If You Want to Be Happy, Make This One Shift
It won’t give you instant gratification, but a life-long tool for peace.
Happiness. We all want it, yet it eludes most of us. We fall into the trap of pursuing desires — jobs, relationships, successes, material goods, or even experiences — and then find ourselves wanting more or something else. Desire is never fulfilled, only temporarily satisfied; the craving swiftly emerges again. A recent New York Times article went so far as to ask whether we live in a “post-happiness” era.
When I finally decided, once and for all, that I wanted to be happy, I committed myself to making one single shift. It wasn’t an easy shift, but it was a powerful one. And I have to keep working at it, because it’s a life-long practice. What was this step?
I stopped interpreting the world.
I did this first by simply accepting and allowing what was happening. By “accept,” I mean that I gave everything permission to be there. I didn’t push away the experience, the feelings, the reality of the events surrounding me. I didn’t recoil or reject or resist or proclaim, “This can’t be. This shouldn’t be. This isn’t right.” Instead, I allowed all of it — pain, anger, conflict, joy, connection, fatigue, sadness, affection, sickness, and even death — to be a part of my life.
Next, and most importantly, I stopped believing the meaning that my mind had previously tried to give everything. That doesn’t mean I made everything meaningless, which is actually attributing a kind of meaning to an event.
The secret to being happy is to not believe the meaning that your mind will try to generate in response to life’s events.
Like all humans, my mind constantly generated meaning by interpreting the events in my life. I was on a rollercoaster of thoughts and emotions. Something would happen, and several thoughts would go through my head, and my emotions would get churned up, often together. Most often, one emotion would often lead to another thought, followed by another emotion. I was like a human pinball machine.
After making this shift, I simply allowed my emotions to be there. Did this happen overnight? No, of course not. It has taken years of practice — along with meditation and other spiritual tools, to be able to be with emotions and allow them to surface. The longer I sit with emotions, just allowing them to be, the more easily they dissipate on their own.
Of course, my mind wants to interpret a situation, my feelings, etc. — to make meaning out of all that “data”— by generating lots of thoughts about it. The secret to peace is not to believe those thoughts. At most, I might later explore the beliefs my mind holds that give rise to my thoughts, and really ask if those beliefs are true or examine where they came from. I know that those beliefs are just my mind’s programming, a kind of operating system. So I stopped believing those thoughts were true.
In short, my path to peace and happiness has been to feel the feelings and not believe my mind’s interpretation of my experience.
1. My friend stands me up for coffee.
Let’s take a hypothetical example to demonstrate how this works. Let’s say that a friend of mine stands me up for a coffee date, with no message or call to explain, and I start to get upset and angry.
Undoubtedly, I generated some reaction to a thought I had interpreting the situation. In other words, I gave it meaning, and that meaning is what I’m reacting to. Not showing for coffee means my friend disrespects me and my time. My friend not showing up for coffee means my friend isn’t really a true friend. My friend not showing up for coffee means my time was wasted. The list can go on and on …
What if it turns out that my friend was trapped in a subway car that got stuck and had no cell service? What if it turns out my friend was in an accident? What if a work emergency came up earlier in the day and he simply forgot? I could continue to interpretations galore. Each of those pieces of information evokes new thoughts and emotions.
Most of your happiness — or absence of it — comes from generating some kind of meaning out of a situation, a meaning that is very often negative, rather than just feeling your emotions.
The mind wants to create meaning. And that meaning is almost always tied to an emotional state or reaction. Your choice of interpretation will dictate how you feel about any given moment or situation. So, to find happiness, I stopped believing any of the thoughts that my mind generated about the meaning of an event.
Instead, I stuck with the observable facts: I was in a coffee shop, and my friend did not arrive at the time we had agreed to meet. That’s it. Maybe I felt some disappointment, because I wanted to enjoy my friend’s company. Maybe I felt annoyed, and I could see the aforementioned thoughts creeping in. But I just felt the emotions, which then faded, and I returned to a state of peace and happiness.
Did the event have any deeper meaning? No. I was in a coffee shop. I could have coffee. I could also read, watch something on my phone, write in my journal, work on an article. Or I could just sip my coffee.
That’s it. I was sitting in a coffee shop, drinking coffee. My time isn’t wasted, my time isn’t “disrespected,” and my friend remains my friend. These are all thoughts that are not based in reality, but on supposition, conjecture, and ultimately fear. I could have spent my remaining time in the coffee shop ruminating and texting madly, “Where are you?!”, but instead, I enjoyed my time there on my own.
2. But, wait? What if my friend really stood me up because he’s not my friend…?
So what if it turns out that my friend and I re-connect at a later date, and I press him for details? And let’s say he did stand me up because … he was invited last minute to something “more interesting.” Or let’s say my friend “forgot.” And to make this even more challenging, let’s say my friend either “forgot” or chose the more “more interesting” option, because, well, “he really wasn’t all that excited by our coffee date because he doesn’t really regard me as a great friend.” Let’s say that my friend was entirely forthcoming in a moment of brutal honesty, and he says all of these things.
What does all of that mean? Nothing. At least, nothing that speaks to my worth or value as a human being.
It means my friend has greater priorities than a coffee date with me — that’s now an observable fact based on what he just said to me (and assuming, for the sake of this hypothetical, that I’ve taken him at his word).
And if that’s true, what does that mean for me? It means just that — my friend has other priorities than me. Now, that’s part of an observable reality. I can decide that this is a friendship that I won’t pursue. Simply that. Yes, there may be emotions attached to this, and I should feel them — I might feel sad, I might feel angry. But any additional thoughts about why I am feeling these emotions aren’t necessarily true — they are linked to underlying beliefs, like, if my friend doesn’t show up for coffee, it means he’s not a true friend.
Does this event say anything about my value, my worth or my role in this world? No, it does not. Because that’s where the mind will want to go next: Being rejected by this friend means I’m not valuable or people don’t like me or I’m boring or I am not a good judge of character because if I were, I wouldn’t have picked this person to be my friend in the first place. You see how the mind starts to generate more interpretations, now focused on me and my value.
This isn’t an instant source of happiness. It’s the practice of a lifetime of letting go of the mind’s penchant for making meaning, and instead just allowing emotions to come and go. As you practice it, you’ll soon find that the emotional ups and downs aren’t as high and low — a sense of peace and carefreeness emerge. It’s not the ecstatic happiness that comes with winning or achieving some goal — that’s a transient form of glee. It’s the kind of happiness that you can depend on in all situations, for the rest of your life.