'Most people are about as happy as they make up their mind to be.'
I'm happy. My Email software has developed a frustrating problem,
it's been raining for days, the car has sprung a leak which will
be very expensive to fix - and I'm still happy.
How can I tell?
How can anyone know when they're happy? What does happiness mean?
Predictably, the term means different things to different people
at different times in their lives. For myself, I like the definition
'An enduring feeling of contentment and capability' - a sense that
life is good on the whole, and that you can deal with whatever happens.
What Do You Really Want?
Since Aristotle, many thinkers have concluded that everything we
do is ultimately aimed at achieving happiness. We save for a holiday,
long for an impressive car, have another drink, get to know popular
people, strive for success - all because we think it will make us
happy. A friend once told me, while I was hoping to sign a recording
contract, 'Careful what you wish for - you may get it'. I was offered
the contract, signed it and almost immediately it became a disaster.
Soon after, I was spending a lot of effort on getting released from
it. We tend to confuse what we actually want with things we think
will get it for us - and we can learn from our experience.
One sure way to increase your happiness quotient is by making sure
the things you do every day fit in with the things you find important
- your values. I know successful businessmen who neglect their families
by working sixty-hour weeks. When we discuss their careers I usually
learn that all their effort is dedicated to giving their families
the very best: a private education, a lavish lifestyle. I know wives
of such men who feel lonely and unhappy and wish for a simpler,
closer way of living. Whoever said 'Time is money' was wrong - you
can lose money and make it again. Those businessmen often find ways
of creating a different balance between work and home, often by
learning to let go of things they had felt the need to control and
learning how to trust others more and share the load.
Happiness is something you do.
More recently, during training for my work, I realized a vital
point about happiness: it isn't a thing or a place or something
that happens to us, it's an activity. Now I think of it in that
way I feel better. I have a lot of choice in what I do, so the chances
are that I can do more happiness - hey, it works for me.
Author Andrew Matthews writes on happiness: 'It is like maintaining
a nice home - you've got to hang on to your treasures and throw
out the garbage.'
In his book 'Finding Flow', Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes how
he and his team found ways of tracking just how happy people are
at different times of day. The key is 'Flow' - a combination of
high challenge and high skill. People experience flow in different
ways, but some things are common to all. At such times '…what we
feel, what we wish and what we think are in harmony. These moments
are what I have called flow experiences ….. athletes refer to it
as being "in the zone"… '. For me, flow is when I lose track of
time because I'm so absorbed in what I'm doing.
We tend to feel some flow when working, travelling, talking, socialising
and having sex. Our strongest experiences of flow tend to be our
hobbies and sports, or when responding to a great movie or performance
(not passively watching, but on the edge of our seats) or being
swept away by music or an exciting football match. The opposite
of flow would be deep in an apathetic trance, like the Royle family,
gaping at the TV. Flow goes with active, rather than passive enjoyment.
It involves stretching ourselves by operating near the limits of
our skill. We do flow activities because we like doing them, rather
than simply because we imagine they will bring us some benefit.
In the process we may experience frustration, pain or expense, yet
we still want to take part.
The Happiness Habit
The more I work with people to help them achieve what they want,
the more I believe that attention is the key. We all know the story
of the optimist and the pessimist looking at the same glass which
contains water up to the halfway mark. To the optimist, the glass
is half-full, to the pessimist it's half empty. The optimist sees
the doughnut; the pessimist sees the hole. One looks for what's
wrong, the other for what's right. What are they actually doing
that's different from each other?
When you concentrate on something repeatedly, nerve cells in your
brain link up to form networks that act a bit like electrical circuits,
each designed to do a particular thing. The thing each circuit does
is an unconscious programme, better known as a habit. People normally
form habits through repetition. The first time you go somewhere
you need to look for street names, maybe read a map. When you're
used to going there you can do it without giving it any attention.
The fact is, we spend most of our lives doing our habits. This is
fine. As long as your habits are in harmony with your values, you
tend to be pretty happy.
New Habits for Old
If your values and habits work against each other they can prevent
you from growing as a person, stop you from being able to relax
or cause you to dislike yourself. So is this just too bad, or can
you really change? Well, it depends on how much of your attention
you're prepared to commit to changing. You see, you form habits
by shining the light of your attention on doing something until
you can do it automatically. That leaves your attention free for
the next learning. When you want to change that habit, you need
to give your attention, first to unlearning, then to replacing it.
(In my experience this is most effectively and quickly done in trance.)
Much of my work is helping people to be in charge of the part of
the brain that is the switchbox for their attention so that they
can focus on things that bring them flow.
The formula is very simple: whatever you put your attention on
fills your life.
Choosing a Vision
This fact goes way beyond the subject of happiness. Top athletes
use techniques of mental rehearsal to prepare themselves for success.
It's no accident that the term Vision is so prominent in current
thinking. When top performers are studied closely, to find out what
the vital difference is, they always create vivid images in their
minds of what they want. It seems that the more detailed and desirable
the images are the more powerful the effect. Naturally, they still
have to do all the preparation and hard work but those factors alone
don't guarantee success, it's the combination of all the elements
that makes an outstanding performer.
Little Voices In My Head
When it comes to happiness, high achievement may not be as important
as the way we choose to focus on certain aspects of our lives. Some
people run a commentary in their mind's ear. Whatever they do, they
criticise themselves. '…there you go again… typical! Whatever you
do it goes wrong…you fool…'
Some people act as if they could read minds. They usually don't
like what they guess people are thinking about them. '…did you see
the way she looked at you? You know what that means don't you? She
thinks you're stupid…' or 'I wish I hadn't come…they're sneering
at me because I'm not as successful…..' Those little voices are
auditory habits that were originally intended to help you, but have
now become unhelpful. You can probably stop doing them by ignoring
the words and turning the sound of the voice into something absurd
- like Donald Duck, or whoever makes you laugh. People I have worked
with have used the voices of Eddie Izzard, Harry Hill, Frankie Howerd,
Victoria Wood and many others. Have a go and see what happens to
how you feel.
Don't worry - Be Happy
Broadly speaking, anxiety is imagining what you don't want and
then responding in your body as if it were happening in the present.
Feeling down might involve focusing on past unhappiness and feeling
as if it was still happening or only hearing criticism, never praise.
These are simplifications, but they reveal the kinds of processes
that underly these unhappy conditions. In each case, the individual
is following habits of mind, often learnt early in life when we
are inexperienced and impressionable. The good news is that these
are only habits and habits can be changed. In many cases all you
need to do is remember to do the behaviour you want for a new habit
every day for three weeks continuously and it will become automatic.
Some habits are easier to change than others. For losing the more
persistent bad habits there are specialist techniques to help you
I don't mean to give the impression that everyone needs to go around
smiling constantly. Tragedies and disappointments happen and it's
important to let yourself feel what you feel at the time. Covering
up your emotions can lead to bigger problems later on. What I mean
is, just as you expect a cut to stop bleeding and heal after a while,
it's reasonable to expect to move on after grieving or hurting.
Nobody needs to put up with persistent unhappiness these days. We
have learned more about how our minds work in the last thirty years
than in the whole of history and the news is encouraging.
Accepting Your Own Power
I have known a great many people who have changed their minds about
who they are and what they can reasonably expect from life. A woman
I know decided that she could do more than work at menial tasks
for low wages by accepting that she could learn new things. When
she told her boss why she was leaving, the boss said 'You'll never
amount to anything'. She signed up for a training course and found
she was right - she could learn. She enjoyed it so much that she
learned how to train others. Now she earns well over double her
previous income organising courses and trainers and encouraging
other people to believe in themselves. She altered the way she saw
herself - from 'I won't expect much so I won't be disappointed'
to 'I have the right to choose how I live my life and how I respond
to the world'. She isn't pretending, rather she has accepted her
own power and chosen to wake up to the possibilities life offers.
As Henry Ford said: 'Whether you think you can or you think you
can't - you're right'.
Now, about those New Year's resolutions… All the best for the year
About The Author
Graham Smith’s album ‘Calmtime, relaxation music to help calm your
baby during pregnancy, breastfeeding and to help generally with
stressed out, crying babies and for all the family to relax’, is
available from http://www.calmtime.co.uk/.
You can read about how he uses NLP and hypnosis to help people live
the lives they want at http://www.smithandfriends.co.uk/.