4 Things We Can Get Wrong About Happiness

4 Things We Can Get Wrong About Happiness

Photo by Andrew Bui on Unsplash

Have you ever met anyone who did not want happiness? Certainly, I haven’t. I have met people who have funny ways of going about trying to be happy but never anyone who was just not interested in it.

The funny is though, that wanting happiness and having it are two different things. In the first place, we don’t always know what will make us happy. Even when we work it out, we can’t always make it happen—we might long for someone to love but are not able to find the right person. The irony is that even when we do get what we are looking for, it does not always make us feel as good as we expected.

Happiness is tricky—partly because we have some funny ideas about it. Let’s look at four of these.

We confuse happiness with pleasure

In evolutionary terms, pleasure acts as an incentive for keeping us alive. So, food, sex, caring for our children, and accomplishing our goals cause the brain to release the chemical dopamine that make us feel happy. This search for good feeling has helped to keep the human race going, but these feelings were designed to be temporary. Think about it—if we only mated once and never needed to again, we would see a startling fall in the birth rate. Pleasure is something that is so enjoyable that we want to experience it again and again. However, it is designed as a temporary state with a specific purpose, rather than something that will last forever.

Sadly, we often seem to find this hard to accept. Our search for happiness can become narrowed down to the pursuit of pleasure. Once we have it, we to hold on to it– or at least try to repeat it as often as we can.

The trouble is that we so often mistake transient pleasurable experiences for lasting happiness.  We have evolved to a place where our happiness is not based on survival alone. Yet so often we settle for the quick fix, pleasure-based route to happiness, without taking into account the full range of potential effects.

Perhaps we feel a bit low, so we surf the internet for a bit, then drink a coffee and checkout the news channels on TV. We could take some time to look into the low feeling in order to understand and resolve it. However, our impulse is to distract ourselves from it and not deal with it. It’s as if we are aiming to run our life as a series of good moments, with as few bad ones as possible to interfere with our final score.

We imagine it will last forever

So, we can see that from an evolutionary perspective, happiness is designed as a reward for keeping ourselves alive. It is not meant to last forever. In our modern western culture though, there is the idea that we should be happy all the time. We make choices based on the belief that they will make us happy now and into the future. The idea that our preferences or circumstances may change doesn’t seem to come up. We don’t consider that our future selves may see things differently from how we do now. 

Anyone who has been divorced, or had a great new job turn out to be disappointing will have experienced this for themselves. When I was a young teacher in London, I decided to cash in my teacher’s pension so I could go traveling. It felt like a great decision at the time. Suddenly I had a good reserve of money to finance one of my dreams. Years later, when I left teaching,  I deeply regretted not having a pension fund to carry forward.

On a lighter note, I have a Danish friend who became a Buddhist nun some years ago.Whenever it’s too hot to wear socks I have the treat of seeing a tall, slender woman in long,maroon robes with a tattoo of an iguana coiling up her left ankle. The frisky young womanwho, some years back, thought this tattoo would be an addition to her image, apparentlydid not envisage the possibility of herself as a nun in the future.

We think money will make us happy

2006 saw the publication of Richard Layard’s book, Happiness: Lessons from a New Science. One of the key findings that he highlighted is that over the last fifty years, the standard ofliving in the US and Western Europe has roughly doubled. No surprises there, you might think. The shock came with the second half of the finding—levels of happiness have stayed the same. Think of what it takes to double our standard of living – the compromises in work–life balance, the increase in the number of families where the only way to manage is for both parents to work, the stress of the increase in pace and variety of the modern workplace. It’s shocking to find that none of that has an impact on our basic level of well being.

The way we adapt to what we have and the extent to which we compare what we have with others comes into play here.

Adaptation

One of the most startling results to emerge from research into happiness is that big lottery winners, after experiencing an initial period of euphoria, tend to return to their normal levels of happiness within a year. The huge rise in their financial and then material resources is not enough to lift their happiness levels long term.

The trouble is that we adapt to what we have and so become used to it, and when the gloss of having it fades, we want something more.

The process of adaptation we experience with material possessions seems to work in the sameway for life experiences – so career moves, lifestyle changes or new relationships, ratherthan transporting us to new levels of happiness, eventually settle down until they become simply part of our normal pattern of happiness.

Comparison

Along with adapting to what we have in life, we also suffer from comparing our lives with other people’s. So, your new car may be satisfying while no one else in the street has a better one, but as soon as someone turns up with a newer model then you become less satisfied. We’re pleased with our pay rise as long as we’re the only person to receive one, or if our rise is greater than anyone else’s.

We compare ourselves with our peers, people with roughly similar lifestyles. The lives of the super-rich are far beyond our reach, while many people feel comfortably far away from the very poor. Studies of Olympic medallists show that bronze medalists tend to be happier with their medals than silver medallists because they compare them- selves to people who did not get a medal at all, while silver medallists believe they just missed a gold.

We look for happiness outside of ourselves

We’ve seen that pleasure is based on external circumstances, such as our job, where we live, or what we like to eat. Although the benefits are short- term we can often mistake this for happiness, overlooking the possibility of something more reliable. A more helpful view is to say that there are two kinds of happiness: the short-term, pleasure-based experience and a more lasting happiness. The first kind is much easier to attain than the deeper happiness,which requires effort but once established serves as a reliable basis for wellbeing.

Giving ourselves the time and space to explore and develop this lasting happiness is oneof the deepest acts of self-compassion we can engage in.

So, how do we access this deeper kind of happiness? Firstly, we need to recognize that it isnot about looking outwards but depends on having an inner peace of mind and heart. Thisis the basis for self-awareness and the awareness of others – the foundation of compassion– that enables us to view our actions and those of other people with greater clarity. It canbe developed by working with both our basic attitude and with the actions we take whiletrying to be happy.

Meditation is the best way to get a handle on how our minds work. It helps us to work with our basic attitude and the habits we have. Bringing awareness into our actions means that we are more able to make the right decisions.

A deeper meaning to happiness

Sometimes, it’s worth asking ourselves how we value the happiness of other people. Is their happiness important to us? Would our happiness be important to them? Do we consider out happiness to be the most important? On what basis?

There is a simple question we can use here as a measure of whether or not our actions will be a source of lasting happiness: 

Do they bring real benefit to oneself and others,or not? 

Actions that bring benefit automatically result in happiness and help us to develop our compassion. We need to develop a clear sense of discernment to enable us to analyse our actions clearly in the light of this question, and to identify the habits that lead us away from lasting happiness even if they initially seem to bring pleasure.

It might seem a lot to take in but reflecting in this way will help us to navigate the tricky path of happiness. It could help to put things into a different perspective.

Awareness in Action is dedicated to building a community of people interested in living a life of meaning and purpose based on sustainable wellbeing. If you would like to join with us, you could make a start by sharing and commenting on the ideas you find in the blogs on these pages. Your story is part of our journey.

What happens when you lose your job

What happens when you lose your job

I have had one major incident of job loss in my career. It was messy and painful. Although it happened years ago, I can still wake up in the night and wonder what on earth happened. I wasn’t fired but made redundant, although the difference felt like semantics. The experience left me feeling disorientated, lonely and inadequate.

For most of us, losing a job means a scramble to find another one as soon as possible. The bills that need paying do not stop with job loss. My own solution was to become a solo entrepreneur, which involved a steep learning curve. There is very little time left to care for how wounded, low and discarded one can feel.

Here are some of the issues that I tried to work with while setting up my new business.

Who was I after my job loss?

My job had been in senior management in an international non-profit. I travelled a lot, I had teams who answered to me—I was a boss. When it was over there was a short period of time where I was completely disorientated. For so many years I had worked very hard and focused my energy on my work. Without it I was not sure who I was.

It took me a while to consciously disconnect myself from the job that I had had. I needed to remember why I wanted the job in the first place, and to re-connect with the motivation that led me to carry it out for so long. Slowly, painfully it became possible to remember interests that I had dropped through lack of time before my job loss. My meditation practice, which had become minimal during the busiest times, flourished again. The space it helped to open up enabled me to process what I was feeling in a way that was healing.

Struggling with a sense of shame

Brené Brown describes shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of live and belonging—something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.

That seems pretty accurate. I certainly felt that I had failed and become somehow lesser in people’s eyes. Indeed, by not being able to avoid job loss I had failed in my own eyes. However, much worse was the idea that people would think that as a failure I was not someone they would want to know. Not being able to explain to myself what had gone wrong made it very hard to explain to other people. I felt defenceless. 

That was the place from which I set out to build the next phase of my working life.

Major cracks in my self-confidence

Perhaps it is inevitable that when you suffer a job loss you are precipitated into an intense period of self-examination. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a good idea to take time to reflect on your work habits and how you are coping with your working life.

The trouble comes when, hurting from the shock of losing your job, you forget all about how to be kind to yourself. I have had friends who have been made redundant or lost their job who have turned to me for help. I have never subjected any of them to the tirade of judgment and criticism that I poured out to myself.

Self-compassion was not so well known at the time that I lost my job. As part of my work now I have studied it quite thoroughly and wish that I had known more about it at the time. Learning how to tame the sharp voice of my inner critic and to change oneself through kindness would have helped me enormously. Understanding that my job loss was not something that only happened to me but was happening to many other people at the same time would have taught me a great deal.

Fear of what my job loss meant for the future

Underneath everything else there was the constant worry of not being able to get more work. The threat of financial difficulties was a constant drain on my energy. Working with that fear became a priority because when it got too intense, I froze. 

Fortunately, we often have more resilience than we think. As much as I could, I used the fear to cut through my feelings of inadequacy and to spur me on.

The loss of community

One thing that I had not anticipated was how much I missed the people that I had worked with. People that I had worked with for years and seen every day simply dropped out of my life. Gone was the flow of ideas and the shared camaraderie. 

When you work with other people there is a ready-made social network. Of course, you are joined together by the work you are doing but you also share all kinds of other things. You hear news of what is going on in other people’s lives. There is an audience for you to share what is going on in your’s. You accompany each other through all kinds of moods, challenges and accomplishments.

With a job loss, all this is gone in a moment. 

Struggling with the sympathy of friends and family

My friends and family were kind and sympathetic, but I found it hard to be the one needing support. I am more used to offering it. Too often I found myself putting on a brave face when actually I felt really low. In fact, it was a journey for me to allow my vulnerability to show and to accept their support with gratitude. 

However much we may need to move on after a job loss and find new work, we need time to grieve. Yes, it’s uncomfortable and it takes time but without it we are denying ourselves the opportunity to learn from what has happened to us. In order to move on in a good way, we need to be able to make some sense of what has happened. How we heal the pain of our loss will depend on being able to take the time for reflection, and evaluation. Job loss is one of the most stressful experiences we will face but it is also a time of opportunity. We need to give ourselves the gift of that time.

men and women being fired

I hope you enjoyed this post. I am currently designing an online course to support people through job loss. If you could fill out my survey it would help me to gather data for the online course. It will only take you 10 minutes. Thank you so much!

Can you make the gift of saying sorry?

Can you make the gift of saying sorry?

We Brits say ‘sorry’ all the time. In most cultures you only say sorry when you believe you have done something wrong. In the UK it is used as a communication tool. We say ‘sorry’ when we accidentally bump into someone or need to squeeze past them. If we want someone’s attention, we tend to start out by saying , ‘sorry to interrupt’, or ‘sorry to ask but…’It’s partly to do with wanting to be polite but it is also part of our difficulty in being direct. Living in the Netherlands, as I do, I have had to unlearn the habit because people find it irritating. Dutch people are very direct.

Being able to say sorry authentically when you know you’ve behaved in a way that was harmful is a wonderful and important skill. Apology has the power to repair harm, mend relationships, soothe wounds and heal broken hearts. 

So why can it feel so hard to say sorry?

Let’s look at a few possibilities:

• When we don’t think what we did is such a big deal, so it’s not worth apologising for.

• If we have trouble seeing things from another person’s perspective, we might not see the need to say sorry.

• The truth is that is very uncomfortable when we do realise that we have something to say sorry about. Sometimes we just cannot manage to admit we’ve done anything wrong.

Saying sorry as a gift to yourself

To overcome these obstacles, we need to think a bit more deeply. 

We might think that saying sorry is all about giving to the other person. Of course, that is an important part and we will come to it soon. However, it is important to realise the benefits for yourself too

Often when we know we have hurt someone we feel guilty and ashamed. It can cause us stress. Depending on how serious the circumstances were, it might even keep us awake at night. The whole experience is painful and distressing. When we say sorry, we are healing our own feelings of regret and remorse.

Having to dig into our actions and realising that we did not behave well is a humbling experience. It’s hard to admit we hurt someone and makes us feel vulnerable. Perhaps we can be less inclined to judge how others behave when we reflect on our own behaviour.  

It can also become more possible to forgive ourselves. It puts us back in touch with our own basic goodness and reminds us that we are worthy of forgiveness and it is alright to ask for it. If we are open and willing, we can also learn from the mistakes we made that got us into having to say sorry. That’s a bonus going forward.

Saying sorry as a gift to other people

Research shows that receiving an apology has a noticeable, positive physical effect on the body. An apology actually affects the bodily functions of the person receiving it—blood pressure decreases, heart rate slows and breathing becomes steadier.

If someone tells you that they are sorry, it helps you to feel better. The ball is now in your court—you have the ability to forgive the person who hurt you. We can move from seeing them through anger and bitterness to seeing them as a fallible human being. The wrongdoer becomes more human, more like ourselves and we are touched by this. Then we are more able to access our natural empathy, and forgiveness becomes possible. 

Apologising re-opens the lines of communication after the hurt has closed them down. It can even be that going through these difficulties together brings people closer and deepens the trust between them. When you go through something difficult with someone and come through it together, it inspires confidence in the strength of the relationship.

Things to be aware of when saying sorry

The most important thing is to mean it! It’s no good saying sorry just to smooth out a situation. People can sense it when you are pretending. It can do more damage that not apologising.

In the same way try to avoid saying sorry and then adding a ‘but’. This can happen when you are trying to apologise for your part in a difficult situation, but you want the other person to take responsibility for their share. You might say something like, I am really sorry that I shouted but you shouted at me first. This is tricky. Of course you want to explain yourself properly but I find that this is easier if you go all the way first.

The more open-hearted and direct we can be the more space opens up for dialogue and exchange.

Maybe Elton John was right, and ‘sorry’ does seem to be the hardest word.  When we manage it though, the benefits for ourselves and others are very nourishing.

Awareness in Action is dedicated to building a community of people interested in living a life of meaning and purpose based on sustainable wellbeing. If you would like to join with us, you could make a start by sharing and commenting on the ideas you find in the blogs on these pages. Your story is part of our journey.

Five reasons why forgiving is so important

Five reasons why forgiving is so important

For the last few months there has been a strange distance with one of my closest friends. It’s been really uncomfortable. Recently we met up to try and talk some things through and things got heated. She walked out on me, left me sitting. I was astounded and very hurt. It was difficult to know what to do.

My partner, who has also been involved in the whole story, suggested that we buy her a big bunch of flowers. We wanted to break through something. Last weekend we chose some lovely flowers and drove over to her place to deliver them. She wasn’t home—which worked well, but we could leave them with her daughter.

Within an hour of us dropping off the flowers our friend was on the phone and our communication was completely different. The whole tone was forgiving, and healing. We recognised that there had been pain and that there were things to work through, but it all seemed possible.

It was as if a boulder loosened itself from my back and rolled away. Since then I have been doing a lot of thinking about forgiveness and the reasons why it is so important.

It eases your own pain

I have been quite amazed at how relieved I’ve felt since delivering the flowers. The hurt I’ve been feeling is much more in proportion than it was. There is also a sense of feeling better about my own role in whatever the dynamic is with my friend. Instead of feeling helpless, and a bit inadequate, there is more patience and trust that things will turn out well.

It was powerful to replace my feelings of hurt, with a healing action. I could actually sense the resentment in my heart ease and was able to access the affection and love that I have always felt for my friend. Yes, we were offering flowers as a gesture of healing—we wanted to give something to our friend that would unblock things‑but we both walked away feeling lighter, and as if we too had received a gift.

Forgiving reduces your stress levels

We could say that the opposite of forgiving is bearing a grudge. It turns out that when we bear a grudge it has a damaging effect on our wellbeing. In a study carried out bypsychologists at Hope College, Michigan, participants were asked to recall a grudgethey held against someone. Recalling the grudge led to an increase in blood pressure,heart rate and sweating. On an emotional level, participants described feeling angry, sad, anxious and less in control of themselves.

When they were asked to imagine forgiving the person, they held a grudge against, theirstress levels fell and the physical symptoms they had experienced subsided. In the psychological domain, forgiveness has also been shown to diminish the experience of stress and inner conflict while simultaneously restoring positive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

In his book, Social Intelligence, Daniel Goleman reminds us that studies of people posthostility reveal that every time they merely think of the group they hate, their own body responds with pent-up anger. It floods with stress hormones, raising their blood pressure and impairing their immune effectiveness. Whereas forgiving someone we’ve held a grudge against reverses the biological reaction. It lowers our blood pressure, heart rate, and levels of stress hormones and it lessens our pain and depression.

When we can forgive other people, we are releasing our own hostility as well, so webenefit just as they do.

It’s the only way to free yourself

One of the things that Nelson Mandela is famous for is his insistence on a policy of forgiveness as opposed to revenge when he became President of South Africa in 1994. In one of his most famous quotes on his release from prison he said, 

As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.

Bishop Desmond Tutu expresses the same kind of sentiment in a slightly different way,

If you can find it in yourself to forgive, then you are no longer chained to the perpetrator.

Both quotes point out that forgiving frees us. That is not to say that it is easy in any way. When we have suffered grievous hurt it can be hard to find our way to forgiveness. Realising that it is the only way to begin our own process of healing can help us find the courage to try.

When we spend time going over the hurt that has been done to us and suffering all the anguish that brings, we are continuously pulled back into the past. Although we might wish to move on, we are still caught in the prison of all our conflicting emotions. Forgiving enables us to move on.

Forgiving helps you to recognise the pain in others

We are not born wanting to hurt others, or with hate in our hearts. Our life experiences shape us as we grow up and mature. If we can take some time to look into the circumstances of the person who has hurt us, we can often find all kinds of clues that help to explain their behaviour. When we take time to explore our common humanity, we can begin to see things from a bigger perspective. 

The person who caused us pain is a vulnerable human being trying to cope with their challenges, just as we are. Each of us is trying to find the way to live a good life and to avoid suffering but experience shows us that that is not possible. Life includes suffering. Sometimes the way we process our suffering can make us hurt others—either intentionally, or unintentionally.

Don’t we also sometimes need forgiveness from other people for the pain we cause them? If we cause pain, don’t we wish for forgiveness?

It contains the seeds of compassion

The road to forgiving can be hard. We need to be patient with ourselves. Compassion itself can be hard. Although we have the potential for compassion in our hearts and minds, our life experiences can make it hard to access. We need to take small steps and build confidence in our ability to care about the suffering of other people and to wish to help them to be free of it. 

Connecting with other people, paying attention to what is going on with them and seeing how alike we all are will help to turn our minds to compassion. Forgiving other people when they cause us pain will help the seeds of compassion to grow.

Awareness in Action is dedicated to building a community of people interested in living a life of meaning and purpose based on sustainable wellbeing. If you would like to join with us, you could make a start by sharing and commenting on the ideas you find in the blogs on these pages. Your story is part of our journey.

4 Things You Can Do When You Dislike Someone

4 Things You Can Do When You Dislike Someone

We are probably all familiar with the uncomfortable feeling that maybe we dislike someone. Perhaps we get introduced to a new colleague at work and immediately we have the sense that we are not going to get on. Or a friend introduces us to their new partner and straight away we are sure we are not going to hit it off. 

It’s not a welcome feeling. It is much more pleasant to like someone and to want to spend time with them. When we dislike someone, we can spend a lot of time managing our dislike, rather than focusing on the content of the relationship.

So, what can we do?

Take Abraham Lincoln’s advice on dislike

Abraham Lincoln is known to have been unusually fair-minded. When choosing his cabinet on becoming president, he astounded political opponents by appointing several of his former rivals to key positions. He based his decision on whether he felt they qualified for the post, rather than personal slights or bitterness.

He is said to have made the following comment, 

I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.

How might this help us? We can be open to the possibility that when we met our new boss, or our friend’s partner we reacted to something about them that irritated us. Perhaps it was even enhanced by the mood we were in. If we manage to hold this initial impression as just that—an impression—we can give ourselves the chance to look deeper. 

Making the effort to get to know someone better is a way of respecting their individuality. Instead of going with our prejudices we are willing to investigate a bit deeper and see if we were wrong.

Listen to Henry Longfellow

The popular nineteenth century poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow also has a quote that is relevant here.

If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.

Even if we follow Lincoln’s advice and take time to get to know someone we dislike, perhaps we decide we still dislike them! We might not consider people we dislike as our enemies, but we certainly don’t want to spend time with them. Even thinking about them can stir us up and make us upset.

I have thought about this quote from Longfellow a great deal and often use it in workshops. It is a challenging idea isn’t it? To understand, without consultation or confirmation, that the person we are struggling with will have all kinds of suffering in their lives. To do this we need to remind ourselves that everyone wants to find some kind of happiness in their lives. Maybe some people go about it in ways we don’t understand but still, they want to be happy. At the same time, we want to avoid pain and suffering and yet, inevitably, life has many challenges. 

So, the person we dislike will most likely also be dealing with all kinds of pain and disappointment—just like we do. Reminding ourselves of this does not necessarily mean we will begin to like the person, but we might start to feel a kinship. If we can shift our focus from the characteristics that they have that annoy us and look instead at their vulnerability, our dislike can maybe take a back seat.

Look for the things you like

One of the things that happens to me when I do decide that I dislike someone, is that I almost resist finding out things about them that are positive. It’s as if once I have decided that I don’t like someone, then I don’t want to be shown that my dislike is unfounded and unnecessary. When I realise that this is happening then I can give myself a shake and try to take another look. It’s not something I am proud of and that spurs me on to try a bit harder.

One way to do this is to observe how other people interact with them. If people you get on with, also get on with the person you feel you dislike is it possible you are missing something? Have you met their family—partner, children? How do they all seem together. Seeing people with their families can help to soften a negative impression.

You can also look more closely into the person’s character. It is hard to dislike everything about someone—although for me there are a few politicians that challenge this idea. Perhaps they have a sense of humour or are kind to animals. Are they good at their job or a great cook? 

Is there anything that you share? Do you have a similar taste in music, art, books? Have you both enjoyed  a recent movie, or TV programme?

It takes effort to look past your own opinions but if it helps in finding a place of ease in this uncomfortable dynamic then it is well worth it.

Give the person you dislike the benefit of the doubt

Once we have decided that we dislike someone it can be hard to cut them some slack. It becomes easier to expect to be annoyed with them, or to judge their actions. This is where we can really try to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Again, being able to do this requires that we pay attention. Instead of jumping to a judgement, or an opinion we will need to pause, and to look deeper. Before we decide that the person who we dislike is behaving again in a way we dislike, we need to take time to check if there is some room for doubt. Could it be possible that we have misunderstood, or somehow got the wrong end of the stick?

In practicing giving someone the benefit of the doubt, the Golden Rule can be helpful. The rule recommends that we, treat others as we wish to be treated. There are some important clues here. We need to remember that it is likely that there are people who dislike us! For some people, we will be that person they dread meeting, who presses their buttons. It does not feel so good to realise that you are someone’s object of dislike. We might feel it’s not fair, or that we don’t deserve it. Perhaps we wonder how someone as well-meaning as we try to be could be disliked. 

So, in addition to these four things we can do when we dislike someone, we can ask ourselves what we would request of someone who dislikes us. The answer to that question contains a whole lot of clues that we can use when dealing with our own dislikes.

Awareness in Action is dedicated to building a community of people interested in living a life of meaning and purpose based on sustainable wellbeing. If you would like to join with us, you could make a start by sharing and commenting on the ideas you find in the blogs on these pages. Your story is part of our journey.

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