How to Be Happy under Almost Any Circumstances
through Creative Reframing
[A Work In Progress]
I hope this little guidebook will help you see things from a difference perspective.
If I keep a green bough in my heart,
the singing bird will come
–A Chinese Proverb
Dedicated to Dennis, because he isn’t
and to Mary & Carolyn, because they are
Why do so many people – people with so much to enjoy – spend their days yearning for something more? Why do we need bigger cars, longer vacations, better equipped hobbies and trendier restaurants to brag about? Why do one of three Americans find living such a struggle that they require prescription antidepressants to cope with their days? Why do we struggle to wake up and face the day and then toss and turn at night? What’s wrong with us?
When we see someone enjoying a simple pleasure – a walk in the park, an ice-cream cone with a child, holding hands on the beach, we are instantly envious. What do they have that we don’t? Why are their lives better than our own? What is it we think the rich and famous have that causes our seemingly endless fascination with fame and wealth? What secret are we missing out on? What did Mother Theresa know? What does the Dalai Lama know that we don’t? What is the secret to happiness?
First, What is happiness? Happiness can defined as “the degree to which an individual judges the overall quality of his life-as-a-whole positively,” in short: how well one likes the life one lives (Conditions of happiness, Kluwer Academic 1984). Moments of satisfaction at accomplishment, gratitude for blessings, enjoyment of beauty, and appreciation and acceptance of others make up an attitude of contentment that provides the ideal conditions for happiness to flourish.
What is Reframing? Reframing is a psychological concept that has made it’s way into the mainstream because it’s so simple and useful. It means to look again at a situation from a different perspective. Politicians call it “spin” and have “spin doctors” whose job it is to take a potentially damaging event and twist the public’s perception of it into a positive light. Reframing can also be used negatively, to increase discontent with a situation, but we’re only going to use this power for good.
Reframing is the tool the optimists of the world have used naturally to keep their rosy outlook. The natural optimist automatically re-frames situations – a rainy day ruins a planned outing and the optimist takes comfort in the fact that we really needed the rain. Your lunch date is half and hour late and you laugh off her apology because you got to enjoy the scenery and finish the morning paper. And yes, life gives you lemons and you haul out the lemonade pitcher.
Remember Pollyanna? Pollyanna was a world-class refamer. I grew up with the Walt Disney version of the movie, starring Hayley Mills as the adorable orphan who made an art out of optimism – she saw the blessing in everything and changed an entire town through her delight and enjoyment of living. When Pollyanna was challenged by a serious injury, the town rallied round to give back to her the joy and encouragement she’d spread. Naturally, the movie has a happy ending – that’s the whole point, isn’t it? Our happy endings depend more on how we see the world – what we look at and listen to – than on what we accomplish.
But however much we love happy endings and desire them in our lives, happiness has more to do with the process of getting to the end of our days than with the dramatic climaxes of our lives. Everyday, ordinary, happiness comes through blending the seeing, feeling, knowing, and doing of our lives into a unified flow. When our lives are in alignment – our beliefs, our understanding, our feelings, our actions – then we experience our own natural, personal level of happiness.
Some of our personal level of happiness is predetermined – hardwired, if you will in the womb – but much of it is from habitual patterns of thinking. These patterns began to be built when we were small children and have grown, layer upon layer, throughout our lives. They are interwoven with beliefs about ourselves, the world we live in, the people we relate with, the jobs we hold, and the physical conditions we experience, and the spiritual concepts we hold to. The patterns of perception, thought, feeling, action and reaction may feel so inculcated that we can’t comprehend them as amenable to our will and practice. But they are. Change is possible. A comfortable sense of self and others, a delight in the world around you, a relaxed stance towards the future and a keen enjoyment of each moment is – all these are available to us if we are willing to do the work needed to break those deeply ingrained patterns.
So the very first exercise in this book is this: Sit quietly for a few minutes in a comfortable place. Let your breathing quiet and flow smoothly in and out. Hear or feel the pulsing of the blood through your body. Now pick up a pen or pencil. Feel the shape of the barrel, look at the color of it, feel the tip’s shape. the heft of the object. Breath quietly as you count to 16. Now, look at the lines on the page to your left and ask yourself, “Do I really want to be happy?” Write your answer on the first line. [e-readers: make an electronic notepad or take out a legal pad and do the exercises in that way.]
If you answered “no,” that’s okay. Put this book down and do something else.
If you answered “yes.” Let’s begin! Go back to breathing quietly. Feel your heart beating. Lift both shoulders up high next to your ears, squeeze the muscles tight, hold it a moment, and release. Roll your head and neck around gently to loosen the muscles. Put your pen down and wiggle your fingers, making fists and releasing them, shaking out the tension. Now, still breathing evenly, pick up your pen and take a moment to contemplate the next question: “How would I feel if I were happy?” Now write your answer. When you are done, look at what you’ve written. Try not to judge yourself. The state you’ve described is your first outcome measurement – when you look back at this page later, you will be able to see your personal version of, “this is how I feel when I’m happy.” Your happiness benchmark now set, you are ready to begin chapter one.
Chapter One: Setting Intent
Happiness has been yearned after, described, denigrated as simplistic (probably by someone who was unhappy), and now, it’s being dissected and studied. There’s an international Journal of Happiness Studies. The Dalai Lama has written a best-selling book about happiness. Popular magazines contain articles prescribing ways to be happier. This is now hot stuff. So what can this book add to the flood of happiness-material out there? If you actually try the stuff recommended – lots. If you passively read and don’t do – not much.
Already, we are at one of the basic premises of this book – you are the one who determines the outcome of your life. YOU decide if you will be happy. Each of us, to different degrees, determines the experiences we’ll encounter in our lives. Some lives feel totally out of personal control, while others flow smoothly long the predetermined channels laid by a strong will. Which kind of life brings more happiness? It doesn’t matter. Because everyday happiness is the inner response to your environment – it is pretty independent of that environment.
If our intention is to be happy, we act in manners that increase the likelihood we will experience happiness. So setting our intent – making a commitment to a purpose or goal – is an important declaration of our commitment to ourselves. Some simple intents suitable for this work are:
- I will experience happiness in my daily life
- I will allow contentment to underpin my days
- I will see the beauty in ordinary objects
- I will act in ways that encourage me to experience joy.
Notice that the intents are framed as a purposeful action on your part. “I will….” Setting your intent underpins and supports your efforts by giving you a new frame work and a direction As “I will” becomes “I am” or “I do,” that intent moves into manifestation as our experience. Reframing our current and past experiences – causing them to align more with our new intent – is an important tool of happiness work.
On the page to your left, write down your intent for your happiness work.