Happiness Practice

Here in Southern California, we’re having a heat wave. Temperatures hover in the high 80′, 90’s, and in some places, 100’s. This is not a complaint. People living in other parts of the country have weather and environment issues too. But with few homes equipped for these temperatures, i.e. no air conditioning, moving more than necessary becomes unappealing.

So, if your energy has been zapped by the heat, consider watching and reading some of the books, Ted Talks, and documentaries listed in this article. They’re all related to happiness and Positive Psychology.

Positive Psychology research indicates that the essential ingredients for living a long, healthy, satisfying life are:

  • close connections with others
  • a purpose higher than oneself
  • a genetically set high base-level of happiness
  • daily habits that support and increase happiness including exercise, meditation (mindfulness), smiling and participating in activities you enjoy

Money helps too, but only to a certain degree ($50-80k per year).

If you are not as happy as you would like, are you are looking for happiness in all the right places? Or are you focusing too much on momentary pleasure and not enough on the bigger picture? The suggestions for increasing satisfaction in life in these books and videos come from rigorous scientific research, which differs, and sometimes opposes, advice in self-help books. As an example, instead of suggesting that you replace “negative” thoughts with “positive” thoughts to feel happier, you will learn that this mind-over-matter approach does not always work. And you will learn why. (The Happiness Hypothesis, J. Haidt). Martin Seligman, founder of Positive Psychology moves us beyond pleasure and contentment and toward flourishing. Enjoy reading. I will update this list from time to time, so check back.


Founder of Positive Psychology, Martin Seligman, PhD. kicked off the journey into happiness when he discovered that “…psychology has badly neglected the positive side of life. For every one hundred journal articles on sadness, there is just one on happiness” (Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment, 2004, p. 6). Scientists write journal articles to publish the results of their research, which means that the psychological community pays more attention to what’s wrong with human beings than what’s right with us.

To learn about your “positive” attributes, take some of the self assessments on the Authentic Happiness website. Or the ViaCharacter website.

The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want (2008), Sonja Lyubomirsky, PhD., begins with the question: Can you be more happy? and continues with self-assessments to determine your current level of happiness, a discussion about what happiness is and is not, and suggestions for ways to increase your level of happiness. So yes, the answer is you can be more happy. The How of Happiness is a practical how to be more happy book written by a research psychologist who backs her suggestions with research.

The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom (2006) Jonathan Haidt, PhD. references Plato, Edgar Allen Poe, Buddha, Shakespeare and other wise minds to build his happiness theory. He uses the metaphor of a rider on an elephant to describe confusing human behavior. The rider (conscious mind) says go this way, and the elephant (everything else), when not aligned with the rider, says, no, we’re going this way. Guess which way the pair go? This delicious read begins with a discussion about the many divisions of the human experience (body/mind, left brain/right brain, old brain/new brain, voluntary/autonomic nervous systems) suggesting that each of us has more of an inner committee than a unified voice and concludes with “By drawing on wisdom that is balanced…we can train the elephant…”

Harvard professor Daniel Gilbert, PhD. bases his book Stumbling on Happiness (2005),  on the premise that the difference between humans and other animals is our interest in thinking about the future. “…thinking about the future can be so pleasurable that sometimes we’d rather think about it than get there” (p. 18). We have little ability, however, to predict the future. Imagine if we could! There would be no more fun in playing the lottery or stock market. But we’d have peace, a healthy environment, with no poverty, violence, and anger.

Martin Seligman leads the way again with his book Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being (2011) which moves our attention beyond happiness and toward flourishing. Flourish, according to the online Merriam-Webster dictionary mean “to grow well : to be healthy : to be very successful : to do very well.” Another online definition that just popped up in its own box above all of the other results seems more fitting “(of a person, animal, or other living organism) grow or develop in a healthy or vigorous way, esp. as the result of a particularly favorable environment” because we cannot rule out the influences of the world around us. According to this new theory, to flourish, an individual must have: PERMA. Positive emotion (or happiness); engagement or interest; (positive) relationships; meaning; and accomplishment.

Documentaries and Ted Talks

You can find all of the following documentaries on Netflix and the TEDTalks on TED.com. When indicated, they can be streamed and watched right away.

Documentary: Stress: Portrait of a Killer (National Geographic, 2008). The human nervous system has had inadequate time to adapt to the environment in which we live. Rush here, rush there, multitask, manage complex financial demands, plan for the future, buy a new car, climb the social ladder. Is your house bigger than your neighbor’s? We live with in-your-face and less obvious sources of stress. To understand the stress response in our “natural” environment, Stanford neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky turns to baboons in the African savannah, the habits and hormones of which he has studied for more than 30 years. This documentary includes the work of other scientists who study the effects of stress as well. Available from Netflix to stream or as a DVD.

Documentary: Remember Harvard psychologist and author of Stumbling on Happiness, Professor Daniel Gilbert? PBS produced a three-part award-winning documentary hosted by Dan Gilbert: This Emotional Life (2010). Part One: Family, Friends, and Lovers; Part Two: Facing Our Fears; Part Three: Rethinking Happiness. Also available on PBS streaming.

TEDTalk: Daniel Gilbert again, this time on TED. Dan Gilbert: The surprising science of happiness (filmed on February 2004).

TEDTalk: Dan Gilbert: Why we make bad decisions

TED Playlist: What makes us happy? (9 talks) includes the two above.

The downside of mindfulness

Mindfulness practice at Deer Park
Deer Park Monastery Escondido CA

Scientists all over the world are studying the benefits of mindfulness. So, when an article comes along that challenges mindfulness as a “cure-all,” I want to read it. 

People who know me know I am “into” mindfulness big time. I study it, practice it, and write about it. I give talks about it. I have integrated mindfulness into the psychotherapy work I do, my personal relationships, into hiking, writing, and every breath I take.

Not true about every breath. That was a pun I couldn’t resist. Sometimes I am so thoroughly oblivious to my surroundings, my body, my breath, I wonder if all the meditation I do has any effect (it does). Take that six-part sonic boom two of my hiking buddies heard when we were headed up to Eagle Rock. “Did you hear that?” one of them asked. “Hear what?” I said. Right? Oblivious. But I am also kind to myself about being oblivious.

Mindfulness–the mainstreaming of

Because people who know me know I am interested in mindfulness, they send me articles they think I might like to read. I appreciate that because my Google alert for mindfulness misses a lot of articles and doesn’t retrieve articles posted to the internet in the past.

This latest article someone sent my way, If Mindfulness Makes You Uncomfortable, It’s Working (Su, A.J., The Harvard Business Review, December 29, 2015) begins with the story about a woman named Claire. Claire learned about mindfulness from her company and was trying a mindfulness app. Rather than feeling more calm and relaxed, though, Claire was feeling more agitated.

“…mindfulness has hit the mainstream,” the article continues. Indeed it has. You will find mindfulness in schools, in government, in police departments, in prisons, in community centers, in graduate programs for organizational development. Which is probably why Claire learned about mindfulness from the company she works for, of all places.

Mindfulness is based on the Buddhist philosophy that suffering is caused by getting tangled up in thoughts and feelings about the past and the future–two time zones we have no control over. Suffering is caused by clinging and avoiding. In Buddhist terms, suffering is optional. But suffer we do.  We all have a tendency to cling, grasp, and chase pleasant experiences and avoid or push away unpleasant experiences. Eating too many sweets and avoiding honest but difficult conversations are examples.

Mindfulness is also based on the idea that if you are more aware of what’s going on NOW in your body, in your mind, and around you, you can feel more alive by  a) being aware of your present moment experiences and b) learning from them. You might even do something about them. Maybe.

Mindfulness–the mis-reputation

On the way to fame, recognition, and integration into our culture, though, mindfulness picked up the mis-reputation as a pathway to happiness, peace, calm, maybe even enlightenment and perfection. For good reason.

Scientists in every major university in the Western world conduct rigorous studies on the effects of mindfulness. I just did a Google search for “mindfulness” and got “About 29,600,000 results (0.49 seconds)”. On EBSCO Host, a database of journal articles, there were more than seven thousand.

Some of the more interesting research reports that a regular mindfulness/meditation practice can:

  • reduce anxiety, stress, reactivity, depression
  • change the wiring in your brain
  • prevent relapse in addiction recovery
  • improve memory, concentration, sleep
  • strengthen the immune system
  • improve quality of life

and more of course. We don’t yet know all the benefits, or how much (or little) mindfulness it takes to feel the benefits.

Mindfulness–the awareness, the attention, the equanimity

Where were we with the article? (awareness) Let’s get back to what the author was saying (attention). We do this without criticism of mind and writing wandering (equanimity, compassion, acceptance, kindness).  Su continues:

Therefore, we have to redefine mindfulness as more than feeling good, and instead see it as having an increased capacity to sit with the full spectrum of being human, experiencing it all — the good, the bad, and the ugly — and learning to be less reactive so that we can make better choices each day.

But, but, but…what about all of that research?

Mindfulness–the Shinzen view

Mindfulness looks and sounds simple. But it’s far from that. In What is Mindfulness? Shinzen Young breaks down mindfulness into eight areas for us to consider (p. 4):

  1. Mindfulness – The Word
  2. Mindfulness – The Awareness
  3. Mindfulness – The Practices
  4. Mindfulness – The Path
  5. Mindfulness – The Translation
  6. Mindfulness – The Fad
  7. Mindfulness – The Shadow
  8. Mindfulness – The Possible Revolution

I encourage you to read his paper.

“Mindfulness–The Practices” includes Noting, Body Scanning, Lovingkindness, and Open Presence. To keep this as simple as possible, I only want to mention Noting in this article. You’ll see why later. Noting is the practice of labeling whatever you experience in an objective way. “Thinking.” “Planning.” “Worrying.” “Happy.”

“Mindfulness – The Path” includes the application of mindfulness as a way to increase the human experience of happiness. In other words, what is the effect of mindfulness on physical, emotional, cognitive, and spiritual distress or dis-ease? That’s what all the research is about. So far, mindfulness has an A+ and is proving to be quite effective. Hence, the not-so mis-reputation. The idea that mindfulness leads to happiness is not entirely based on our desire to be happier. It is based on the body of research that drives our thinking and transforms our culture.

No one says that sitting in NOW is pleasant all the time. NOW is not pleasant when we get hijacked by thoughts, feelings, and stories. NOW is not pleasant when we review conversations, the latest to-do list, and worries about what could happen in the future for the 99th time. NOW is not pleasant when we feel sad or anxious or angry.

NOW is not pleasant when you don’t get the promotion you expected, when the person you love leaves you, or when illness visits you or someone you care about.

The idea is to learn to sit through whatever comes up.

Remember Claire? When people begin practicing mindfulness, that is the formal practice of sitting quietly or meditating, all kinds of stuff comes up that’s always been there, stuff you’ve avoided or ignored. With mindfulness practice, you are alone with you, your thoughts, your feelings, your body sensations. These parts of you may seem like strangers at first. Unfamiliar, even scary. As with strangers, the more time you spend with them, the more approachable they become.

Mindfulness–the corporate application

NOW in the corporate world is based on experiences like Claire’s and the other two people in A. J. Su’s article. Because she writes for a business audience–remember the article was published in the Harvard Business Review–Su’s advice focuses on organizational behavior from a mindfulness perspective and more-or-less how to be more productive. She suggests (my comments in italics):

1. “Witness” and track the pattern

of behavior, thoughts, feelings. This is AWARENESS

 2. Notice, name, and pause.

This is NOTING. Mindfulness–The Practices…That’s why I mentioned it earlier.

3. See more clearly, choose more clearly.

This is EQUANIMITY, maybe. Equanimity is inner peace or a calmER nervous system. Calm nervous system = less fight/flight/freeze and more cerebral cortex engagement.

Mindfulness–The Future

As I mentioned earlier, we do and we don’t know a lot about mindfulness, the effects of mindfulness, the benefits, or the limitations if there are any. Not knowing is exciting.

A few decades ago, the 2,000-year-old practice of meditation met with Western technology and psychology. POW! Like the Big Bang, something big happened. We don’t yet know where that will lead. We don’t know the effect mindfulness will have on human evolution, on the future of the planet, or even on your next breath.

What we do know is that the practice of being still even for five minutes a day is more complicated and more interesting than it sounds.

Oh. The downside of mindfulness? So far there are none.



After you read the next sentence, close your eyes for a few seconds.

How would you feel if an important someone in your life said, “I wish you happiness?”

And how would you feel if that person said to you, “There are no strings attached, I expect nothing in return, not even a thank you.”

Wow, right?

Maybe you don’t have someone in your life who would wish you happiness without strings; maybe you do. While it is deliciously wonderful to have that kind of relationship with another person, it can be surprisingly rare. Most human beings are so caught up in their own lives, they can’t wish you happiness, or they want something in return. No worries. You don’t have to live without.  You can give yourself permission to wish yourself happiness.

I am very serious about that.

Managing the inner critic

For some of us, the judgmental inner critic will spring to life and say, “What do you mean wish happiness to yourself? You’re so selfish! What about your poor, sad, struggling [fill in the blank].” We’ll get to her in a second. For now, be aware that you might have an inner critic and that critic might not like your wishing happiness to you. We are conditioned to put others first lest we be labelled narcissist, self-centered, or self-absorbed.

So, you will have to tell your judgmental, inner critic in as kind a tone as you can manage, “No, I’m not being selfish at all. I’m taking very good care of myself.”

Many cultures and religions encourage compassion for others. But, when the focus of your attention is always on others, you can develop an inner longing that can feel like a garden that has no water or sunshine. Wishing yourself happiness can help reduce the longing and feed your spirit. Don’t believe me, though. Try it for yourself.

Kindness for you

Lovingkindness or simply kindness is a Buddhist meditation for developing compassion, first for yourself, then for others. Most people love this meditation. It goes like this:

Sit comfortably. Breathe naturally. You can close your eyes or not. Then just take a few breaths to settle into yourself.

You can say the words out loud, or you can think them. Whichever way you choose, bathe yourself in kindness as if you’re standing under a gentle shower of unconditional love. Pause between each sentence and embrace the wish.

May I be happy.

May I be safe.

May I be healthy.

May I live with peace and equanimity*.

May I love and feel loved.


Repeat as often as you like.

Kindness for others

Remember that poor, struggling person your inner critic wants you to focus your attention on? When you’re ready, and not a moment before, think of someone you care about and send kindness to that person.

May you be happy.

May you be safe.

May you be healthy.

May you live with peace and equanimity*.

May you love and feel loved.

Smile. Pause.

In meditation groups, the leader will sometimes suggest that each person wish to the others in the group:

May you be happy.

May you be safe.

May you be healthy.

May you live with peace and equanimity*.

May you love and feel loved.

In the Buddhist tradition, you would repeat this wish for someone neutral in your life, then for a difficult person in your life, and finally, to all sentient beings. This exercise can have a profound effect on your happiness.

Kindness for someone difficult

You might resist sending kindness to someone who has hurt you or someone who is hurting so much they have nothing to give. That’s a healthy response. Don’t force it, and don’t make it a goal, but leave yourself open to the possibility that as your inner garden grows and your heart opens, you might find yourself doing just that.

*inner calm

Steven Smith’s description of the lovingkindness meditation
Sharon Salzberg’s guided lovingkindness meditation on YouTube
Sharon Salzberg’s book Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness

Want chogshay? Try happiness practice.

Like lobbing a tennis ball and bowing the cello; like running marathons and understanding calculus; like writing haiku and winning video games, daily practice moves us toward mastery, or in Malcom Gladwell’s words, expertise.

“In fact, researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: ten thousand hours.”
Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success

infinitejestLet’s face it. Some of us will never master calculus or video games no matter how many hours we put in. Each of us has inherent strengths and limitations. Your zooming will be another person’s challenge and her zoom your challenge. Except for those exceptionally gifted outliers who have multiple or extreme talents and strengths, each of us will develop mastery or expertise to a level on a continuum. There’s only so much room at the high end for a great singing voice, Amy Winehouse. Or an ability to move words around into brilliant prose, David Foster Wallace. Or…right time right place right business acumen, right combination of many strengths, Mark Zuckerberg. You get the picture. Most of us are somewhere in the middle. Just as practice alone does not guarantee expertise; inherent abilities don’t guarantee mastery. If you have developed expertise in any area, you know it wasn’t just nature or practice. You have to have both.

The math experts have already calculated that 10,000 hours is 4 hours of practice a day, 365 days a year for 6.85 years.

Mastering happiness with practice

What about happiness? Can happiness be mastered with practice? Or is happiness limited to those who are genetically predisposed to being happy? A guarded yes and no. You may recall from the article More Happiness…Please? that researchers have determined that we can change 40% of our experience of happiness through intentional activities. The other 60% is divided into what’s referred to as base level happiness (50%) and external stuff like cars, houses, vacations, income (10%). Researchers also believe that money buys happiness but only up to $50-$80k a year, depending on the study you read. I’m not sure if those numbers apply to living in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Manhattan, and other expensive places in the US, or what living on $50k a year is like in more affordable communities. I haven’t seen any research that includes cost of living or population density when determining the income to happiness ratio. Cost of living and income aside for a moment, we’re only talking about 10% of our experience of happiness.

Happiness practice: Intentional activities

We can’t do too much about our base level of happiness or positive affect. Are you an Eyore or a Tigger? Do you wear rose-colored glasses or dark shades? Are you more of an optimist or doubter? There is no right or wrong. Like the strengths continuum, each of us falls somewhere on the happiness base level / positive affect continuum. Genetics, chronic mental and physical health challenges, effects of environment and early childhood experiences–nature and nurture–all contribute. Therapy may help, but it’s important to normalize your expectations about happiness. Martin Seligman, PhD. (Authentic Happiness, 2004, p. 35) wrote about his friend Len who he described as reserved. Successful in business and leisure activities, but not so in relationships, Len’s ability to think logically and inability to emote warm, fuzzy feelings contributed to his becoming a champion bridge player and multi-millionaire. After hearing from women that there was something wrong with him, and years of psychoanalysis, Len took Seligman’s advice and moved to Europe. Sure enough, in a new culture that moves at a different pace than the US and values introversion more than extroversion…he met a woman he married and found acceptance.

Trait or state?

Happiness is a trait and a state. “A trait is a relatively permanent individual characteristic” while a state is “…a temporary change in one’s personality” (allpsych.com). Joy, pleasure, and all of their synonyms–delight, jubilation, triumph, exultation,rejoicing, gladness, glee, exhilaration, exuberance, elation,euphoria, bliss, ecstasy, rapture, and happiness–are states. You might experience pleasure, a state, when you eat Three Twins organic mint confetti ice cream on a cake cone, or take a hot bubble bath on a cold day, or play with FOO your Frenchie or Ziggy your cat.

Trait happiness is how you feel overall most days regardless of the activity, environment, or even state of mind (for the most part).

Happiness here in Southern California, in the shadow of Hollywood, is an extroverted, gregarious, flashy, almost superficial series of activities strung together in an endless stream of pleasurable states that look like trait happiness. When the activities end, though, so might the “happy” feeling. And so there is a sense of frenzied reaching for that next hit of pleasure. That’s not to say that happiness cannot be achieved through activity.

Trait happiness is an inner sense of peace, calm, contentment, acceptance of self, others, and the life experience. This is the Buddhist definition of happiness or in Bhutanese, chogshay.

Bhutan is a Buddhist kingdom on the eastern edge of the Himalayas best known for its measurement of GNH…Gross National Happiness.  The Bhutanese word “chogshay” loosely translates to a fundamental contentment that is independent of a person’s current emotional state.*

For instance, someone could be in the throws of rage or feel horrendously ill, but their underlying sense of well-being could still be intact. At first, the notion of chogshay was completely alien to Cordaro [Daniel Cordaro, a psychologist at the University of California at Berkeley and Yale University], who was used to defining well-being in terms of what he had, how he was feeling and what he was striving for. But through a process of recognizing the universality of many human emotions, and after completing a round of Buddhist meditation in Thailand, Cordaro experienced the chogshay state.(livescience.com)

Chogshay practice

Everyone’s jumped on the happiness bandwagon. If you search “how to be happier” on Google (26.8 million results), on the first page alone, you will find articles from some reputable and lesser known sources.

How to be happy: 7 steps to becoming a happier person on WebMD.

10 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Incredibly Happy on Inc.com

3 Ways to be Happy on WikiHow.

How to be happy: Tips for cultivating contentment on Mayoclinic.org

All of the how-to lists reference Positive Psychology articles and books and the studies scientists have been doing for the past two and a half decades. Reading these articles can feel overwhelming. Or, like New Year’s resolutions, exciting and promising for a few days or a week.

Cultivating happiness takes time, dedication, and determination. In other words, practice, practice, practice. Do what Jonathan Haidt (The Happiness Hypothesis) has his students do. Choose one step, way, suggestion or tip for increasing happiness. Practice that for a day. At the end of the day, agree (with yourself or a partner) to do it for another day. And so on until you’ve practiced for a month. Journal your experience of happiness. Many people begin with gratitude. What are you grateful for? Make a list of three things before going to bed each night.

  1. I’m grateful for my physical and mental health.
  2. I’m grateful for FOO my Frenchie.
  3. I’m grateful for clean, running water.

You get the idea.

Or, if you’re not feeling particularly grateful, try this more basic practice. Smile when you think of it. Smile and take a breath. The act of turning up the corners of your mouth changes your sense of well-being. Try it. 🙂

Give and receive 8 hugs a day.

Or do as the Bhutanese do and think of death five times a day (bbc.com).

After 10,000 hours of practice, you should, according to Gladwell, achieve mastery, but if all the science is accurate, you won’t have to wait that long. You may even feel happier right away!

Freedom, Happiness, Love

I think it was 1997 with The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom by Don Miguel Ruiz. This book “…was a New York Times bestseller for more than seven years….” [Wikipedia]. It has been translated into 38 languages with 5.2 million copies sold in the US [Amazon]; 7 million worldwide. The Four Agreements is one of Oprah’s favorite things. It may have been a tsunami all by itself.

Four AgreementsNot everyone likes this book, of course. Don Miguel Ruiz states on his book covers and web site that he comes from a long line of Toltec ancestors who were healers. In some circles, this translates into too different to even consider. His universal message, mostly common sense, however, offers “…a new philosophy for seekers of truth and personal authenticity.” (www.donmiguelruiz.com)

Roberta* bought the book in 1997 four years before it hit the New York Times bestseller list. She considers the book an essential member of her library. Roberta describes herself as a curious person who has searched for a more meaningful life all of her adult life. “I was born a seeker,” she says. As such, she studies spiritual and self-help books; she believes that each contains information she can use to become a more authentic person and to learn more about who she is. “I read a lot of books,” Roberta said, “but I keep coming back to this one.”

Like a close friend, this small, concise tome becomes part of readers’ lives. What made this tiny book so popular?

First, it’s a physically small book. 138 pages, 5″ x 7″. You can take it with you anywhere.

It’s easy to read. You can read it in about an hour. Even though Don Miguel Ruiz was a neurosurgeon, he writes in down-to-earth language from the heart. Right-brain talk.

It’s affordable. Less than $8.00 for a brand new copy.

The agreements are easy to remember:

  1. Be impeccable with your word.
  2. Don’t take anything personally.
  3. Don’t make assumptions.
  4. Always do your best.

That’s it.

If you practice The Four Agreements, according to Don Miguel Ruiz, you can “…transform [your life] to a new experience of freedom, true happiness, and love.”

That sounds great. Sign me up.

But what happens once the initial inspiration to live more authentically wears off? And what does “practice” mean, really? This is where the 10% inspiration; 90% perspiration adage applies.

Practice your way to a new habit

Any time we want to change something, whether that something comes in the form of a New Year’s resolution to lose ten pounds or a desire to play the ukelele, we have to replace an old habit with a new one. It’s easy and fun to imagine a new look or a new skill, but the focused attention and hours of alone time getting there tends to put people off. New habits take time and concerted effort…a.k.a. practice.

Practice begins with awareness. Before you can be more impeccable with your word, you have to know that you are not being impeccable with your word. Before you can stop taking things personally, you have to realize that you have been. Make sense?

Stop for a second and think. Do you use language in hurtful ways? Do you take things personally? Do you make assumptions? Do you do your best?

In 12-step programs, this is called taking inventory. For most people, this step stirs up shame. Taking inventory or stripping yourself authentic means coming down from any illusions you have about yourself and looking beneath the defenses and rationalizations that you have about your relationships, your intentions, and your desires. We all have a dark side. Can you own yours?

(Personal) Freedom

If you believe that you have the freedom to drive your destiny, why do you and so many other people feel limited, imprisoned, or trapped? Irvin Yalom, Ph.D. wrote about freedom as an existential concept (Existential Psychotherapy) in 1980. After decades of working with and studying human behavior, he suggests that we each have the freedom–and the resultant responsibility–to do what we choose to do and say and think and feel. Most of us want freedom. Why then do we get stuck? Maybe it’s the R word. Responsibility for the outcome or fear of being criticized by self or others. Agreement #1: Take personal responsibility. Be impeccable with your word. You might be surprised how good you feel about yourself.

(True) Happiness

Can you truly be happy? Martin Seligman, Ph.D. (Authentic Happiness, 2004) started the Positive Psychology movement when he began looking at what is RIGHT with human beings in the 1990’s– around the time The Four Agreements hit book store shelves. Since then, you may have noticed, the avalanche of books, videos, workshops, products, and services, each examining the “positive” aspects of life with promises that you can increase your satisfaction, happiness, and meaning in life. Self-help books have been around for a long time. This most recent wave is supported by science, especially neuroscience. Change your thinking, change your behavior; change your habits and change your brain!

Sounds simple. It’s not. But with intent and practice, it is possible. Agreement #2: Don’t take anything personally. And #3: Don’t make assumptions.


Hearts, flowers, butterflies. Hmmmm. There’s more to love than excitement. M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled (1978, latest edition 2003), defines real love as encouraging and supporting another person’s personal growth: a child, a life partner, a friend, students, and in therapy, clients.  In a broader sense, knowing that we are all connected can increase empathy, compassion, and love for each other. A butterfly flaps its wings in Brazil and causes a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico (the Butterfly Effect, Edward Lorenz). Not literally, but cumulatively. Or someone somewhere grew the coffee beans that brewed your favorite cup of java. The way you express your mood and attitude (your energy) affects each person you interact with. Want love? Then love yourself. You get what you project. If only life were that manageable. Give love and notice if you receive love. Some people will never change and it’s smart to leave them to themselves. Agreement #4: Always do your best.

The Four Agreements are easy to understand and easy to remember. That’s probably one of the reasons the book has been so popular. By practicing them, you might notice a difference in how you think and feel. Don’t take my word for it though. Spend the $8.00. Read the book. And try it for yourself. Life is an experiment. Have fun with it.

More happiness…please?

The good news is: you may have more happiness.

The not-so-good news: You’ll have to work at it…every conscious moment of your life.

There’s more good news. But first, let’s look at what scientists have learned about happiness. According to neuroscience research, human beings have a predisposition for negative thinking. “Bad” experiences stick to us. “Good” experiences slide off.  Think of this as the velcro/teflon effect.

Isabel,* 35, single, no children, is a loan officer at Greenville State Bank. She earns enough money to live comfortably, but she has developed a habit that isn’t doing her any good. She shops online every night; she spends weekends at the mall. She worries about the money she owes and wonders why all the shoes and clothes in her closets don’t make her feel happier.

“In the moment, when I’m looking for something to buy, even up to the time I hand over my credit card, I feel happy, almost giddy. I imagine how a jacket or pair of boots will change the way I feel about myself. But from the time I click Confirm or walk out of the store, my mood drops and drops and drops until I regret yet another unnecessary purchase.”

We can all identify with Isabel. She has learned, as we all have, the myth that spending = happiness, or that shopping is entertainment. This belief can lead to disappointment, guilt, shame and a feeling of dissatisfaction…not happiness.

Isabel’s doing the best she can with the information she has. Shopping = momentary pleasure, not long lasting happiness. More stuff does not = more happiness.

Excuse the metaphor cliche, but have you ever burned your hand on a hot stove? If you answered yes to the stove or another painful experience, you know that your brain stored that experience in Never-Do-That-Again memory. Had some difficulties in childhood? Your brain held on to those experiences too. Someone broke your heart? You get the idea. Scientists believe that this mechanism protects us from future harm. Unfortunately, it goes too far. Even when the danger is long gone, the brain holds onto the memory. The off switch is buried somewhere in the experience. To make matters worse, when too much “bad” piles up, we can’t think our way out of it. We look for ways to alleviate feelings of sadness or low self-worth. If you are like most people, you’ll need a guide to show you the way out.

Set-point or range of happiness

In the documentary, Happy (2012), Sonya Lyubomirsky, PhD.  explains how we can turn the downward spiral around. She shows a colorful pie chart with three unequal slices.

Lu how of happiness pie chart

Pie piece one is the set-point or range of genetically influenced happiness.

Pie piece two: circumstances.

And pie piece three: intentional activities.

The difference in set point can be observed in babies in the newborn nursery of a hospital, on the playground of a preschool, and from parents’ reports about their children’s “temperament.”

We are unique from day one. Some of us smile from first breath to last. Others, stumble our way through life with a cloud overhead. You’ve heard the expression glass half-empty? Half-full? Like everything else, base level happiness (or fear, or sadness) lies on a continuum. From what scientists understand now, this piece makes up 50% of our experience of happiness.

Circumstances: More money will make you more happy

If you feel less happy than you would like to be, you might think that a different job, more money, a bigger house, or a sexier car will bring you bliss. You may have even tried buying things because you’re certain that new pair of shoes or the 75-inch HDTV will do it for you. And you may have noticed that yes, buying is exciting…for a few hours, a day, maybe two. The excitement of shopping, planning, anticipation wanes along with the dopamine rush. So for a quick high, definitely buy something new. For a lasting bump in happiness, consider this: the same body of research indicates that circumstances (socioeconomic status, age, location, etc.) contribute a surprisingly low 10% to our overall experience of happiness.

Money is important, says Daniel Gilbert, Ph.D., but not as much as you’d think. We need food, clothing, and shelter to feel safe. But, according to research again, money increases the experience of happiness up to about $50,000-$80,000 a year. Does that mean if you’re earning less than that, you doomed to depression. NO! Remember that research only looks at groups, not individuals. You might be one of those lucky people who’s genetic set point for happiness is high. Or, something else.

Intentional Activities: More happiness = 40%

You might have already done the math (or looked at the pie chart). Fifty per cent of happiness can be attributed to genetics. Ten per cent has to do with where you live and how much money you earn. What about the other 40%? That’s the really good news. You can change your experience of happiness with Intentional Activities, or what you choose to do. That 40% slice of the pie represents the control you have over your experience of happiness.

Increasing happiness: Novelty

Scientists, again, have discovered that we can increase our level of happiness by increasing novelty in our daily lives. Do something as simple as take a different route home from work, or enroll in a class, or eat a meal of ethnic cuisine you haven’t tried before. In other words, the human brain loves new experiences…and change?

Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! Hold on. In Hamlet’s words, “There’s the rub.” The conundrum. The contorted face behind “What the…” If the road to happiness depends on changing the way you live, what about the risk-avoidant amongst us who do not feel safe with difference and change. Are we doomed to a state of eternal unhappiness?

Stephen Porges, PhD. (2011) found that without a foundation of safety, nothing creative or bold can happen. Creative and bold means venturing away from safety, doing something different, against the tide, unpopular, RISK-y. For some, even taking a new route home from work threatens that safety and homeostasis. Besides, isn’t safety, not change, what most of us grasp for, work towards, long after? A place to call home, our own little piece of terre firma. A dependable car to drive. A set of family and friends on whom we can depend for love, kindness, acceptance, and support?

Let’s slow down this happiness gig

We’ve all done this. You read a book or an article, you get excited, you fantasize about the new you. A day or two passes, you forget about the book and go back to your previous mode of operation. Sounds a lot like Isabel’s shopping. That’s why we’re going to take this S-L-O-W. Change is scary. Pick one new thing to do every day for a week. Notice what happens.

Unpleasant/negative/bad experiences wire the brain. Pleasant/positive/good experiences rewire it.

The rest of the good news

The more good news I mentioned in the beginning of this article is this. You can have all the happiness you want. Intentional activities rewire the brain and lead to more and more happiness. But don’t believe me. Try it for yourself. Let me know what you learn.


The How of Happiness web site, Sonya Lyubomirsky, PhD. Professor of Psychology at the University of California Riverside

Happy (2012) a documentary

The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation, (Porges, S., 2011)

Uncovering Happiness: Overcoming depression with mindfulness and self-compassion. (Goldstein, 2015)

Therapy and Happiness

Unresolved trauma can develop into a stuck place of remembering painful experiences over and over and over without resolution or relief.
History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again. —Maya Angelou*

We need courage, and other people, to find our way out of the cycle of pain.

childhood traumaJenna*, a 38-year-old single woman, feels her biological clock ticking. Jenna has had several relationships that lasted months, but never years. Jenna met each potential partner at a club after a few drinks when her inhibitions and judgment were low. The relationships became physical right away. Before long, Jenna found herself again “in love” with a man who reminded her of her father. Charismatic but lacking insight or compassion, the man would distance himself and eventually wander away from her. This caused Jenna so much pain, she would yell at and criticize her potential life partner. The more he pulled away, the more she yelled; the more she yelled, the more he pulled away. It was a vicious cycle. After each breakup, Jenna regressed to her frightened 9-year-old self who huddled in her room whenever her parents fought. An only child, Jenna had hoped her parents would get divorced or die, then worried that her thoughts might hurt them and that the fighting was her fault. Jenna’s parents were heavy drinkers. They were so consumed with their addictions and each other, they paid little attention to Jenna. The memories intrude on Jenna and cause her to feel shame and sadness. She thinks about doing something to relieve the pain. Twelve-step programs are a good start, group and individual therapy could be helpful as well.

There’s nothing “wrong” with Jenna. Jenna did all she could, with the emotional skills available to her at the time, to survive a scary and difficult childhood. Unmanageable fear, anger, and sadness are common in adults who have had traumatic childhoods. So is avoiding social interactions, and fighting. The memories become an inner critic that reflects the voices heard, a voice that says, “You’re a no good, unworthy, loser.” Painful messages to hear; shameful concepts to talk about. So, I am not surprised when I hear people say that therapy is not for her or him because, they don’t want to talk about the wrenching pain of the past. Sometimes it’s too much to think about.

Yet, summoning the courage to tell your story to another person in “talk therapy” has been shown to be effective in healing from trauma. Doing so means taking a risk that the other person will listen without judgment or criticism and will understand what you’ve experienced, what you feel.

Therapy doesn’t stop there. Not anymore. Talking about painful memories is only part of the healing process. We’ve learned that only focusing on pain and suffering or anger and fear does not lead to healing as originally thought. To heal, we need a way out, a light at the end of the tunnel, hope, something to replace the pain and rewire the brain. So, while it’s important to acknowledge the pain, fear, sadness, and anger, it’s also important to actively work toward recovery and happiness.

Positive Psychology

Martin Seligman, PhD. is the founder of Positive Psychology. He discovered and studied learned helplessness, a response to repeated unsuccessful attempts to escape pain and threat. In Authentic Happiness, (2002, p. 28) he describes a conversation that he had with his then 5-year-old daughter, Nikki. He had snapped at her for dancing and throwing weeds in the air while he was gardening. She walked away and after a few minutes returned to tell her father that if she could stop whining, which she had, he could stop being a grouch. This conversation changed the direction of Dr. Seligman’s work, which has had a profound effect on the way we think about the human experience, psychology, therapy, and our clients.

Research indicates that the essential ingredients for living a long, healthy, satisfying life are: close connections with others, a purpose higher than oneself, a genetically set high base-level of happiness, and daily habits that support and increase happiness. Money helps too, but only to a certain degree.

Close connections with others

You may be one of the fortunate few who has a loving family, close friends, a kind and caring life partner. But what if you are less fortunate. What if you have a dysfunctional family of origin, no close friends, and no partner. Can you still be happy? Maybe. Depends on what you’re willing to change. Introverts particularly find the emphasis on relationships to be, shall we say, annoying extroverted thinking. While you may want more satisfying relationships, that may not be your top priority. If it is, are you willing to take classes, join social groups, or safely meet people online?

Purpose higher than yourself

This can be a career, a volunteer job, being a parent, a good friend, or even attitude. In Authentic Happiness, Martin Seligman tells the story about visiting a close friend who was a patient at the hospital. The man was in a coma and his neurologist had just asked Dr. Seligman to sign a release to take the man off life support. A few minutes later, a hospital employee came into the room. He was taking deliberate time deciding which pictures to take down and which pictures to hang on the walls in the room. Dr. Seligman, the curious scientist, asked the man about his job. He said, “I’m an orderly on this floor…I bring in prints and photos every week. You see, I’m responsible for the health of all these patients. Take Mr. Miller here. He hasn’t woken up since they brought him in, but when he does, I want to make sure he sees beautiful things right away” (pp. 167-168). The orderly did not have a big shiny career with a lot of status. He had turned what he did have into a purpose higher than himself.

Base-level of happiness

Some people are born with a cheerier disposition than others. You can see that in any newborn nursery. One baby is more sensitive to stimuli than another. One cries more. Another sleeps quietly most of the day. Research indicates that we have a genetic set point. I am not convinced that this cannot change, but the science indicates it cannot. In any case, yours is fine, whatever it is. Just know that while the base level may not change, another whopping 40% of our perception of happiness can change. To learn more about this, read Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky’s work and her blog on Psychology Today’s web site. She studies and teaches the science of happiness at the University of California Riverside.

Habits that support and increase happiness

This is where the exciting news lies. If you are not as happy as you would like to be, are you are cultivating happiness in all the right places? Or are you focusing too much on momentary pleasure and not enough on the bigger picture? Neuroscientists have confirmed with fMRI’s and other technology that habits, reactions, patterns of behavior and relating, are not set in concrete as originally thought. The brain has the “smarts” to change. You are what you practice.

Your beliefs become your thoughts,
Your thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destiny.

Mahatma Gandhi

Some therapists have moved so far away from the “what’s wrong” medical approach, that we don’t even refer to people in therapy as patients. We see the work as a collaborative process and the client as the expert with agency in her or his life.

Certainly, there is  still a need for the diagnosis and treatment of mental illnesses, many of which require psychiatric intervention and medication to manage symptoms. But the people I see are seeking, in one way or another, relief from pain and more happiness in life.

*Found on Brainy Quote.com

**Jenna is a fictional character; photo from canstockphoto.com.


If this topic interests you, go a little further and visit with the founder and major contributors to Positive Psychology: