What’s the secret?

The inevitable question, what do you want your child to be? When I first thought about this, I didn’t hesitate to say that all I want him to be is happy. It also made me realize the elephant in the room that I need to address. Am I a happy person? What makes me happy? What is being happy to me? We all know that children are great imitators, and have a selective deafness to what we tell them. So for them to grow happy I have to be the best example.

Happiness is something pursued by all. How do we obtain it? Is there a formula? Is it quantifiable? Can someone always be happy? Sometimes life seems to be on a rewind, going through the same drudgery  motions day in and out. There is also the inevitables of life: hardships, sorrow, separation, arguments, sickness or death of loved ones. This leads to build up of negative emotions such as anxiety, anger, sadness or depression. Happiness is not a constant high, we all get dealt with different cards at different times.

Despite the lows some people are incredibly resilient. These people have such a healthy and positive attitude towards life. They exude calmness, and being around them you think, what is their secret? The conclusion that I keep coming to is that they are just happier people with a naturally better temperament, but I am not sure that it is the answer. Happiness is not an inborn trait, it’s something we all have to work on.

It was interesting to read up on and find so much literature on happiness. It’s definitely a happy task to carry out!  I came across this talk by Tal Ben-Shaha, Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness that I really connected with. Writing about it gives me a chance to really process the information in my own interpretation (I’ve been listening to it and reflecting for almost a month now) . He lists out 6 lessons which he thinks is the basis for long-lasting happiness.

  1. The permission to be human

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The first lesson is about how we underestimate the power of feeling our feelings. Ben-Shaha describes this as cognitive and emotional flexibility which is expressed abundantly as children but suppressed as we grow into adulthood. He explains that the simplest way of processing any feeling is to observe the feeling, be it anger, jealousy, sadness, etc. This makes sense, most times when we get these negative emotions we act on a whim without really understanding it. It’s natural that we get negative emotions, we don’t have to apologize for that or judge ourselves. It’s when we act negatively we end up resenting ourselves and have bad and sometimes long-lasting repercussions to it. So rather than act at a whim its better to understand the feeling and then act accordingly. To understand it we first need to give ourselves permission to feel it fully.

A Technique for Feeling Painful Feelings summarizes helpful techniques by therapist and author Tina Gilbertson, in her book Constructive Wallowing: How to Beat Bad Feelings By Letting Yourself Have Them on how to feel and let go of negative feelings in a positive way.

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2. Simplify

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I can relate to this so much. I have always thought that the person who multi tasks is the most effective, and the person who has a full schedule is most productive hence more successful and happy. This direction of thought has definitely succeeded in giving me a lot of stress over the years. Once I have started simplifying my life (material, emotional, commitments, etc) I feel so much lighter. I have a smaller wardrobe, cleaner kitchen, clearer living space, and time to do all the small things that makes me happy. Also, I feel more confident in letting go of negative emotions.

3. Meaning and Pleasure

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He goes on to describe the third lesson which says that happiness is sustained when both meaningfulness and pleasure is derived from what we do. The problem is that our goals and actions are very often based on misguided expectations. We look at others and try to emulate their life without realizing what really makes our life meaningful and pleasurable. This results in a pursuit of happiness that comes up short since our association to happiness is based on the wrong things. Happiness is derived from goals that are aligned to OUR personal values, OUR interests and OUR sense of purpose which really differs from person to person. He asks a good questions, How many things in your day-to-day do you do because YOU HAVE to do, or YOU WANT to do?

4. Relationships

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Relationships, be it family, friends or intimate is so important. We are social animals by nature and we crave and thrive in it. But why is it hard to sustain highly successful relationships? One reason, which struck a chord to me discussed by Tal Ben-Shaha is that most people don’t realize the potential that lies in a relationship and tend to give up when expectations are not met easily. According to a research, highly successful relationships are not the most smooth, but consists of both positive and negative experiences. According to him negative experiences such as disagreements and arguments are what immunize and strengthens the relationship and paves a path for growth both personally and in the relationship.

But how do we obtain this? The answer he gives is simple, highlight the positives through the little things such as touch, smile, interest in each other, paying compliments, spending quality time together, flowers and such. More importantly be your authentic self in the relationship, express yourself freely, be assertive, expose your fears and insecurities, share symbiotically in a respectful way. If we are able to overcome the short-term hurdles however hard it seems we are able to reach a point where apparently even sex gets immensely better over time in a marriage.

5. Mind-Body Connection

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In lesson 5, Tal Ben-Shaha describes the importance of mind-body connection in terms of exercise, prayer, meditation and mindfulness living. What I gathered from this part of the talk is that exercise is a physical must that we as human beings need. It is a basic need in the pyramid of happiness, because not exercising is going against the natural state of being human. He highlights how as human beings we are wired to be physically active and when we go against it by being inactive it will leave its mark both of the body and mind.

A research by Duke university studied clinically depressed people over a period of 10 months, where results show that exercise treatment had the same effect on recovering depression as to strong antidepressant medication. Also the group of people who continued exercising after 10 months had lower levels of depression relapse than the people who took medication. This is an interesting study which shows just how connected our mind and body is.

He also highlighted the importance of mindful prayer in our everyday life. Even prayer is fast tracked in our busy life. Prayer is a time where we need to focus on words and observe, reflect and be grateful for all of God’s blessings.

6. Focus on the Positive

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If we really open our eyes and ears and look around we see things to be grateful about all around. How do we incorporate a sustainable state of mind that is grateful and not take life for granted.

There is no denying that the world is full of negativity, and there are negative emotions in every relationship and every person. But Ben-Shaha adds that there are also wonderful things in every person, every relationship and every circumstance. He emphasises that the key to gratefulness is to learn to appreciate those wonderful things however small or big. He says “…when we appreciate something we don’t just express gratitude for it we also appreciate it in the other sense. Just like money appreciates we make it grow and we bring more good things to our life”. He also adds that the key here is to do it regularly and mind fully.

He talks about keeping a gratitude journal where he writes in every night about the big and small things he is grateful about. Simple things like what he ate, where he visited and the bigger things like being grateful to Allah, being grateful for the blessing of a family and good health. Studies also show that gratitude journals even if its five-minute a day ,can increase our well-being in the long-term by more than 10 percent which is the same impact as doubling our income.

Being mind fully grateful has been something that has elevated my well-being over the past year. I have learnt to catch myself when I am in a negative thought spiral and turn it around to think about all the good in my life. But maybe it’s time to kick it up a notch and learn to practice being grateful on a more regular basis.

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