MASTERING HAPPINESS IN DIFFICULT TIMES
One definition of happiness is an emotion; an internal experience based on good feelings, happy times, getting what we want. This is a fine quality to enjoy, of course, when things are going well, and one’s personal planets are aligned.
But what happens when things don’t go well, when life gets hard, when we don’t get what we want, and the work we do seems like nothing but a hard slog?
Well, in that case, the emotional definition of happiness doesn’t do us much good.
Fortunately, the emotion of happiness in the moment is only one facet of our experience of happiness. Simply put, we can feel happy about our life; happy and proud of how we deal with the vicissitudes of life, and earn a sense of genuine well being, regardless of our circumstances.
This is a much more interesting view of happiness, one which Aristotle wrote about some 2,500 years ago in his Nicomachean Ethics. This is the quality of happiness that he called “Eudaemonia,” which TTP’s resident Aristotelian Jack Wheeler translates to “success at being human.”
The emotion of happiness is something we can stumble into, if we’re open to it. When someone is kind to us, or generous, it’s natural and good to feel happy. When something goes our way, that can feel really good, too. Positive emotional experiences are good and healthy, and they can also broaden and build our sense of possibilities and inner strength.
But we can also feel happy or at least relieved in the moment by taking certain drugs, or avoiding painful realities we should be confronting; which is not so healthy or good.
In other words, the emotion of happiness isn’t necessarily a very effective guide to living well. People who look primarily for the emotion of happiness in the moment actually tend to be not so happy over time.
What brings us happiness over time? Virtue. Qualities such as courage, kindness, achievement, curiosity, problem solving, and compassion.
And the beauty of this is that we can decide to deliberately practice the skills that grow our personal virtue – which is another way to say that we can deliberately practice the skills that lead to a happier, more successful life.
A life we can be happy about; a life we can be proud of.
I want to take a quick look at some of the skills we can practice here. Over the next several months I’ll have more new TTP articles about this, and I’ve also just launched a new podcast that you can listen to right now, the Mastering Happiness Podcast, where I go over these skills and principles in more depth.
Probably the most important virtue is courage. C.S. Lewis said that Courage is every virtue at the testing point.
It’s easy to tell the truth when there’s no risk or danger; but what about when telling the truth could cost you?
It’s easy to be kind to people when things are going well, but what about when there’s a risk to it?
It’s easy to be productive when you have support and acknowledgment; what about when nobody else can yet see the value of what you’re working to create? These are testing points, and we need courage to move through them with integrity.
Courage involves two things: Managing fear, and deciding to act.
If we’re in a total panic, it can be extremely hard to do what we need to do. Sometimes we need some help learning to master the emotion of fear to the point where we can function – there are a lot of things that can help.
But even then, even when we aren’t ruled by our fear, we still need the decision to act, now. So long as we can put off the action that’s needed, we don’t have to face our fear, and we don’t get to enjoy the satisfaction and pride of having done something that took guts.
It’s the decision to act, now; the commitment to action when it’s needed, that draws us across the threshold from fear into courage. Fear is not the absence of courage; fear is human. Courage is what we use to overcome fear in order to live with integrity. There can be no courage without fear – and the decision to act anyway, in the face of that fear.
Another principle that’s essential for living well is distinguishing between what we have control over, and what we don’t.
Here’s an important example: turn on the television news, and pay attention to how you feel watching any given story. Chances are, what you’re feeling isn’t that great.
That’s because almost everything you see on the news is something you have little or no control over; and it’s piped into our nervous systems directly, through graphic images, intense sound, gravely important music, and deadly serious, authoritative storytelling, so that it all feels like it’s happening right here in our living rooms – which means it also feels like we should be able to do something… but we can’t.
What we’re likely to feel, then, is helpless, powerless. And the only action we can take is to tune in later to see if anything’s changed for the better. This experience of helplessness, over time, is a recipe for depression and misery.
In contrast: spend some time interacting with someone you care about, bringing a spirit of kindness, curiosity, and playfulness to the moment… or notice how you feel after you’ve spent time completely absorbed in a work project, or other meaningful activity. Chances are, what you’re feeling – when you reflect on it – is pretty darned good.
How we interact with people, and the focus and absorption we bring to our activities; these are some of the things that we have some significant control over. What we’re likely to feel is a state of flow, connection, and joy.
And afterward, we’re likely to feel like we’ve earned a greater complexity than we had before – we’re different from the interaction and absorption in challenging or interactive activities.
The more we focus on what we can control, and accept and let go of what we can’t control, the more we earn a sense of genuine happiness about our life.
One more pair of qualities to practice: compassion toward yourself and pride.
This may sound self centered, but that would only be the case if we did nothing else. The more we treat ourselves with genuine compassion, forgiving ourselves for mistakes we’ve made in the past – while simultaneously recognizing the error and doing what we need to do to correct it and atone for any damage we’ve done – the stronger we’ll be.
The more we allow ourselves to take pride in our accomplishments – not a boastful arrogance, but a more quiet acknowledgment of having done good things that we’ve chosen to do – the stronger we’ll be.
We’re stronger from feeling compassion and pride, in part, because it strengthens our willpower, and therefore our capacity for self-regulation – which means we have more to draw from when we’re challenged with the next difficult thing.
These are just a few principles and skills that can help build a truly happy and successful life. There’s much more to it than this, of course.
My Mastering Happiness Podcast is designed to give you solid, practical tools and ideas for living a happier, more fulfilled life – not pretend cheeriness, but genuine improvement in your actual life from wherever you are right now.
We cover topics as diverse as dealing with angry outbursts, to healthy sleep, to relationships, work, and lifestyle issues. Each podcast will give you tangible things you can practice now, to establish healthier, happier habits in your everyday life. it’ll be well worth your time to listen to and practice these skills and ideas.
Look for more articles coming up, and please go to my podcast page here, hit the subscribe button, and I’d love it if you could leave a rating and review.
As I say in my book, The Virtue of Happiness, “A happy moment can be a matter of luck. A happy life requires virtue.” Or, as Aristotle might say, the key to a happy life is to practice your virtues until they’re habits. Come join me at my new podcast to learn how to master your own happiness.
Joel F. Wade, Ph.D. is a marriage and family therapist and life coach who works with people around the world via phone and Skype. He is the author of the new book The Virtue of Happiness, Mastering Happiness, and an in-depth online course, A Master’s Course in Happiness, all drawing from the increasingly useful research in psychology in general, and positive psychology in particular; and his nearly four decades of working with people professionally. You can get a FREE Learning Optimism E-Course if you sign up at his website, www.drjoelwade.com.