, or are you sending a text message, composing an email, or making a grocery list in your mind at the same time?
“Would you keep a chive on your tooth just because you
enjoyed last night’s potato?”
-From the television show Boston Common-
In order to be present, put away these other distractions, even if it’s only for a few minutes. Look the person in the eye if you’re face-to-face, and make sure to occasionally summarize what he or she is saying to ensure you’re comprehending fully. Really contemplate what is being said to you, rather than just waiting for “your turn” to speak in the conversation. These are “active listening” techniques that will help you develop your relationships while making a conscious effort to be present.
The suggestions outlined in this post offer an interesting paradox because each of them is both incredibly complex and strikingly simple at the same time. If you were able to implement just these four ideas on a daily basis, I have no doubt that you would see an almost immediate improvement in your level of happiness.
Take a few days to let them sink in and start trying them out.
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Posted on October 16, 2009