Practicing Happiness

  • Practice paying attention.  There’s incredible beauty all around you. Open up to your senses.  Become a connoisseur of small pleasures.  As with any skill, you get better at this with practice.  So practice disengaging the logical brain with all its lists and to-do’s, and engage the feeling part instead.
  • At bedtime, let yourself go to sleep thinking about three things to be grateful for, things that made you happy, or simply the best memories of the day.  As you do this, pay attention to the feelings in your body:  the smiling reflex, a warmness in your heart, the flow of tension out of your neck and shoulders.  Whenever you feel good, let your body express it.
  • Work on wanting what you have.  Look around you and try to appreciate your possessions and possibilities as if you were Ben Franklin popped into the 21st century.  Central heating, air conditioning, indoor plumbing, a stove and refrigerator.  A vehicle that will take you 600 miles in a day, in comfort, on paved roads.  An orchestra you can carry in your pocket.  If Ben Franklin doesn’t do it for you, simply look carefully at your surroundings.  Your furniture, books, possessions.  There’s beauty and memories there.  Savor them.
  • Remember that happiness is not our normal state of mind.  We were bred to be tense and restless.  The world today is not a great culture of bliss, either.  Cultivating happiness takes deliberate attention.  Don’t expect that you’re going to turn into Pollyanna; but do expect that you can find more occasions to feel good, and feel even better on those occasions.
  • On top of that, contemporary living conditions are not what we were designed for; we’re constantly in fight-or-flight mode, and that makes us stressed, anxious, and depressed.  So don’t buy that this is the best of all possible worlds; take as much control as you can, and create the world you want.
  • Remember that getting what you want won’t make you happy.  The more you value financial success, the less happy you’re likely to be.  Arm yourself against consumerism and competition.  Learn about advertising.  Learn what they're teaching in business schools, because it’s going to be used to manipulate you.  Practice thrift.
  • Happy feelings are a clue to solutions.  Research shows that we have an aesthetic appreciation for the right answer to a math problem, an ethical dilemma, a grammatical question that registers even before the logical brain has done its problem-solving.  Pay more attention to these hints from your intuition.
  • Your brain learns whether you want it to or not, so pay attention to what you want it to learn.  If you obsess and worry about all the character defects that you’ve never been able to change, chances are you won’t fix them, but you’ll become more depressed and stressed by them.  Get up and do something different.
  • Pay systematic attention to what makes you feel good.  Take notes, talk about it with friends and loved ones.  Remember that we assume we know what makes us feel good, but our brain has all kinds of ways of tricking us into doing what’s good for the species.  You have to outsmart your own brain.  Learn what makes you feel good, and do more of it.
  • The same goes for misery.  Learn what makes you feel bad, and do less of it.  Again, you have to pay systematic attention to outsmart yourself, to get under your defenses and distortions.
  • Happiness is smaller than you think.  Cultivate small pleasures.  Learn to cook.  Eat well.  Cook for friends.  Expose yourself to awe and beauty; get out in nature, and pay attention.  Watch less television.  Play more.  Get a dog.  Join a laughter club.  Get more touching into your life.
  • Learn to be mindful, in every way you can.  Catch yourself judging, and slowly you’ll begin to stop.  View yourself and the world with compassionate curiosity, the desire to understand and the belief in your own worth.  Learn to be noncategorical, detached, willing to let go, willing to think independently, willing to take responsibility.  Do a lot of reps, and give it three months.  Go back to “A Simple Mindfulness Meditation,” p. xx, and keep it up.
  • Pretend you’re an extravert.  Extraverts have more fun.  Even introverts have more fun, when they're pretending to be extraverts. 
  • Get a new attitude toward that Inner Critic of yours.  It’s just the voice of your fears, of your parent in a bad mood, of a little bully you brought home from the playground in fifth grade.  It doesn’t know the truth about you, it just knows how to manipulate you.  You’re a grown-up now; treat the Critic with your best adult skills, some compassion and detachment, and it will wither like the Wicked Witch.
  • Learn to detach from obsessive thoughts, mindless craving, the voice of the Inner Critic, sticky feelings.  Detachment is a skill you can learn, and mindfulness will help. Detachment means a different perspective with your thoughts and feelings:  that these are the contents of your mind, changeable at a moment’s notice, not the truth they feel like.
  • Don’t work too hard.  Don’t work more than forty hours per week, if you can possibly avoid it; and if you can’t, start making plans to shake up your life.  We know that the more hours you work, the less satisfied you’ll be with your life. Don’t work too hard at any one sitting, either.  Schedule yourself breaks when you can clear your head.  You’ll end up working more efficiently.
  • When you find yourself judging, yourself or others, move on to something else.  It’s a hallmark symptom of mindlessness to be constantly classifying our experiences, including how we experience other people, into simple black and white categories.  When we do this we miss out on all the rich detail of life.  And we act on prejudices and stereotypes.  If you learn to stop judging you will start to undermine your most ingrained paradigms.
  • Activities are more likely to be rewarding if they are out of the house, involveother people, and require physical activity.  If it’s in the house, solitary, and sedentary, you’re more likely to be lethargic and bored.  There are a few exceptions, like reading a good book.
  • Assume that karma is real: what you give, you get back.  If you treat people well, you’ll be treated well.  If you spread happiness, you’ll reap happiness.  If you are generous, you’ll be rewarded with generosity.  Practice loving, compassion, and extraversion.
  • Develop good rituals and habits, especially around things you find difficult.  Deprive yourself of the opportunity to think about it and let ambivalence demotivate you.  This is one area where you can be mindless:  just start doing your morning workout before you have time to let anything interfere.  Just find a way to save money automatically.
  • Organize yourself.  Happy people feel in control of their lives.  Don’t allow yourself to be a victim of inefficacy and clutter.  Accept the fact that there is just too damn much to do nowadays, so give up on being perfect.  Take an hour.  Start in one corner, and move on only as you finish.  Don’t stop until the hour is up.
  • We are what we do.  Your schedule is your life. Far too many of us spend much of our lives in dreamland, waiting for a miracle, or in the past, looking for justification for being stuck right now.  Or in a mindless frenzy, trying to keep up with too many commitments.  We think that good intentions count, but they really don’t.  Don’t waste any more time waiting for your happiness.

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