I shall live badly if I do not write, and I shall write badly if I do not live.’ Francoise Sagan

Friday, 23 September 2011

The Recipe for Happiness - for Alejandro

It often seems that happiness is a short-lived, ephemeral experience but over the last few months I have learnt that it does not have to be this way. For the fact of the matter is that happiness - like everything else of value in this life - can only be sustained with effort. The problem is that many of us think of happiness as a state of grace that relies on external forces beyond our control -  like a gift from the Gods or a favourable conjunction of the planets in relation to our birth sign. However, if we want to experience an enduring sense of contentedness and fulfilment that is untouched by life’s inevitable highs and lows, we have to build the foundations for this to occur. It is easy to forget that we are one hundred percent responsible for our own well-being; consequently, rather than being something that just happens to us, our happiness is very much the fruit of our own labours.

I have discovered that one of the most effective ways to experience more joy in my life is to focus my mind on the many blessings that I have been given and to cultivate a deep sense of gratitude for them. Many of us were told as children to count our blessings – usually in a context when we were not feeling particularly blessed or grateful – but the simple act of focusing on the good things in our lives really does have its benefits. For, no matter how dissatisfied or disgruntled we may be feeling, we can all find something to be grateful for; and the great news is that the more we focus our attention on this, the more the things that are troubling us seem to fade into the background. Cultivating a deep sense of appreciation for the blessings in our lives – starting with the very smallest of things that so many of us take for granted, such as a beautiful sunset or a delicious meal - is a very simple yet powerful way of experiencing a greater sense of well-being. Furthermore, by cultivating the habit of feeling gratitude for everything we have, we literally re-programme our minds to notice and acknowledge what many of us simply take for granted. The fact is that the more we focus on the good things in our lives, no matter how small, the more we will find to be grateful for and the happier we will feel. The law of attraction simply states that you attract into your life whatever you think about; consequently, your dominant thoughts will always find a way to manifest.

However, maintaining a positive outlook and a sense of gratitude is not easy, especially when times are hard, and it is precisely because we have to actively participate in the manifestation of our own blessings and good fortune that happiness can so easily elude us. Buddhism teaches that enlightenment comes from learning to master your own mind and I believe that this form of self-mastery is central to developing the sort of happiness that endures, irrespective of personal circumstances.  For me, this challenge to master myself – and in the process become happier - has involved developing a greater awareness of my own internal dialogue and thought patterns. This may seem like a strange thing to do but I believe that it is crucial to preserving and maintaining a sense of wellbeing. As Elizabeth Gilbert, author of "Eat, Pray, Love" puts it: “You need to learn how to select your thoughts just the same way you select your clothes every day.

Learning this skill takes time and effort – and I do not claim to have mastered it yet – but I have started to make positive progress in the right direction. Like many people, when things are tough I have a tendency to compare myself to other (more fortunate) people or to imagine that the grass is greener someone else – and from time to time this old theme continues to replay itself. However, these days – whenever I find my thoughts wandering down this particular pathway to misery – a warning signal immediately sounds in my brain alerting me to danger.  This is important because if the same negative thought patterns occur frequently enough, in time such thoughts crystallise into beliefs, which flourish like weeds in the fertile territory of our minds. Of course we cannot monitor every single thought that goes through ours heads but, as the content of our thoughts has such a direct impact on the quality of our lives, it definitely helps to be more aware of what is going on up there!

Over the last few months, I have started to observe the idiosyncratic workings of my own mind as one might study an alien species - with interest, incomprehension and, at times, dismay! During this process, I have made several interesting discoveries, including the identification of a critical and rather sceptical pessimist who dwells inside my head. Although she has inhabited my interior landscape for what seems like forever, she had never fully revealed herself to me until I started watching out for her. In recent weeks she has kept a low profile but each time she appears,  I acknowledge her with a smile and then send her on her way with love.

The results of this process, over a period of about 8 weeks, have been truly transformational. One of the most noticeable developments has been a fundamental change in the way that I interact with my husband. By simply becoming more aware of my own thought processes and reactions, I realised that I sometimes allow the daily challenges of conjugal living to escalate in my mind to the point where relatively minor irritations acquire monstrous proportions.  This tendency to focus on the negative and react with anger to even the smallest of aggravations was literally destroying my marriage, so I made a decision to practise recognising and releasing myself from these destructive thought patterns.

The following is just one small example of how things have changed for me. In recent weeks, I found myself poised on the verge of a heated argument: my husband had said something thoughtless and I had automatically reverted to my standard default position in these situations - in other words battle mode! However, instead of responding with the usual recriminations, I stopped. Instead of reacting, I paused, took a deep breath and asked myself why I was feeling this way.  This pause gave me the clarity to realise that I had been holding onto a number of unspoken grievances for several days and that this latest aggravation had triggered them all.  Although I had kept my feelings of irritation to myself, each time something had vexed me, a new spiky-edged resentment had taken up residence in my mind. Armed with this new awareness, I decided to give myself some space from the situation. Once the fog of anger was no longer clouding my mind, I was able to take a step back from myself and assess things more clearly. On further reflection, I realised that my tendency to dwell on things that have upset me means that I never let go of minor hurts; unsurprisingly these bad feelings then snowball in my mind until eventually – with the right amount of external pressure – an avalanche occurs!

So, I asked myself a simple question:  what would happen if instead of wallowing in negativity and gathering resentments, I directed more of my attention to the positive things in my life? Just by posing myself this question, something immediately shifted inside my head. I suddenly found myself thinking of all the things that I truly love and appreciate about my husband and remembering the good times we have shared. This refocusing technique was so effective that within minutes my anger and resentment had evaporated; so much so that I was able to completely let go of my self-righteous indignation and tell my husband how much I value his presence in my life. 

This leads me to the conclusion that, ultimately, happiness is just a matter of choice. With each new day, it is up to me to decide whether I will spend my waking hours feeling gratitude for the blessings in my life or whether I will focus instead on my troubles. This may sound naively simple but it really is that straightforward; we make it hard because we forget that we are responsible for our happiness – but the fact is, nobody can give us peace of mind and nobody can take it away, without our permission.  For me, the best discovery of all has been that it is not that hard to lead a happy and fulfilled existence - it just requires patience, practice and perseverance. In fact, the recipe for happiness is actually quite simple: to a base of gratitude, add a generous measure of positive thoughts - carefully sifting to prevent any lingering negativity from contaminating the mix - add a dash of self-awareness, half a dozen handfuls of compassion, sprinkle lightly with a few heartfelt prayers  (this will help the ingredients to bind together) and then gently heat with love. The end product will be well worth the time and effort it takes to prepare.

“Happiness cannot be travelled to, owned, earned, worn or consumed. Happiness is the spiritual experience of living every minute with love, grace and gratitude.”  Denis Waitley