I have found that I wake up happy and ready for my day but when I turn on the television and begin to watch the morning news – something happens. I begin to get angry due to what I am watching – the news. Everything is so negative, our President is so negative, police chases, murders, wars, life is in turmoil. It is no wonder my attitude goes from happy to unhappy in just a few minutes. I need more joy!!! Calgon give me more joy and then take me away!!!!! Haha.
This is about focusing on joy, the immediate sensation of positive feelings. Joy requires special attention because there is so much going on in today’s world that interferes with our ability to be attentive to how we feel right now—and if you can’t do that, you miss a lot of happiness. I like to cite a study that found visible growth in certain areas of the brain of college students who practiced juggling every day for three months—and then found that the growth disappeared after three months of no practice. I take this as a paradigm for learning any new behavior, like attending to joy. The good news is that it’s possible to literally change our brains, so that becoming more aware of joy becomes automatic. The bad news is that it takes longer than we want it to—three months of concentrated, focused practice.
The simplest, but most important, message I have mentioned already about happiness is this: WAKE UP and choose to be happy! There is spectacular beauty all around you. Miracles are happening right under your nose. Moments you spend aware of the “blessings” can’t be taken away from you. Moments and living in those moments are important. Choosing what you do in those moments is up to you and no one else. Mindfulness means living in the moments given. This is more difficult than it should be because worldwide we seem to be losing our ability to feel anything at all. There are so many messages that tell us to fear our own emotions—stay cool, don’t lose control. And of course we try not to feel disturbing emotions—anger, fear, grief, horror and frustration. But we can’t shut down negative feelings without shutting down positive feelings too. Focusing on the positive is what we have to make the effort to do daily and in the moments of that day.
Enjoying ourselves is a skill that can be learned. Many of us are uncomfortable with being by ourselves with happiness. When occasionally we stumble on it, it scares us. We have to approach it with care. Savoring is a skill that the positive psychologists have developed. A simple thing like going to a movie by yourself instead of waiting for someone to go with you; going to a restaurant by yourself and enjoying a meal scares a lot of people and so they don’t do anything by themselves. No wonder It’s so-ironic-you-can’t-stand-it that in today’s world we may have to deliberately schedule time for these experiences.
One way to get used to enjoying ourselves is to work on feeling proud of our accomplishments and/or who we are. This is an uncomfortable feeling for some because we are told not to feel proud as that is ego and wrong. But one we can get used to with practice and know that there is a difference between ego and simply being proud of accomplishments. Ego says “look at me and know I am wonderful” where being proud says “Wow. I did something that was challenging and was successful. I want to share my fear and struggle to help someone else with theirs.”. Take a few minutes each day and jot down in a notebook a list of three things you’ve done that you feel good about. These may be things you thought you couldn’t do, or difficult tasks you had to force yourself to do, or just spontaneous acts of generosity or intimacy. After a week, look through the notebook at all the things you can feel good about. If you start to feel a little proud of yourself, you will probably be somewhat uncomfortable with that feeling. Never mind all the theorizing about why it’s hard for you to feel proud; just ride out the discomfort for a few minutes. You’ll see that the discomfort soon recedes a little. With practice, before long you may start feeling pretty good about yourself.
Another way is to pay attention to small pleasures. Most people are not good at being “in the moment” — instead of paying attention to what’s actually going on around us, we’re worried about what’s going to happen next, or feeling bad about what happened before. There is a saying that goes something like this, “We have a thousand yesterdays but only one today and only hope for a tomorrow.” Cultivate a better awareness of how your mind takes you away from the present; when you notice it, bring yourself back. Pay more attention to your senses than your thoughts. Attend to the taste of your food, the sounds in the evening with the TV off, the colors in the rooms you live in. Do what you can to make things more pleasant for yourself. Find someone to enjoy the moments with when you can but don’t forget that being by yourself can also bring some of the most treasured experiences.
Find opportunities for flow, the experiences that take us out of our temporal consciousness. Practice activities that are a mild challenge, that occupy our minds and bodies, that require a high degree of concentration, that have clear rules and prompt feedback. Practice concentration, making a deliberate effort to focus your attention on the task at hand. Forget yourself, lose the observing eye that is always evaluating you critically. Even at work, even if you hate your job, you will like yourself better if you find ways to make it challenging and stimulating. If this means you work harder and the boss will be pleased with you, that’s just a risk you’ve got to take.
Learn to relax. Take a course in yoga, or t’ai chi. Take care of your body, and learn to listen to it. Eat healthy but delicious meals. When we neglect or abuse our bodies, we’re only being passive aggressive with ourselves. We’re treating ourselves as if we’re unworthy of love. If in a bad relationship improve it by seeking professional help and/or leaving it. Unless we treat ourselves with care and respect, we can’t hope for joy. Happiness/joy is a choice and not something “we just have” but instead something we choose, cultivate, focus on and create in our lives.