Is happiness hard to find?
Do you struggle to let yourself be happy?
Do you ever wonder why happiness is such hard work? If so you might want to read Steve Bloom’s article on Do Something Cool.
Maybe you tell yourself you will find happiness when you:
- Have more money
- Complete something you told yourself you’re supposed to do
- Have the perfect body
- Or some other ultimately bullshit demand you put on yourself?
Happiness does not have to be a challenge.
Problem is, it doesn’t feel that way when we’re facing negative emotions like sadness, grief, anger. At such times, happiness can seem miles away.
Does it feel as though happiness is impossible?
I get that.
When we’re down, we tend to exaggerate our suffering.
Steven Handel has written a great guide to catastrophizing on TheEmotionMachine.
When we feel bad we exaggerate the negative.
A slight bit of stress can make a molehill seem like a mountain. And at such times, we simply can’t see the hope of over climbing all the way back to happiness.
Of course, help is always there for us.
There are more than 100,000 licensed psychologists in the United States (*1), and just as many drug stores. For those who prefer to get their help online, there are an estimated 1,630,000 health blogs according to Google (*2).
Clearly, help is ours when we want it.
Then again, those psychologists, drug stores and health blogs offer different advice, and oftentimes they even directly disagree with one another.
And it’s obvious that help is not working.
The 2016 Happiness Index is sitting at a pathetic 31 out of 100. That’s less than one third optimum happiness. Evidently our healthcare system is garbage, at least if happiness is a measure of mental health.
And no wonder.
With such an eclectic mix of different advice, finding a way out of our pain is about as difficult as escaping King Minos’ Labyrinth.
Yup, it can seem like happiness is hard to find…
If happiness is hard to find, put those self improvement books aside for a moment.
Sometimes what we need is some very basic guidance, the sort of guidance we can follow without even the slightest chance of confusion.
Here is that advice:
When it comes to happiness, you’re either letting it in or keeping it out.
Don’t Go Looking For Happiness. Let Happiness Find You
You cannot find happiness.
Happiness will come when you let it in.
But how do you let happiness in?
The key is to open the mind (read these quotes to really open your mind!).
Happiness works like a gateway. At all times, we are either opening ourselves to happiness, keeping happiness out, or somewhere between the two.
This gateway, this in-or-out process, occurs within the mind.
When we are awake, our minds are either open, closed, or somewhere between the two.
When we are down, we are lost in our own thoughts. We do not allow reality in. We don’t open our minds to the light of the day. The gateway is closed.
When we stop and actually observe the mind at these times, we see that our thoughts block out the present moment like clouds blocking the sun.
A study conducted by Harvard showed that people spend 46% of the time focusing on something other than what they’re doing. They termed this, “Wandering mind”. psychologists Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert of Harvard University tell us, “A human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind,” Killingsworth and Gilbert write. “The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.”
This wandering mind serves to block out the present moment. For instance, we might be thinking about work while trying to sleep.
And if we’re thinking about work while trying to sleep, we’re probably stressed even though we are doing something relaxing.
So even though we may be doing something in the present moment, we might also be mentally blocking out that present moment reality. In other words, not accepting the present moment. And if that sounds familiar, you might like to read PositivityBlog’s article about returning to the present moment.
Happiness Always Finds An Open Mind
If you want to let happiness in you have to open your mind.
The key to happiness is opening the mind; it’s being aware of the present moment.
This isn’t to say that we must be aware of everything in order to be happy.
- Focus generally on the present moment (like when we do open monitoring meditation).
- Focus on one single aspect of the present moment.
- And we can even mindfully observe our thoughts such as when we practice Vipassana.
Either way, the mind is still open. We are still focusing on the present moment, and so the gateway is open.
Open the gateway, let the present moment in, and happiness follows.
If you look back at both the happiest and unhappiest moments of your life, you will see that the gateway was either completely open or completely closed.
Bring to mind the happiest times of your life and you will likely find that your mind was open. Perhaps you were on vacation, standing on a beach gazing out over the ocean. It felt like there was no stress, no thoughts, no distractions. You were free to enjoy the moment.
When the mind is open in this way, we find happiness and tranquility.
When it is closed, we feel the opposite.
The key to happiness is keeping that gateway open. So how do you do that?
The key is mindfulness.
How To Open The Mind Using Mindfulness
Mindfulness is both a specific meditation technique and a general term referring to living in the present moment (*3). Both are valuable when it comes to creating happiness.
Let’s begin with the latter.
Mindfulness in this sense is simply about living in the present moment. It’s being aware of the world around us. It’s focusing on the world as it comes to us through our senses.
This technique is very easy to do. We simply focus on the present moment.
Some great times to try this include:
- When eating
- While taking a relaxing walk (read Zen Walking)
- When lying in bed
- When drawing (read Read Wendy Ann Greenhalgh’s excellent Mindfulness & the Art of Drawing: A Creative Path to Awareness )
- When showering
- When practicing gentle exercises like Tai Chi (I highly recommend reading Tai Chi Basic’s excellent article on this subject).
- When sitting outside on a pleasant day
These moments of mindfulness help to train the mind to open.
Numerous scientific studies have proven that these mindful moments create positive feelings and can even help to eliminate anxiety and depression. (*4, *5 *6)
You might want to read the excellent guide to Open-Mindedness on Authentic Happiness for more on this.
That’s the modern definition of mindfulness. What about the traditional term mindfulness?
Mindfulness Meditation Is A Seriously Powerful Happiness Booster
In Buddhist tradition, Mindfulness refers to a certain type of meditation in which we practice awareness of thoughts, feelings and sensations.
Jon Kabat Zinn [Professor of Medicine Emeritus and creator of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School] describes mindfulness this way: “Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally. It’s about knowing what is on your mind.”. (*7)
When we practice mindfulness, we are being present moment mindful but focusing on what is happening in the mind itself. Most experts advocate practicing for twenty minutes at a time, which can be a challenge when we are suffering. However, research shows that these twenty-minute mindfulness sessions will pay dividends.
Researchers from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD and published in JAMA Internal Medicine, suggest that mindfulness significantly improves mental health and boosts happiness. (*8)
Mindfulness. Two definitions. Both equally beneficial.
Both present moment mindfulness and mindfulness (the meditation technique) train the mind to open itself to the present moment, and this brings happiness.
The more we open our minds to the present moment, the more we let that light in, the happier we will be.
If you think you could do with letting happiness in, I recommend reading Eli Jackson Bear’s Sudden Awakening: Stop Your Mind, Open Your Heart, and Discover Your True Nature.
Happiness is a simple gateway. We are either living in our thoughts and closing out the present moment, which is the path to unhappiness; or we are opening the gateway and opening our minds to the present moment, which is the path to happiness.
Happiness does not have to be difficult. Sometimes, it’s a simple gateway we need to open.
*1 ,American Psychological Assiocation, ( June 2014 ), How many psychologists are licensed in the United States? http://www.apa.org/monitor/2014/06/datapoint.aspx
*2 Ryan Farrell, The Most Popular Blog Categories, ( May 21 2013 ), http://www.socialmediatoday.com/content/most-popular-blog-categories-infographic
*3 Berkeley, What Is Mindfulness? () http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/topic/mindfulness/definition
*4 Crane, C., Barnhofer, T., Duggan, D. S., Hepburn, S., Fennell, M. V., & Williams, J. M. G. (2008). Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy and Self-Discrepancy in Recovered Depressed Patients with a History of Depression and Suicidality, Cognitive Therapy Research, 32, 775–787.
*5 Ivtzan, I., Gardner, H. E., & Smailova, Z., (2011). Mindfulness meditation and curiosity: The contributing factors to wellbeing and the process of closing the self-discrepancy gap. International Journal of Wellbeing,1(3), 316-326.
*6 Higgins, E. (1987). Self-discrepancy: A theory relating self and affect.Psychological Review, 94 (3), 319-340 DOI: 10.1037//0033-295X.94.3.319
*7Mindful, (January 11 2017), Jon Kabat-Zinn: Defining Mindfulness, https://www.mindful.org/jon-kabat-zinn-defining-mindfulness/
* 8 Julie Corliss, (January 2014, Mindfulness Meditation May Ease Anxiety, Mental Stress,