I went to a professional seminar recently, and was surprised to see how the instructor, Shawn Christopher Shea, took a completely unique approach to the topic. He talked extensively about happiness, and obstacles to happiness. This has since inspired me to read more books and info in the area of positive psychology. I still have a lot of reading and thinking to do about the material, but I will continue to share with you some of this material as I go along. But the seminar was so inspiring it itself, so I will share with you some of the material and the subsequent thoughts I had about it.
Julian of Norwich was a (female) 14th century mystic, anchorite and could probably be considered a feminist as well. Despite the circumstances of her life, including the fact that the plague was rampant at that time, she appears to have been an extremely happy person. In one of her books, she wrote “All is well, and every kind of thing will be well.” She also wrote, “During our lifetime here, we have in us a marvelous mixture of both well-being and woe…And now we are raised to the one, and now we are permitted to fall to the other.” She believed that in order for us to truly know and experience happiness, we also had to acknowledge its opposite. That is, one cannot fully know joy if one has not also experienced sorrow, or pleasure without pain. She talked about how, although there is suffering in the world, there is also unnecessary suffering. A key component of this is the role of bitterness. Bitterness makes the feeling of suffering exponentially worse. If we can begin to strip away the bitterness that we hold, or help someone else to do this, than we can begin to accept our past and experience the world as a less hostile or malicious place. Yes, easier said than done—how exactly does one go about doing this?
Shea discussed how happiness could be viewed as a process, a moment in time. It could be defined as a “gentle confidence,” or a sense of trust that a person can cope with his/her life. If a person can trust and have confidence that his/her future will be okay, then that person can function better in the present moment. And this is where we ultimately function best–in the present. I often tell the clients I work with that dwelling in the past allows one to be stuck with their depression; if one is worrying about the future, this welcomes anxiety. But to be right here, in your present, allows you to fully embrace ‘now’ and focus on what is going on in your life right now. It also helps you to deal with your challenges as they come up. If there is an issue, you face it head-on, work to solve it–taking baby steps if needed–and then move on. You aren’t bogged down by your past, you aren’t pushing away the problem to some future time which will cause you anxiety. Rather, you are fully present and engaged with the moment.
What if someone’s past was so traumatic or damaging that it seems impossible for that person to be happy? Shea argues that it doesn’t mean it’s impossible to be happy, it’s just harder. Often it can be the case that the person is so caught up with what his/her future might hold that it veils his/her present. For example, an abused child who was always told “you will never amount to anything” may hold this belief in his head, despite its fallacy. It may even become a self-fulfilling prophecy. It may cloud his past, cloud his future; he may live his life as if this belief is true (e.g. why bother finishing high school, I’m never going to have a good life no matter what I do). It is impossible for this child to ever be happy? No. Might it be difficult? Yes.
So, this still doesn’t answer the question of how one actually finds happiness, or becomes happy. Well, I have a lot more to say on this topic. Perhaps we can travel through this journey together. Today, I am going to posit an exercise for everyone to do. I want you to get a plain sheet of paper and a pen. In the center of that paper, write the word “happiness” and circle it. Then, I want you to think of all the words, things, activities, etc. that come to mind when you think of “happiness.” Draw a line from your center word circle to connect each new word [see my example below]. There might be other key words that come to mind, and then you can branch out from them. For example, you might connect “money” to happiness and from there “vacation.” One key to this exercise is to make sure you aren’t just thinking of your current life or situation, but that you are thinking of all the things that come to your mind. What I mean by that is perhaps you are broke right now, and can’t afford a vacation. But this is still something that would, in theory, make you feel happy. So include it!
I’m going to sum up this post now by including a few references for you, if you’d like to begin doing your own readings on this topic. (Please note—I haven’t reviewed all of these books yet, I’m just posting books on the subject in general). More posts on this to come!! And if anyone tries this exercise and wants to share any enlightenment they had, please let me know.
Shea, Shawn C. Happiness Is: Unexpected Answers To Practical Questions in Curious Times
Julian of Norwich. Revelation of Love
Watts, Alan. The Meaning of Happiness
Rubin, Gretchen. The Happiness Project
Burkeman, Oliver. The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking
Seligman, Martin. Authentic Happiness