The quest for happiness is a hot topic lately. I recently searched Amazon books for “happiness” and got a return of over 64,000 results! So, I thought I’d jump into the fray and give you my two cents worth – from my past experience as a counselor and from my own journey.
To begin with, if you are seeking permanent happiness, quit now. It’s a given that everything changes, and that’s particularly true of our emotions. Sadness can be the most appropriate emotional response in some cases. Any attempt to avoid your full emotional range will only leave you unbalanced and discontent. There are, however, things you can do (and not do) that can help you enjoy your happiness as it comes and goes and comes again.
My top rule of happiness is to never believe everything you think. If you stop and watch your mind do its thing for any amount of time, you’ll notice that at any given moment, you have multiple thoughts “popcorning” in your brain. I call these “mental sensations.” Our attentional filter sublimates most of these mental sensations in order to direct the brain’s focus on a primary, intentional thought. Don’t be fooled, though. Those mental sensations are still there and are influencing your emotions, assumptions, and actions.
I’ve found there are particular mental sensations that have found a home in the brains of most folks. Let’s call these “internal mental prattle” or IMPs. IMPs are the mental sensations that run in the back of your mind and are detrimental to your feelings of contentment, happiness, confidence, and well-being. If you watch the IMPs, you’ll find they seem to have a life (and a “personality”) of their own. I’ve given them labels to easily identify when they are particularly active. A few of my favorite are:
The Worry IMP, whose modus operandi is to increase your anxiety with thoughts such as:
- “You probably got that all wrong.”
- “This will never work.”
- “Are you sure you covered everything? Maybe you missed something. I’m sure you forgot.”
The Crisis IMP takes over when the Worry IMP fails. It usually goes something like:
- “You’ve really messed up and everyone knows!”
- “You might as well just quit now before you get fired!”
- “You are so in over your head – but it’s too late now!”
- “Life as we know it is over. Run and hide!”
The Blaming IMP, a close cousin of the Fear/Anger IMP, turns it all outward with thoughts like:
- “They have no right to argue with you. You’re right and they should admit it.”
- “Other people are so stupid. You’d be better off without anybody.”
- “Can you believe that guy cut you off? It’s payback time!”
So, you’ve seen and identified your IMPs – what to do now? First, it’s important to understand that the purpose of each IMP is to help and protect you – it’s just taking its job a bit too seriously. This may seem strange, but it’s true. The next step is to thank them for their concern. This affects you internally in two ways – first, it brings gratitude into the picture and that helps boost happiness; second, it helps you separate your intentional thoughts from the chaotic prattle and increases your focus. Finally, take a couple of good breaths, focus on what’s here and now, and go on about your business. These techniques take practice, and you will get better at taming the IMPs as time goes on – and tamed IMPs means increased happiness.
Going hand in hand with “never believe everything you think” is another principle that works for me – be careful what you feed your mind.
As information and news overload is now the norm in our lives, I find that much of it is specifically designed to activate the IMPs – particularly the crisis, fear, anger and blaming IMPs. So I’ve learned to carefully choose what news and information I pay attention to and what I don’t. If the news or information is from a source I trust and if it’s information I can use in a constructive way to better my life and the lives of others, I pay attention. If not, I don’t consume it.
It’s like going to an all you can eat buffet. If I don’t exercise some judgment and discipline, there’s no telling how much cobbler I’ll eat! If I don’t exercise judgment and discipline in the buffet line of news and information, there’s no telling how depressed I can get.
Bottom line for happiness? Don’t believe everything you think and don’t eat everything on the news/information buffet!