Are You Happy?

smiling african american woman( — Happiness can be a strange thing: The more you try to achieve it, the more it seems to slip through your fingers. “Ask yourself if you’re truly happy, and you cease to be so,” says Darrin McMahon, PhD, author of Happiness: A History.

Some say happiness is like falling in love, that you can’t make it happen. But if that’s the case, then how can you become happier?

At a recent Happiness & Its Causes Conference in San Francisco, a wide range of experts, including scientists, psychologists, philosophers, and even Tibetan Buddhists, offered their thoughts on the topic. Below are just a few of their tips for overcoming six common happiness barriers.

Barrier 1: Complexity
Solution: Simplify

Schooled in Buddhist monasteries since childhood, Thupten Jinpa, PhD, knows a thing or two about the benefits of simplicity. Why do you think monks and nuns shave their heads, he asks? For one, it simplifies their lives (just an example – we’re not saying to make a trip to the barber).

A principal English translator to the Dalai Lama, Jinpa is no longer a monk. But he still holds on to some of the lifestyle’s spartan values. “My family has a one-car policy,” he says, pointing out the hassles of owning more than one, such as the costs, the maintenance and the time managing the details. Multiple credit cards? They don’t create freedom or happiness, as many people have learned over the past couple of years.

“Modern life has elevated individual choice to the highest level, he says, but these choices come at a big price. We often confuse quality of life with standard of life,” Jinpa says.

If you simplify your life, you create more space in your day, making it possible to reflect on your life and better understand what it is you truly need.

Barrier 2: The Pace of Life Is Just Too Fast
Solution: Hit the Pause Button

The same culture that entangles you in a web of complexity may also have you running around like a crazy chicken. “That kind of tension takes a toll on your soul and your psyche,” says Jinpa. Whether you call it prayer, meditation, or just plain silence, finding time to hit the pause button of your life remote just a few minutes a day can help you recharge your batteries and make you feel happier. A good time to do this is in the morning. Without it, your life may feel out of control.

In addition to this, the Venerable Robina Courtin, a Buddhist nun and organizer of the Happiness & Its Causes Conference, recommends spending these quiet minutes practicing mindful meditation. “During the day, we’re completely absorbed by our senses,” she says, “so we don’t pay attention to our minds.” Sit in a quiet place and simply anchor your mind on your breathing. When your mind wanders, bring it back to your breath. Through this process, you learn to observe what your mind is saying.

Happiness Barrier No. 3: Negativity
Solution: Just Let It Go

“Your prison is nothing in comparison with the inner prison of ordinary people: the prison of attachment, the prison of anger, the prison of depression, the prison of pride,” wrote Lama Zopa Rinpoche of the Liberation Prison Project, which offers Buddhist teachings to people in prison.

Some might view this statement as a bit of an exaggeration. But negative, compulsive thoughts are very effective – how you see things and the way you experience the world are strongly linked. This is why having a positive outlook is crucial.

“In our culture, we take it as natural that people are angry, depressed, or dejected all the time, Courtin says. “No wonder we get depressed — it’s a depressing world view. It says you can’t do anything about it.”

But what can you do about this? You can look inside of yourself, pay attention, and take responsibility for your thoughts. Rather than judging negative thoughts, observe them with compassion. Then ask yourself, “How can I improve this?”

“Techniques like mindful meditation can help, but may not be for everyone, especially those experiencing severe depression,” says Philippe R. Goldin, PhD, research associate in the department of psychology at Stanford University.

But there are other simple steps you can take to counteract negativity and enhance your happiness. Practicing gratitude is one. Studies show that people who practiced being more grateful for even the smallest, simplest things felt better about their lives, exercised more, and were more optimistic.

Barrier 4: Despair
Solution: Have Hope

Did a parent ever attempt to protect you as a child by saying, “Don’t get your hopes up”? There’s no evidence that hope is hurtful, says David B. Feldman, PhD, assistant professor of counseling psychology at Santa Clara University in California. Instead, hope can greatly enhance happiness in people.

“But genuine hope isn’t just drawing a yellow smiley face,” says Feldman, who’s pursued research and clinical work to help figure out how people maintain hope and meaning in the face of adversity.

“Three components are essential for hope to thrive,” Feldman says. They are having goals, as well as a plan and the motivation to achieve them. When you actively pursue goals, you not only achieve them, but you perform better in every aspect of your life, you have a greater tolerance for pain, and you naturally assume more health-promoting behaviors. Not surprisingly, people who regularly set and achieve goals have a lower risk of depression, anxiety and heart disease.

Barrier 5: Suppressing Sadness
Solution: Be Honest With Your Feelings

Having a positive outlook doesn’t mean you never allow yourself to feel sadness. “Those parents who tried to protect their children from those dashed hopes, or from any kind of unhappiness, may actually produce the opposite effect and increase sadness,” says James R. Doty, MD, director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University. According to him, some sadness makes you a whole person and allows you to acclimate and move forward in your life. Doty speaks from experience. He had an alcoholic father and invalid mother and lived on public assistance for much of his youth.

“Happiness is not the absence of sadness,” added David Spiegel, MD, medical director of the Center for Integrative Medicine at Stanford University School of Medicine. It is not a stiff upper lip or the pop psychology mantra, intoning “always stay upbeat” in the face of cancer. “Phony happiness is not good,” says Spiegel. “By suppressing sadness, you suppress other, more positive emotions, as well, he says. In fact, people who try to suppress emotions actually become more anxious and depressed.

By finding outlets for sadness and frustration, you gain some measure of control. Help control your feelings by addressing them. That way, you can find specific solutions to them.

Barrier 6: Your Focus Is Always On You
Solution: Connect With Others

How important are social networks to your happiness? Maybe more than you realize. A recent 20-year study of more than 4,000 people showed that happiness is influenced not just by your immediate friends and family, but also by the friend of a friend of a friend, someone you may have never even met. It turns out that happiness can spread through social networks, like a virus.

Unfortunately, many people spend so much time by themselves or focused solely on themselves that they don’t benefit from this positive contagion.

The more you isolate yourself, mentally or physically, the more your world closes in, and the less realistic you become, all of which produces a vicious circle. “You become oblivious to the needs of others, and the world shrinks still more, making you less able to see outside yourself,” says Thupten Jinpa.

Using a wide-angle lens in your life helps you see connections you wouldn’t otherwise see, such as the universality of suffering. All it may take is having a loved one diagnosed with a serious disease to realize how many people are grappling with similar challenges. Feeling joined by others on this journey provides some comfort and happiness.

The most direct path to these connections? Compassion and caring for others.

“Even primates seem to understand this,” says Robert M. Sapolsky, PhD, author of Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers and research associate with the Institute of Primate Research at the National Museum of Kenya. “Primates that groom each other after a stressful event experience a reduction in blood pressure.”

Compassion engages us with others, removes isolation, builds resilience, and leads to deep fulfillment – and, yes, a greater sense of happiness.

Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, may have said it best: “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion; if you want to be happy, practice compassion.”

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