Image courtesy of Arwen Abendstern
Do you find yourself consistently miserable and stressed? I used to but now even my infamous ‘grumpy-old-man’ moods are underpinned by a strong undercurrent of contentment and joy. Why? Because along the way I have learned some awesome ideas that helped me to discover deep and lasting happiness. Here’s 7 of them…
1. Stop Looking for Happiness
When I was growing up my mother was often depressed. At the time I had never experienced this (it came later) and I didn’t understand it. By the time I was about twenty I figured out one reason why she was so regularly unhappy: because she was focusing on wanting to be happy too much.
I gave her a cheesy embroidery piece in a frame (warning: cheesy, but actually works) which said:
“Happiness is like a butterfly: If you chase it, it flies away, but when you turn your attention to other things, it comes and quietly lands on your shoulder.”
I have no idea if she ever really got anything out of that, but soon after she started to study accounting, and went on to become a practicing accountant. She had always enjoyed numbers and so she was quite happy with this career path, which was her first ever full-time job outside of the home.
She also began to develop an interest in gardening which soon blossomed into a full-on passion to which she willingly surrenders the bulk of her leisure time.
So although accountancy and gardening may not be your idea of fun (nor mine), for my mother, the two combined still hands-down beat all the church groups, personal development courses and self-help books that she used to burn through. By focussing on her passions, she went from being regularly depressed to what she is now: a peaceful-soul content with her lot in life.
2. Put Theory Into Practice
If you are anything like me, you get to the parts of a self-help book where the author recommends that you should actually do what he is teaching and skip past them with a vague thought of “I’ll do that later, after I’ve finished the whole book”.
That’s all very well if you actually follow through, but do you? I often don’t (to my detriment) and it may be because I am a little addicted to self-help books and tend to always be on the look out for my next ‘hit’.
News Flash: Reading theory doesn’t usually actually get anything done. That’s why it’s called theory: it’s the opposite of practical action.
I was very depressed when I was in my mid-late twenties and so, desperate for a solution to the problem, I started reading lots of books about meditation for the first time.
I read all kinds of books about all kinds of styles of meditation and eventually I came to be aware of two common themes that they all shared. No matter how varied the details of the various meditation gurus and schools out there, they all say two things:
- Meditation offers many benefits, one being a more positive outlook on life
- Reading about it isn’t enough; you must practice it.
So eventually I had to put the books down, sit up straight and try meditation for myself.
It worked, by the way, so…
3. Learn How to Meditate
It doesn’t matter who you learn through or what style, just give it a go. If you are seeking deep, lasting happiness then it is a major milestone in your journey.
But for goodness sake, if you find yourself with any teacher who tells you that their way is the only way, get out. Chances are they are either misguided, delusional or downright manipulative. There is no right way to meditate; all roads lead to Rome.
When I was particularly despondent one evening, I invented (to my knowledge) this cool method of meditation that really helped me to get back on the good-foot, I called it…
4. Dwell in the Angst
Here’s how it works:
- Your really depressed or angsty or whatever and you want to feel better
- So you sit up straight and you just concentrate on how bad you feel
- You just let yourself feel it as intensely as possible; dwell on it as much as you can. Feel how crap your situation is, how rotten life is, what an A-hole he or she is. That kind of thing.
- Cry your eyes out if you need to, scream and rant and pull out your hair of you want to (but don’t do any serious self-harm please).
- Eventually the feelings will run their course. There’s only so long a person who is not clinically depressed can feel this intense level of angst before the feelings will start to subside. Why? I don’t know really, I guess you’ve just released all that pent-up energy and felt it all at once rather than bottling it all up and drip-feeding yourself misery.
- Now do some deep breathing and refer to the next point…
5. Get a Sense of Universal Perspective
You are very, very insignificant in the big scheme of things. Physically you are tiny. The time you will be alive is a mere blip in the history of the universe, if that. Same goes for all of us.
This need not be depressing, however. In fact I find it empowering.
Why would you get depressed about the way your life is when it really matters so little? If you never find your Prince Charming or get the promotion you have been striving for, what difference does it make in the overall scheme of things? Very little.
You might say “Hey Buddy, it makes a difference to ME”, but that is not some rigid fact – it’s just your choice. You can choose to get all pent up about the details of your life or you can choose not to fix as much value on outcomes. You can choose to relax and let go of your attachment to these fixed ideas in your head about you and how your story should pan out.
And if you do you might just realize that you are free. You are a tiny, little, minute, insignificant bug and you are free to be happy right now, right here, and forever, if only you will choose to be so.
6. Decide What Your One Thing is and Stick to it
You must search your heart and discover (or re-discover) what the one thing you want to do with your life is, and then you must stick to that at all costs.
This theory, called Curly’s Law, has been around for a long time, but is really beginning to gain traction because it solves a common problem that is crippling many people these days: Choice Stress.
This can be illustrated by the hapless consumer who strides into the supermarket intent on one simple thing, a carton of milk, and finds themselves trapped in there for 15 minutes, wandering around in a daze, completely scuttled by the array of choices he or she is faced with. Whole milk, one-percent, skinny, bio-dynamic, calcium enriched, soy milk, rice milk, organic, etc., etc.…
The same applies to the over arching purpose of your life. In the first world, despite pessimistic noises to the opposite, there are so many options available to you now as to what you can do with your life. Opportunities abound – but if you do not choose a single definite major purpose then you will simply bounce from shiny-thing to shiny-thing without ever making any real progress. And this will leave you unfulfilled.
For some reason it is important to your mental and spiritual health to feel that you are working towards a goal that for you holds meaning AND that this work is also meaningful along the way so that you can …
7. Get Your Head Out of the ‘Future Fantasy’
No. I’m not saying to stop playing computer games. It’s something else altogether.
This is where point 6 forms a feedback loop with point 5. Point 6 says you must choose One Thing (one goal) and stick to it. Point 5 advises you to remain detached from outcomes.
These two points may seem a bit contradictory, but in fact they are complementary.
Embrace the paradox. Choose a goal that you absolutely must achieve and work your butt off towards attaining this goal and meanwhile completely detach from the result and you will experience the form of deep lasting happiness that is called ‘flow’.
That’s why you must enjoy doing your One Thing along the way. You’ve got to love the work itself, not just pin your hopes for being happy on attaining the result.
Because results don’t always bring happiness, and when they do, they tend not to last. And results themselves tend to fade, which means they will require constant upkeep so you must enjoy the process of working towards your goal.
The way to do this is by getting your head out of the Future Fantasy. Don’t think “I’ll be happy when …” because you won’t. The only time you have to be happy is NOW and being happy now takes practice and is not determined by external factors alone.
So next time you are working away towards your big goal and you are feeling irritated and are just grunting your way through the work with half your mind on the next pleasure stop (coffee, lunch, the pub, whatever) stop for a minute and just be here now.
Because NOW is all you’ve got – don’t miss it.
Get your head out of the Future Fantasy.
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