One of the most important things I’ve learned – as I’ve already started discussing on this blog – is that happiness requires a great deal of deliberation. It isn’t an emotion that just occurs once you’ve acquired the right job, the right car, the right life partner, the right friends, the right 401K.
I used to tie the idea of happiness to achievement. But I’ve achieved a lot in my life, and happiness remains often elusive. This has led me at times to assume that I just don’t do happiness well – that I’m somehow hardwired for suffering.
This is probably the number one limiting assumption that I’ve been operating under for nearly 20 years.
I’ve been collecting mental exercises over the past few weeks to help me minimize that kind of thinking. I’ve found two in particular that feel like game changers to me.
1) Replace negative thoughts and feelings with a statement of gratitude.
I picked this up initially from an interview with Tony Robbins, who maintains that you can’t feel stress, fear, anger, etc. and gratitude at the same time.
I agree, but I’ve found that I have to make those statements pretty specific. I can’t replace “I’m frustrated with my job” with “I’m grateful I have a paycheck.” Not that I’m ungrateful to be able to pay my bills and keep my dogs in high-end kibble, but it doesn’t address the root of my discontent. Any job would give me a paycheck.
But if I say “I’m grateful for the autonomy and flexibility I have at work, I’m grateful that my boss solicits and values my opinion, I’m grateful I have people on my staff who produce great work with no supervision,” that works.
It requires effort. Sometimes it can feel so much easier to just sink into a miserable train of thought because it doesn’t require work. But in the end, when I come up with something specific for which I can truly be grateful – and that’s possible in almost any situation – it changes my whole outlook, which of course changes my behavior for the better.
2) I came about this one through a different source, but apparently it originates with Oprah, who has at some point in her life and career made this statement: There are only two emotions, love and fear.
I really love this. Tony Robbins (again) talks about how every negative emotion – stress, anger, sadness, etc. – can be tied to the fear of losing something or never having something. It’s a very possessive emotion.
I suspect that every positive emotion can be tied to love (a very giving emotion) in the same way. So, in a sense, that statement appears true.
Regardless of whether you agree, it provides some powerful questions (that I’ve stolen from Tim Ferriss, yet another person I continue to bring up in my writing on self-improvement): “If I assume that statement is true, that there are only two emotions, which one am I feeling right now and how is that affecting my behavior?”
And the obvious follow-on question, the real catalyst for behavioral change, is “if fear is what I’m feeling, how would I react if all I were feeling is love? How can I be more understanding?”
This has been extraordinarily helpful in forcing me to assess my emotions and recognize a pattern of negativity. If I face that fear head on and question just what it is I’m afraid of losing, I will almost always recognize how I would prefer to behave, to be seen. And I will make that choice rather than blindly reacting to events often beyond my control.
I wish I’d discovered this thought process before now – it would have saved me and others a lot of frustration and heartache.
Ironically, when you behave out of a sense of love and understanding, you are less likely to lose what you fear anyway. Fear begets fear – that’s why it’s such a dangerous emotion. And it can make us react in a way that hurts, frustrates and alienates others.