I was reminded yesterday of a story in which a guy, having decided to end it all, jumps off the Golden Gate Bridge. As he falls, he has the sudden insight that he could solve all of his problems – except this one.
It may sound naive and Pollyanna-ish to talk about this stuff, and the cynic in me is incredibly reluctant to do so… but screw it. I like to be happy, and I like not to be sad. So this is something that’s important to me and I thought I’d talk about it here.
I’ve long been aware of the idea that happiness is not something that simply happens to you because of luck or a bunch of external events outside of your control, but it’s really come home to me recently that it is something you can actively work at.
This is not simply about just focusing on positive things, thinking happy thoughts and ignoring problems in your life (though I do like John C. Parkin’s somewhat westernised zen approach) – and nor is it about ignoring the injustices and negative elements in the world. It’s really more about recognising the things that make an impact on your general wellbeing, and doing what you can to maximise those things, while reducing the factors that get in the way of that, or that actively seek to undermine your happiness.
Physical pain and illness are obviously a factor for many people, and I’m not going to give medical advice about how to alleviate that stuff. Nor do I need to tell you that you should try. Pain is your body’s way of telling you something is wrong, and if you have a way of fixing that problem, it’s also your incentive to do so. You don’t need me to suggest it. It suggests itself.
But there are practical things and ways of considering your situation that have a profound effect on your happiness. Upon reflection, for me (and this may be different for you), there are three main factors to this.
1) Sunshine – I have become increasingly aware of my susceptibility to the mood altering affects of Vitamin D or lack thereof. Perhaps this has come about over time. I live in a predominantly grey and gloomy city, which is not conducive to my ongoing happiness, and my time in Auckland and LA over the first couple of months of this year really brought that into sharp relief. I have a daylight lamp that I use every day while I’m working, and that makes a real difference – but I need to find more ways to get more sun. Working on it.
2) Social and non-social behaviour – It’ll sound obvious, of course, but surrounding yourself with people that you like makes a huge difference. But so too does being okay by yourself. That ability to be on your own and have ‘non-social’ downtime is a real skill – one I struggle with. I’ve been working on it recently, and I find that going for long walks makes a real difference. I do like to sit on my own and simply listen to records, but getting over the need to constantly connect with other human beings (sometimes misdiagnosed as ‘internet addiction’) and experiencing alone time positively is very helpful.
3) Perception and assumption – This is the big one. Worrying what other people are doing, thinking and saying, or (more accurately) what we imagine people are doing, thinking and saying (because how can we know for sure?) are the source of much anxiety and unhappiness in life. It’s incredibly hard to do – but we need to recognise that it’s completely beyond our influence and, in fact, generally has zero impact on our lived day-to-day experience of the world. Solving that one is probably the biggest influencing factor on whether you’re having a good time or not. Certainly is for me.
In fact, for me that last one is the most important one. I have a real tendency to imagine the worst at times. But as my friend Steve is fond of saying, “you shouldn’t judge your insides by someone else’s outside”. How someone is communicating with you, or how you make sense of their interaction with you is almost never a sound basis for how you should feel about the world. And yet, the urge to interpret or jump to conclusions about the stuff that goes unstated tends to land us in trouble. And it’s almost always wrong.
I’m a generally happy guy. I have lots of reasons to be thankful (and it’s helpful to remind myself of those). Of course, I have my moments of down, and that’s perfectly normal when you go around being human. But I do prefer up.
I’ve been actively researching and working on a number of different ways to just feel better more consistently – and these include all the usual suspects (yes, including things like meditation, diet and exercise). Life can be turbulent, and it just makes sense to me to study ways of making that a positive experience. Seems a sensible way to spend time.
But of course, every now and then, something comes along and disrupts that. The trick is to deal with it, and get back to normal as swiftly as possible. And, perhaps more importantly, to work on making what constitutes ‘normal’ better.
That’s the current project. Your tips welcomed.