Happiness Before You

Some days I will search and search for “misplaced” sunglasses or keys or some such only to find the item right before my very eyes. I call the phenomenon “displacia”, an affliction caused by a crowded mind.

The search for happiness is similar. We think it isn’t “here” so we search and search for it elsewhere only to find (if we’re lucky) that happiness has been right before us all along. In fact, happiness cannot be pursued (although the Founding Fathers in the United States would have us believe it is our right to pursue it). It can only be discovered from within.

Perhaps it is the privilege of getting older, but I find sustained happiness to be easier now that I have found the secret to it. It has nothing to do with material gain or wealth or external adoration. It has everything to do with cherishing our innate joy with which each of us was born.

We receive the ticket to happiness the moment we arrive in this world. For some the road is long, the journey agonizing, the destination just ever so slightly out of reach. For others, who may experience similar things, the road is bumpy, yet instructive, the journey is challenging, but manageable, the destination irrelevant.

Resilience is essential to maintain that joyful equilibrium in the face of anything. Self-care ensures we remain centered in a state of abundance regardless of the circumstances. A sense of curiosity about the world provides a richness that no bank account can fulfill.

Happiness lies before you. Or better said: within you. There is no need to chase after that which you can create in the workshop of the heart.

Declutter the mind and happiness will follow.

Limitlessness, Joy and the Pursuit of Happiness

“Thoughts,” my friend said, “are just thoughts. Our innate state is joy.”

According to my wise friend, we don’t return to that state of joy – we always have it. Only sometimes we forget because all those thoughts fill the space between us and that state of bliss from whence we come.

I like it. It contradicts the US Constitution, which guarantees our right to the pursuit of happiness. If we already have joy within us, why would we look elsewhere to find it?

When the world seems to be crashing upon our heads, it is sort of hard to remember these things. But it is those very hurdles that keep us alert to all that we have. Gratitude and sadness cannot occupy the same room. But joy and gratitude can.

Another friend recently told me he welcomes challenges because they help him remain mindful of what is truly important in life. If we were never challenged, we would grow soft, perhaps even arrogant and certainly unsympathetic to those who suffer around us. Without some measure of discomfort, we would become distant from the rest of the world, living in an Ivory Tower without a grasp on the deeper realities before us.

Empathy comes from our own experience with suffering. We would not know how another feels if we had never had those very feelings ourselves. Each of us handles pain differently. Some have a low threshold of tolerance; others have an enormous capacity to manage it. But as my sister recently said to me, it is not what happens in life that matters. It is how you deal with it.

Our limits are of our own making. We are truly limitless creatures with a mind that bridles us. Thoughts can keep us back from our truest nature. Or they can bring us back to where we are meant to be.

Our most authentic state of being is joy. Remembering that will ensure we see what we have sought all along.

 

Vulnerability is not for the fragile

Teetering on a tightrope, trying not to look down, arms dancing from side to side in spread-eagle fashion. Toes sweating. Heart racing. Mind frozen in concentration. Being vulnerable is not for the fair-hearted.

Somewhere in my history, I thought showing any sign of weakness was somehow wrong. Being vulnerable was high on my list of not-to-do’s. Instead, I proudly belonged to the stiff upper lip crowd, smiling through simply everything. The message I received at a very early age was that being cute somehow meant I’d be lovable. In the black-and-white shadows of a child’s mind, that also meant not being cute meant not being loved.

And everyone wants love, yes?

We piece together a belief system as we grow, drawing conclusions and meanings from experience. And we live as if those carefully constructed guidelines are true.

And while our personalized rules and regulations may have served us well for a very long time, they become outdated at some point because life is an ever flowing river in which you never step twice.

If I have learned anything in the last two years since I moved to my beloved Freiburg, it is that breaking yourself wide open is the most courageous thing you can do. And courage takes strength, not weakness. Vulnerability does not leave us cowering in the corner in fear. Right before we walk on that stage of authenticity, we may be afraid, but the moment we move forward into the lights, something starts to shift. We release something within ourselves, like a dark secret that has weighed us down. And suddenly, the pressure that vacuum-packed secret created dissolves in thin air. When we step into that tender space within ourselves, we are drawing on the implicit well of goodness with which we were born. We reveal the very essence of who we are. And that is simply irresistible.

Vulnerability is contagious. When you rest in the vastness of your utmost truth, others start to settle into theirs. Have you ever noticed how you suddenly attract very different people when you are being real versus being fake? We start to break a long-held pattern of “keeping it altogether” to falling slightly apart. And in that brokenness, we create a new space for people to join us in our uphill battles and sorrow. We are not left behind. Quite the contrary! In embracing our own humanity, we invite others to do the same.

That is when the beauty of life — in all its richness — unfolds. Being vulnerable is key to living the life you are meant to live.

Take that leap of faith. This is your life. Who else but you can live it?

The Secret to Happiness

Life can be hard. People can be harsh. Situations can lead us down the path to Hell. In all my years on this Earth, I have learned a few things that have become unshakable truths.

No one can make you happy or unhappy. You are the source of all joy and all sorrow. The way in which you experience things comes from within.

That may seem like a huge weight to bear, as if you are responsible for simply everything. Not so. All you can do is decide how you will respond to what happens.

Don Miguel Ruiz, an international best-selling author from Mexico who embeds his beliefs in the ancient Toltec tradition, offers powerful guidelines to maximizing our happiness. I discovered his book, The Four Agreements, about a decade ago. They are simple truths that have helped me on numerous occasions when things seemed to be falling apart.

Taken from the Toltec Spirit Website, Ruiz’ agreements are listed below:

1. Be Impeccable with your Word: Speak with integrity. Say only what you mean. Avoid using the Word to speak against yourself or to gossip about others. Use the power of your Word in the direction of truth and love.

2. Don’t Take Anything Personally: Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering.

3. Don’t Make Assumptions: Find the courage to ask questions and to express what you really want. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness and drama. With just this one agreement, you can completely transform your life.

4. Always Do Your Best: Your best is going to change from moment to moment; it will be different when you are healthy as opposed to sick. Under any circumstance, simply do your best, and you will avoid self-judgment, self-abuse, and regret.

As with anything new, applying these agreements to our lives takes time. We are entrenched in habitual behaviors that aren’t easy to break. While we may not always remember to honor these agreements, life seems to go more smoothly when we do.

Some of you may master several of the points well while struggling with the others. For years I took things personally, acted defensively when I felt attacked and avoided conflict as a result. With tons of practice, I have been able to free myself from taking on other people’s projections and making them a part of me. I see them now for what they are (raising teenagers has helped me tremendously with this issue. You simply cannot live with a teen and take everything they say to heart.) And they are not a part of me at all.

Healthy distance and a loving heart can heal the trauma that created our bad habits. Happiness, after all, is not a destination, but a state of being. I would love to meet you on your journey to peace.

The great news is we get to decide anew every day for – or against – our own happiness. How will you choose?

Quieting the Complaining Mind

Between the hours of two and four in the morning, my mind enters the Fret Zone. I worry, complain, argue and fight about the weirdest things. It is as if all the frustration from the day comes tumbling into one pile of yuckiness. And if I am awake, those thoughts try to convince me that they are right.

Do you ever have one of those worst-case-scenario daydreams? It creeps up from behind when you least expect it. Then bam! You are rattled by a catastrophic thought.

Watching the evening news only reinforces the anxiety that the world is going down the tubes. I recently had to walk away from the television because every single story had a negative ending.

Clifford Nass, a professor of communication at Stanford University and co-author of the book The Man Who Lied to His Laptop: What Machines Teach Us About Human Relationships (Penguin 2010) suggests that negative and positive emotions are handled in different hemispheres of the brain. Negative emotions, he suggests, generally involve more thinking so the negative information is processed more thoroughly than positive ones. As a result, we tend to dwell on unpleasant experiences and use stronger words to depict what they felt like than happy ones.

An experiment conducted by Roy F. Baumeister, a professor of social psychology at Florida State University and co-author of a Review of General Psychology journal article “Bad Is Stronger Than Good” (2001) reveals how the same experience in reverse offers different intensities of emotion. The loss of $50, for instance, resulted in a stronger negative reaction than the happiness stemming from gaining the same amount. 

Of course it comes down to survival. Those who anticipate bad events tend to be better prepared for them. Back in the Cro-Magnon days, it was important to be a little pessimistic about the future. Your cognitive functions were necessarily on high alert so as not to slide into a false state of security. Any Mammoth hunter knows you need to get it before it gets you.

But today? Do we really need to be plagued by all those negative thoughts? In our relatively safe environment (and I speak only for myself – I am aware that someone in Syria certainly may not feel this way at present), we have a lot to be thankful for.

Therein lies the solution. I have found there is no room in my brain for the complaining mind to voice its opinion when I am feeling grateful. A state of gratitude is easily come by. All you need is to look at what you have, say a prayer of thanks and recognize the abundance around you.

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, recently said in an interview that she has long practiced daily gratitude by writing down the best thing that happened to her that day and dropping it in her so-called “Joy Jar”. Whenever she’s feeling blue, she picks out one of the pieces of paper and reminds herself that good things do come her way (I mean, Julia Roberts played her in the movie version of her book. I’d ride on that one for a couple of months, wouldn’t you?).

So the next time you’re up at 3 a.m. wondering why the world can be so mean, remember the good things. Think about them hard. Revisit your jar of joy – in whatever form it takes — and remind yourself that Universal Goodness does indeed exist.

How can you get your daily dose of joy? Well, my friend, as with all things – large and small — it starts with you.

The Fitness Habit

A reporter recently asked how to shave 30 minutes off your day to exercise. It seemed like a good idea to figure out how people generally spend their time and where they might find a few minutes here or there to squeeze in a fitness routine.

The findings were astounding.

According to a recent study by Flurry  in March 2014, we spent 2 hours and 42 minutes A DAY on our mobile devices. Can you imagine dedicating 30 minutes of that time to yourself instead?

Or how about watching TV? Turn it off – or turn it on later. The American Time Use Survey 2013 found that the average American spends 2.8 hours watching TV a day. Cutting out just one daily sitcom to walk around the block instead would give you back those thirty minutes.

If you are like me, it sometimes takes a village to get moving. Getting family and friends involved can offer you the support you need. Replace family TV time with a round of basketball in your backyard. Or join a club together. Take up a new hobby that involves movement of any kind.

My favorite at work suggestion? Hold stand-up meetings. They go faster and are healthier than sitting all day.

Take a holistic approach. Instead of treating your fitness routine as separate from the rest of your life, integrate it into your daily activities. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Carry your groceries to the car instead of using a shopping cart (if possible). Walk, don’t drive, to the post office.

Even going slow is better than not going at all.

The Value of Failure

If at first you do not succeed, try, try again.

Let’s face it. Success is sweet. And we want it more than we want the smudgy, sweaty, stinky sensation of having given it our all only to flop altogether.

But over the years, I have learned that while success is sensational, failure has its own flavor of wonderfulness too.

Wisdom is born out of failure. Sure, when you win, you learn what worked — that time. But when you fail, you learn so much more about yourself and the world around you. You get to find out who your friends are — and who isn’t. Those who run at the first sign of trouble are the ones you don’t let back in. Those who stick it out even when you aren’t smiling, serving up hors d’oeuvres and smelling like a rose are the ones worth everything.

And then there is the matter of what you learn from what didn’t work. Every once in a while I come across an old book proposal and a wave of compassion rises up in my chest.

“God, what work I put into this! And not a single editor could care less…”

Then a subtle feeling of gratitude settles in. I really tried. It didn’t work. Next.

Is it really failure to have put your heart and soul into something (or someone) only to not get what you anticipated?

I think not.

If you have given your best and the door slams in your face, you haven’t lost a thing. You have actually gained great insight.

We sometimes stomp our feet when things don’t go according to plan. But thank goodness they don’t. Imagine if we could control simply everything about our lives, about what happens to us, about what succeeds and what doesn’t. What a load of responsibility that would be!

I’m happy to leave it up to the Universe. And to listen to its call. Therein lies the key.

Letting things unfold is a much more relaxing approach in my mind. Learning to accept that which is and to see the universal good in life keeps us supple and ready to go for that next cup of gold.

So what if things haven’t worked out the way you thought they would. That just means you aren’t done learning yet.

In fact, until our last breath, we are at risk of failing time and again.

And that is what makes life so very rich indeed.

The Joy Factor

What brings you joy? Do you ever ask yourself that question?

I don’t know about you, but somehow I get the sense that we place a cap on our joy, as if we aren’t allowed to be too joyful in case something goes wrong. As if we’d be hogging the joy pool or something and that we’d be cheating someone else if we had too much of it.

An innate optimist, I tend to find joy in most anything – the chirping of a bird, the smile of a French garbageman, the beam of sunlight straining through the clouds. I see joy in the howling wind (how impressive you are!) and the gleam of a freshly mopped kitchen floor.

And yet there are moments when I wonder if all this joy is rightfully mine, as if there is a finite amount of it somewhere that only a few can have at a time.

Am I overthinking this?

Whenever I share these thoughts with my German friends, they remind me that most people are envious. I hadn’t really ever thought about envy much until I moved here. It is a culturally based explanation for why most people don’t smile in the streetcar. But envious of what? That they haven’t found their own inner joy? That they think joy is reserved for someone ‘better off’? And what does being ‘better off’ really mean?

Attitude determines your altitude. Joy is free and can be found everywhere. It starts with each of us.

So let’s form an infinity pool of joy for everyone to en-joy.

Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day – for those of you who celebrate it, spread the love. And for those of you who don’t, spread the love anyway.

The world could use it. Now more than ever.

 

A Place of Comfort for Us All

Self-soothing is a skill we teach babies to help them fall asleep at night. It is an important thing to learn because, whether that stressed out new parent knows it or not, self-soothing is an essential, lifelong process.

Creating an inner sanctum is life-sustaining. Without a safe place to land within ourselves, we would be carried like flotsam down the river of life. We would constantly be in reaction to everything around us without the wherewithall to withstand those stressors.

Many people look outside themselves for that elusive happiness they just know is “out there”. They feverishly pursue fleeting moments of joy, only to be left empty once again.

But happiness resides within. And the only one who can fill you up is you. No amount of alcohol, nicotine or sex can do it for you.

Although we may know this to be true, we still often look to others to fill the void within ourselves. And we do need each other. As social animals, humans thrive when interconnected. Even loners need a hug every once in a while.

But if we are never able to soothe ourselves in moments of despair, we will be forever doomed to unhappiness. We have a lot more control than we realize when it comes to how we choose to live our lives. And how we choose to react to the things that happen in it.

Sometimes I am awash with remarkable waves of joy for the mere sake of being alive. It usually happens when I’m in the forest (a part of me believes I am a descendent of Snow White), but it always happens when I am alone. It is my internal altar saying hello.

Carve out time in your day to feel that True Space inside. Even five minutes of connecting with yourself can put you on the happy track. Honor your resting place where your spirit can soar and be soothed at the same time.

It is possible. It really is.

 

 

The Shattering Power of Gratitude

Gratitude can rock your world. It’s the cousin of joy. No, on second thought, it’s the Siamese twin. You simply can’t have one without the other.

Yesterday a sales lady caught me cradling some high-end shampoo as I walked to the checkout counter. I was celebrating having landed another, albeit short-term, client by purchasing some sparkle in a bottle. It’s not the kind I use every day. It’s expensive, smells good, and gives me an inner shine.

“What reverence!” she exclaimed as she watched me carefully place the bottle on the counter.

If she only knew.

I wasn’t always this grateful about things. In fact, I took a lot of things for granted ~ big house, nice cashflow, effortless opportunities to travel whenever I needed to scratch my travel itch.

Things have changed now. Effortlessness now comes in the form of my own gratefulness for the things I still have. And although my material world has shrunk, my spiritual one has expanded immeasurably.

Everything else was merely a trapping of an empty, less than ideal existence. Doing what you want doesn’t always give you what you want. Oftentimes that kind of freedom sends you on a downward spiral into misery.

Money can’t buy you happiness. In fact, happiness is not for sale. Unlike the shampoo, an expression of my joy for having acquired another client, happiness is a state of mind.

As I left the store with my new purchase (and I swear I think the sales lady was glowing, too), I reflected on the shattering power of gratitude. It can break down walls of resistence within ourselves. It can carefully craft a whole new way of being in the world. When we look at what we have versus what we do not, our entire perspective changes.

I know people who drive fancy cars and live in palatial homes, but their happiness level isn’t any higher. They seek satisfaction only to watch it crumble after a few moments of fun. When we are accustomed to so much, it is hard to see it all. It grows into a blur and an unsettling feeling of dis-ease enters our bones.

Yes, gratitude can indeed rock your world. It has certainly rocked mine. Foundation and all.