When I got up this morning, things were not going my way. It was shaping up to be a really bad day. I stubbed my toe on the way to the bathroom, the plate shattered when it slipped out of my hand between the cupboard and counter, and I realized that the blog I was writing just wasn’t going to work for what I wanted to convey.
Then, I stepped into the shower. The water was warm and felt good. I redirected my attention to the sensations of water cascading down my body and reminded myself how grateful I was that I was in a place where I could have warm, safe water. Things were starting to pick up.
I could have languished in the negative thoughts about how nothing ever goes right, and it was going to be an awful day. But I’ve been training for quite some time to bring more happiness into my life. And here was a perfect opportunity to practice.
Why Do We Need to Train for Happiness?
Why would we need to train ourselves to be happy? Don’t our brains want us to be happy naturally? Well, no, actually, they don’t. We are programmed to focus on the negative stuff in our lives to keep us on alert for danger. If you don’t believe me, remember the last time you got some feedback that was mostly positive but did have some suggestions for improvement. What parts of the interaction did you focus on? I’m willing to bet you went right to the things that needed fixing.
Now, this isn’t all bad. We were designed this way so that we could survive a harsh and uncertain world. Our survival depended on our ability to notice threats in our environment not, how much joy we got out of living.
So, you are not alone. Research shows that 78% of the population focuses most of their attention on what did or could go wrong. And the more we focus on the bad stuff, the more pervasive the bad stuff seems. That’s right, what we practice gets stronger.
Let’s say that instead, we decide to practice happiness. That doesn’t mean that bad things don’t happen to us or we won’t have the skills to meet those demands when they arise. It just means that we’ve developed the ability to change the narrative in our heads.
Sharon Salzberg says that “Mindfulness is the ability to be aware of our direct experience, the stories we tell ourselves about our experience, and the ability to know the difference.”
In the “old days,” I would have stepped into the shower and used that time to think about how awful my morning was and that it probably meant that I was in for a very trying day. Then, I would have focused my attention on my sore toe and how I probably broke it. Next, I would have gotten upset that I wouldn’t have enough matching plates the next time I had eight people over for dinner. (Forgetting that the last time I had eight people for dinner was three years ago.)
With mindfulness, I now have the skills to recognize that all of those thoughts are just that “thoughts.” They aren’t necessarily true, and they certainly aren’t helpful. From that vantage point, I can rewrite the chronicle that my imaginative brain has created.
How Do We Train for Happiness?
It seems pretty self-evident when you think about it. First, we have to identify the things that make us happy. Then, like any other skill we want to acquire, we have to practice. If we’re going to perfect our golf swing, we need to go out to the driving range, if we want to play the guitar, we need to pick the thing up every day and play it, and if we’re going to learn to cook, we have to cook. So it naturally follows that If we want to be happy, we have to do the things that make us happy repeatedly, both when things are going well and when they aren’t.
If you haven’t been doing this, it is going to feel awkward and uncomfortable at first. You will make mistakes and slip back into your old way of doing things, and you may have to write yourself notes and plaster them all over your house as reminders, but it is worth the effort.
The Three Most Important Skills for Happiness
- Savoring – When something good happens, no matter how small, stop for a few seconds and take it in. Feel the sensations you are experiencing in your body, focus on the contentment or joy, and notice if you have some happy thoughts streaming through your mind.
- Gratitude – Take some time to stop and appreciate what you have. Maybe even saying a silent thank you to the people or circumstances that have made this possible. Also, when you start a gratitude practice, you begin to look for things in your life to be grateful for, and that increases them exponentially.
- Self-Appreciation – Finally, turning those skills of gratitude and savoring toward the good things about yourself. If this is difficult, think of all the people and beings that helped you along the way to become the person you are today.
If you want to know more about how to train for happiness, please join me in the upcoming 5-Week – Tools for Self-Kindness Class starting Wednesday, August 18 at 9:00 am or sign-up today for one of our Free Taster Classes next week.