I know we all "want to be happy", but try some of the other emotions en route
Updated: Jul 25
Very often clients open with "I just want to know how to be happy"...and just as often , they don't really like the answer: Happiness is a STATE not a goal. Therefore, you can choose to be happy whenever you like, you don't need to earn it, nor do anything for it...simply decide to be it. However, I do know that what sounds so simple is very hard.
Maslow (better know for the Hierarchy of Needs) said that overcoming fear is a choice you have to make again and again...and choosing to grow is a choice you have to make again and again. A "constant" state of happiness takes work. Our brain is, after all, set up to look for the negative (because negativity is a good warning sign that we may need to deal with a threat), and the only way to make changes is to keep working at it.
Oh, and before you say - "but some people seem to find it so easy"...they had to learn it too - it's just that they may have started long before you.
However, what my clients find useful, and you might too, is rather than trying to jump straight from fear, or worry, or pain to "happy" - try to reframe using some of the other positive emotions along the way.
Martin Seligman identified 24 of these, classified in 6 key areas (the order is from positivepsychology.com) ...and all these feelings can be generated by simple actions. So try something like:
Wisdom & Knowledge
Curiosity: This can be a wonderful alternative to dread. Rather than fretting over a decision, see if you can apply the following approach:
Creativity: So it didn't turn out the way you'd hoped - in what ways could you improve your situation?
Curiosity: Rather than asking "will I hate it?" instead try "I wonder what it'll be like?" this works well to reduce social anxiety and build confidence.
Open-mindedness: If something doesn't go as expected, what new opportunity or chance meeting might have come out of it instead - that perhaps would not otherwise have happened?
Love of Learning: What skills have you learned from doing things this way...including learning what you don't like or how to set it up better next time?
Perspective and Wisdom: Putting things in perspective is not about using platitudes, but on a smaller scale asking yourself what resources do I have to manage and what am I able to develop?
Bravery: I know "well done for taking part" may feel a little cheap, but there's a lot of value to recognising that whatever happened, you stood up and showed up!
Persistence: Perhaps you need to pivot, perhaps you need to change approach, but working at something where you know you are making progress, however slight, is commendable. Many of my clients think rating highly on "persistence" is "dull"...I personally call it "being a good bet"!
Integrity: Often overlooked - and not always bringing about the outcome you hoped at the time, because our integrity can make people question theirs...and if they don't like what they find, we may be the target of their discomfort. But the way I see integrity is knowing what I can live with.
Vitality: Sometimes I am guilty of placing an unspoken expectation on others to "see and value and appreciate me for everything I've ever been" (spoken like a true "unless you conform to my expectations of you, I'll class your successes "a phase" child). I realised that this is firstly inappropriate and unfair, and also that if I want people to see, value and appreciate me, I need to show up every time with something to see, value and appreciate...people operate in the present not the past!! (...and if you show up full of verve and it's not seen, valued or appreciated...perhaps you do need to spend time elsewhere!)
I'm going to address these together because seeing them in action, at least conventionally, is self explanatory, but sometimes, it's as important to demonstrate them through the absence of action. If someone says "I'm so awful" - you can show love, NOT by trying to "make them feel better" - but by validating their feelings and asking them to talk more. The same with Kindness - it doesn't need to be an active behaviour, but choosing NOT to say something can be a kinder approach if the situation just isn't right. And when it comes to social intelligence, it can be about realising we have a finite amount of energy to offer, and we actually need to be discerning in our choices...people please by all means (in the first instance)...but make sure it's the people who mean something to you!!
Being an active citizen who is socially responsible, loyal, and a team member: Aligning yourself with a purpose can make you feel great - and it might mean you meet more like-minded people. It can be very hard to feel passionate in a vacuum.
Fairness: Being aware of any unconscious bias or selective behaviour can make a huge difference to the quality of our interactions.
Leadership: Remember that leadership behaviours don't just apply when you're sitting at the office. In the home, or even on social media or in any public situation you may be the role model for someone. Focus on making it one you'd have liked to have had.
Forgiveness and mercy: We forgive not necessarily for others, but for ourselves. If we can forgive (we don't need to forget) - we can let go of the chains that other's behaviour created - but that we might be holding onto (when they may have long forgotten, or not even realised they did anything!)
Humility and modesty: This is certainly not about false modesty - and what tends to happen there is that people start fishing for compliments - which is hardly humble nor modest. But relating this feeling to forgiveness - if we can also appreciate that we have not been perfect, that we may have hurt others, that we may have done things we regret, it does become easier to see that the pain others may have caused us may not have been quite so "personal".
Prudence: Again, "caution" can be seen as a bit of a boring value, but it's something hat I've worked hard on, and it's paid dividends when it comes to my overall happiness. On a number of occasions when I've "forgotten" not to "rush into" something, I've noticed that things have happened which have caused a setback, and at that point I've taken full advantage of the fortuitousness and pressed pause...it has always paid off.
Self-Regulation and Self-control: Known as "urge surfing", sometimes we just need to let the desire pass and see, later on, if we are still as keen as we were. Never confuse enthusiasm with passion - the latter means you'll put the work in come what may, the former...you might be doing it with gritted teeth!
Appreciation of beauty and excellence.
Humour and playfulness.
Spirituality, or a sense of purpose.
Again these I will group, because, once more, they all make wonderful alternatives to seeking happiness directly. If you can look at something simple and admire the beauty, you do feel a sense of positivity, and that's the same when you can appreciate something that's well done...even if it's only one aspect. Gratitude is one of my favourite substitutions for envy because when I am tempted to be upset that someone else has achieved something, I thank the universe for sharing their good fortune with me, and use that positive energy to focus on what I want to achieve...with that comes hope. Humour and playfulness is something we can all look to engage in as adults - my favourite challenge is to say the word "penguin" in a work sentence!! Playing as an adult is playing outside rules and targets (eg of organised sports and reminding ourselves how to laugh...another component that makes the state of happiness easier to generate). And sometimes, for me, I like to feel "content" and "fulfilled" rather than "happy", and that comes to me through reading, affirmations and taking a moment really appreciate everything I have...rather than what I have not!
Trying to engage with ANY of the above states - in the ways outlined, or perhaps you will find others, is a great way to start choosing "happy" much more easily.
Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author with a specialty in the practical "how to take action", rather than just giving explanation and advice. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; or her Radio Show "The Wellbeing Lounge", and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilience. For self development tools based within positive psychology: click Her YouTube Channel . Twitter/IG @draudreyt