The number one response patients give me when I ask them why they came to therapy is "I just want to be happy." It seems reasonable enough. When we look around at other people, watch Netflix or scroll through Instagram and Facebook, everybody looks so happy so why aren't I? The answer is simple and yet difficult to grasp all at the same time. Nobody is happy and you don't need to be.
In order to understand why happiness shouldn’t be the focus of our lives, first we need to look more deeply into what role happiness plays in all of our lives. The answer is in the question. Ask yourself what is happiness and can it be measured. Is happiness a feeling of joy? How long should it last? Is it what happens once I get everything I want....once I get the one I want? How do if I know I am truly happy? The dictionary describe happiness and the state of being happy. If happiness is only a state, that must mean it only last so long and then transitions into some other state, for instance disappointment, confusion, excitement or anger. Essentially, happiness is an emotion, one among many that has a beginning, middle and end….something that comes and goes as we navigate the world. Constant happiness is a term used to describe something that does not exist in the real world.
Psychologists generally agree that the only people who are consistently happy are either manic, intoxicated or in a new romantic relationship. In this state of consciousness, people have a tendency to make unwise choices with lasting negative implications. It is also thought that while these people enjoy the ride while its happening, there is always a price to be paid. The inevitable coming down from their altered state of happiness is typically riddled with anguish and self-doubt.
Is it possible to measure an emotional state? After all, emotion is subjective and can only be recorded based on self-report. There are many online "happiness scales" which attempt to give direct feedback concerning your level of happiness. But ultimately, much like an idea or premonition, it is very hard to measure with any real reliability.
There is however one aspect of happiness which is quite concrete. Different cultures view and describe this sensation or state of being differently. In fact, the entire idea of "the pursuit of happiness" and the fact that if you ask most Americans what their long-term goals are, happiness is on that list. Not necessarily so for other cultures. Asian people often cite service, honor and contribution to society as far more important than happiness. Russian cultures cite work ethic, achievement and property ownership as primary long-term goals. There is an endless list of entire civilizations (Indian, Thai, African and even Japanese) that do not focus on happiness at all as a priority in life and yet they seem well..... happier at least. Could unhappiness actually reside in expectations of how life is supposed to be vs. how it actually is?
The trick is to not be unhappy. Sounds like a contradiction, right? How can I avoid unhappiness without making an effort to be happy? Here is how. Don’t avoid unhappiness. Its just as important to experience times of unhappiness as it is to engage in hygiene and good sleep practices. Avoiding unhappiness is an American concept riddled with toxicity. Try instead to live with mindfulness as a key focus of life rather than happiness. There are six primary resources which keep us well. Every day that we strive to put these aspects of life first, the closer we are to living well. When you are living well, happiness happens naturally and becomes secondary… revealed for what it really is, a passing emotional state to signify moments of joy or satisfaction in reaction to external/internal events.
Listed below are 6 life hacks and strategies to living with more mindfulness. The happiness bit will make a cameo when the time is right.
Connection to Nature
Go outside…anywhere you can find that is comprised mostly of natural elements rather than development, clutter and electronics. Sit quietly or lie down and close your eyes. What do you hear? What do you smell? What body sensations do you notice? Mostly importantly, pay attention to how your body and mind connects to its surroundings. Mindfulness training is based on this and has been used for thousands of years to help people make sense of a chaotic and painful existence. Connecting to nature might not sound like an obvious way to improve quality of life but that is only because we are so often deprived of one of the most basic elements of our human psychology: the natural world.
Long ago, no matter how stressful the world may have been, human beings always had an opportunity to take a break from the logic, problem solving, conflict and worries by walking outside, sleeping somewhere where the sounds and smells of the world still floated in and out of our brains, eat a meal while listening to birds chirping and insects marching. Although we may look and act a lot different from the other creatures of the animal kingdom, our existence is not that different and our origins all began from nature. In fact, the more time we spend surrounding ourselves with the natural world, the more we come to realize how we are just a very small part of a enormous and complex environment, which does not take into account our needs and wishes.
Research shows that just 30 minutes a day of walking outside, exploring a new terrain or sitting quietly in the sunlight or near a natural body of water, can reduce stress by more than 50%. The problem is, you'd be surprised how seldom we actually get exposure to any of those things. So when you're asking yourself why aren't I happy, try to engage in specific behaviors that are known to shift our focus from internal happiness to elements of life we actually have control over, for example, spending some of our free time out in nature where our thoughts can drift and let go of the troubles from the day. In essence, nature equals perspective. And perspective reduces unhappiness.
Move Your Body
Research shows that no matter how we try to avoid it or deny that its true, it is impossible to be well or stable without daily exercise. Many people get tripped up on exercise because they have a tendency to attach exercise to how their body looks and how they want their body to look which sets up unrealistic expectations and avoidance. No matter how you look at it, where you live or what culture you come from the bottom line is moving your body everyday is paramount to managing mental and physical health. Without it we don’t function well. We don’t sleep well. We don’t manage stress well. And the list goes on for days. Its all connected.
Walking is generally considered not much exercise in America culture but this sentiment couldn’t be further from the truth. Walking just 30-60 minutes a day, riding a bike or swimming or even gardening is enough physical exertion to get your heart rate up, blood pumping and little bit of sweat. Once these three things are achieved your body produces dopamine and serotonin, the neurotransmitters we all need to feel well.
So the next time you notice you are irritable, tired or feeling down or craving processed food, try moving your body or going for a walk for even just 15 minutes and see how you feel immediately afterwards and for the rest of the day. Body movement has an immediate effect on feeling good and continues to build the more you do it. Start slow and work your way up and remember, changing the way your body looks is not going to make you happy. Its about getting the exercise you need which in turn will change eating hobbits, sleep patterns and your relationships. The body shape part will come in time if you set it as a long-term goal with mindfulness as your right hand man.
A Sense of Community
Belonging to a chosen or innate community is something precious that is no longer a part of our day-to-day lives. Thousands, hundreds and even tens of years ago humans lived in communities which consisted of groups within the communities. Whether it was belonging to a religious house, the local mothers, sisters, aunts and female friends in the village or group of fisherman or farmers people tended to group together based on where they lived but also what interested them or was part of their daily lives. In modern society, our houses and even neighborhoods have gotten bigger but our communities and sense of belonging has shrunk. There is a way to simulate the communities that once existed and still do in many parts of the world.
New mothers find themselves isolated and without support and single people go to bars and dating aps to get some semblance of socializing they need. Not a great resource for building true connections which our psychology is based on.
Three things happen when you are part of a community chosen or not. One you have a sense of belonging and comradery which is pack behavior and part of our DNA. Its an unspoken feeling that tells you "I am part of a group of people and I belong." You are also naturally interacting with folks you have common interests in which helps foster more meaningful connections. It is the opposite of loneliness. Loneliness is the number one predictive factor of mental health problems.
The second thing belonging to a community gives us is purpose. Most people that are part of a community no matter how big or small play a designated role in that group of people. This could be making the coffee at an AA meeting or the person in your Boxer rescue organization who sends out monthly newsletters. The point is that when we belong to a community, we take on roles that help solidify our identity as we identify through a useful role. This is good for mental health as most of my patients reports a lack of identity and feeling of purpose.
The third benefit of belonging to a community for mental health reasons is that its simply distraction. When you are part of a group of people they usually have planned activates and events. You may not even go to all of the mindfulness retreats your community offers but the important thing is that you know its available to you. Resources is what protects us from mental health symptoms and episodes. The more resources you have, the more likely you are to utilize them if you start to notice a dip in your mood or an uptick in your anxiety. I'd really like to tell you that managing depression and anxiety is more complicated than at times keeping yourself engaged in healthy and productive behaviors but its not. The truth is, the old school sayings are true. "Idle hands are the devil's playground."
It is true that obvious communities of people are not as prevalent as they were in the turn of the 20th century but they do still exists. You just have to mindfully brainstorm what is a natural community you are already part of but don't participate for example the alumni association at your college or single dad's in Boca Raton. Think of something that interests you, people you would like to find or activities you might like like biking to beaches in South Florida. Actively reach out to that group and find out if those are your people. I think you will find that the more time you spend around the same people week after week, the more content you will feel on the inside. Is that happiness....you tell me. Remember I said in the beginning of this article my belief system is that happiness is an emotion that has a beginning, middle and end. Satisfaction, belonging, wellness and engagement are much healthier goals to work towards.
Plan your date and week in writing by the hour. Yes I’m serious. It can be on your phone or in an actual planner from Barnes and Noble. It might sound tedious, but you will be surprised how much our psyche and wellbeing relies on routine and structure. Human beings thrive on knowing what to do when. Every hour in every day can be planned including free time.
When you are sitting in a quiet space with a moment to yourself think carefully what you want to designate each hour of your day to including eating, sleeping and exercise. Write it all down and don’t beat yourself up if you don’t stick to the plan perfectly. The idea is to get into a routine and allow your brain and body to know what to expect when. Soon the rhythms of your life will begin to flow more naturally and stress and anxiety will dissipate as you have made time for important things in life and move towards a balance.
Research shows that children in school, soldiers in the military and even patients in residential mental health program begin to show improvement in all aspects of well being when abiding by a regiment schedule which incorporates time for work, play and wellness. You can even schedule time to worry just so long as its on the books.
Service & Usefulness
As a clinical psychologist, I have found that one of the things that drives the most unhappiness is too much focus on oneself. Ultimately, we are our own worst critic and negative distorted thinking about ourselves is common in the human psyche. One of the best ways to get out of your head and plugged into the real world is through service. What kind of service? That’s up to you. What speaks to you? What in the world would you like to see improved? We live in a world desperately in need of small changes that add up into a big one. For some people it might be community services or joining a philanthropic organization. For others it might be helping out a neighbor or paying it forward once a week.
Whatever you choose make sure its consistent and it doesn’t have to be 100% altruistic. Its okay to be useful in your community or provide a service in your life because you know its going to help you feel and function better. You don’t need to be Mother Theresa but living with intention each day and understanding that operating daily solely for your own personal gain is not actually what makes us happy. When you wake up in the morning in stead of asking yourself what am I getting out of life, what am I getting from my spouse or my kids, what can I consume or be entertained by today, instead try asking yourself what can I contribute today? Make small changes in a world that needs small changes and watch as your perspective can shift.
There is an inner peace and joy that comes from being of use. There you will find a shepherd that will guide you away from your inner demons if only for a few moments and give you the gift of focusing on the other…someone or something else. It is in these moments that happiness becomes less important and being of value through service shines through. It is in these moments that you may start to see yourself as an integral part of the world put here not just to have a good time but to provide something important that only you can create.
Create long and short-term goals and review those goals each week. Humans don’t’ function well without purpose. We have a deep inner need to work towards something and yet you’d be surprised how many people come to therapy and have no idea what their goals are. When you are young, long and short-term goals are given to you. For example, you must finish middle-school and then high-school. Many of us feel we must meet someone and start a family. Find a job and build a home. These are all goals imbedded into our society that were created by someone that you do not know and a society that you do not recognize. Creating personal goals sets your life in motion with intention so that each day works towards something that speaks to you.
Long-term goals are something you want in the next year or several years. Short-term goals are in the next few days, weeks or month or two. Write them down. Tell people close to you about them so that they become real and you are accountable. Goals gives us a purpose each day instead of just living life as a series of knee-jerk reactions to another.
Will setting long and short-term goals make you happy? No….happiness is a temporary state of mind that comes and goes with the weather and seasons of your life. But living with purpose and knowing what you are doing and why will create more wellness and stability, laying the foundation for more happy moments than not. Contentment is something that comes when we feel satisfied with how our life is going. But in order to find contentment we must first take the steering wheel and push towards the direction that is ours alone.
Be Mindful…..Not Happy
Happiness….the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Somehow we never quite get there but feel sure we once were so close. Stop trying to be happy….no seriously stop. We have a tendency to think that what we need is happiness and that when we are not happy that something is seriously wrong. In reality, mindfulness teaches us that suffering is a good thing and is the vehicle that takes us exactly where we need to go. When we suffer our perspective changes and it lends to us compassion for ourselves, compassion for others. Suffering provides value in our day-to-day existence and forgiveness of ourselves and others.
The closest we can hope to come to happiness is through wellness and striving for body and mind stability. Nature, exercise, community, structure, service and purpose are 6 key components to reaching wellness and stability. These life hacks coupled with putting an end to avoiding suffering is the doorway to a new existence. A life with meaning and less attachment to assumption on how you think your life should be is mindfulness. Making room for things to be exactly what they are and exactly what they aren’t is how we’ll make our way towards being More Mindful.
If this article spoke to you and you are interested in learning specific Mindfulness techniques to improve your mental health contact us today. The doctors of MorMindful Therapy & Psychiatry of Boynton Beach and Boca Raton are specifically trained in mindfulness intentions and cognitive behavioral systems to propel you towards wellness and yes true moments of happiness.