We live in a culture that teaches us that fulfillment, happiness, and contentment are found outside of ourselves. We are bombarded at every turn with messages that entice us with the good feelings that can come from the next purchase and the next achievement. These messages hijack our brains and keep us focused on feeling that we are not good enough and we don’t have enough. No wonder we find happiness so elusive!
We know that these external things do create momentary feelings of joy and satisfaction, but that it is temporary. When the feeling wears off, we turn to the next we feel we need and don’t have.
So, what do we do?
First, happiness is a skill and a temperament.
When I was growing up, we had a family living next door where the parents argued, loudly, quite often. They had two daughters. One daughter seemed to struggle with her sense of self and mood quite a bit. This seemed understandable given the high conflict home she lived in. Yet, the other daughter seemed joyful and unimpacted by her parents’ conflict. It was a remarkable testament to the power of temperament when it comes to happiness.
We are all born with a “happiness setpoint.” This is the “default” setting for our mood. It simply means that some people tend to experience states of happiness more readily than others. It does not mean that everyone else is doomed to less happiness. This is where the happiness skill comes in.
Happiness is the practice of certain skills that direct our attention and energy in the direction of satisfaction and fulfillment. As humans, there are certain kinds of experiences that evoke feelings of satisfaction, joy, and fulfillment. When we use our intention to cultivate these experiences, we increase our sense of happiness.
- Cultivate a safe, encouraging inner world. So often people come to therapy because their lives do not look and feel how they want them to look and feel. We are certain that if our families were more supportive and helpful, or if we made more money, or if we had the right partner, we’d be happy. Yet, when I begin to explore their inner world, we discover that it is full of mental and emotional habits that are self-critical and focused on what is not working. These habits are often efforts to cope with pain and unmet needs. We don’t mean to foster our own misery, but without realizing it, we do. When we begin to explore our own relationship with ourselves and intentionally meet ourselves with kindness, love, and encouragement, we begin to experience a life where there is an abundance of kindness, love, and encouragement – we feel happier!
- Practice present moment embodiment. Embodiment is simply our felt sense of our own Being, our “self,” inhabiting our body. It is our felt emotions, embodied beliefs (beliefs we “feel” instead of think), and our “gut feelings.” Trauma forces us out of embodiment and many of our human coping mechanism take us away from the here and now. Yet, this is why we find satisfaction, joy, and fulfillment so elusive: we can’t feel satisfied by something we can’t feel here and now. When we learn how to safely inhabit our body in the present moment, we find there is rich satisfaction and fulfillment available to us, when we know how to receive it. We don’t have to practice complete embodiment all at once. We can gently and slowly explore embodiment and cultivate it over time.
- Invest time and energy in nourishing relationships. We are social creatures. We need connection and belonging. For too many people, community, connection, and meaningful social support feels scarce and hard to come by. Emotion regulation and embodiment helps build and maintain social connections. We can also begin by looking for opportunities to connect with those around us in small ways that can grow over time and may become robust, fulfilling relationships.
- Help others. We are wired for feeling good when we help others. Being of service makes us feel we have value and purpose. This goes a long way to creating a feeling of happiness, belonging, and fulfillment. We can help in formal and informal ways. Simply a smile or granting right-of-way to a stranger can give us a little bit of a feel-good jolt. Getting involved in structured volunteering can not only give us a sense of purpose, but also help us feel a sense of community and belonging. We also nurture a sense of gratitude when we help others.
- Stack basic self-care. Our mood is directly tied to how well-rested, nourished, hydrated, and physically- and financially-fit we are. When we prioritize and protect our basic self-care and needs, we create a foundation for mental health and physical health that supports our capacity for joy and happiness. The more we care for ourselves across domains of life, the more we have options to live to our highest capacity for happiness.
It is true when they say that happiness is an inside job. It is a skill to cultivate and refine. It comes from an inner intention, relationships, purpose, and self-care. Then, the outside stuff is just icing on the cake, but we feel less of a need for it in order to be happy.
What will you do today to practice the skill of happiness?