Happiness: Right Now
A STATE OF MIND
By Richard Carlson, Ph.D.
Happiness is a state of mind, not a set of circumstances. It is a serene feeling you can always experience and live in, not something you have to search very far for. In fact, you can never find happiness by “searching,” because the moment you do, you imply that it is found outside yourself. Happiness isn’t outside yourself. It is a feeling -- the natural feeling of your innate healthy psychological functioning.
When you understand and learn to flow with your own psychological functioning, you can access that place inside yourself where serenity already exists. Then you can stop trying to be happy and simply be happy. Even when your circumstances are less than perfect, that contented feeling can still be accessed because the feeling comes from within you, not from outside.
If you don’t understand your own psychological functioning, however, you won’t be happy, no matter how wonderful your circumstances are. You will continue to pay attention to your negative thoughts, as you have in the past, and keep feeling the painful effects of your own thinking.
The principles laid out in this article point directly toward happiness. They give you an understanding of how to keep your mind in sync with a happy feeling, and warn you how easy it is for your mind to pull you away from this contented state, if you insist on following your negative trains of thought to create “thought attacks.”
Happiness Lies in the Present Moment
Happiness is now. It is innate. It occurs when you allow your mind to rest, when you take your focus of attention off your concerns and problems and instead allow your mind to relax and to remain right here in this moment. I don’t mean “relax” in the sense of laziness or apathy, but rather in the sense of letting your mind take in information -- and then letting it flow back out without holding on to it for analysis. If you take in information and stimulus in this manner, you can maintain the nicer feeling state, being happy with the tasks at hand. Once you understand your own psychological functioning, you will know that this mind relaxation is not lazy, it is smart. Only in a nicer feeling state, not a state of irritation, can new answers to old problems arise. Happiness allows you to see information in new and creative ways and to make rational, productive decisions in a timely manner; it allows you to enjoy, rather than struggle with, the ebbs and flows of life, and it encourages your wisdom and common sense to surface.
Coming up with theories as to why you are (or behave in) a certain way, or delving into your past to uncover painful memories will not bring you happiness. It will take you away from happiness -- far from the direction you wish to be headed. Excessive thinking about your past and your problems will convince you that you do, in fact, have good reasons to be upset and unhappy.
But you don’t want to be unhappy. And your past is over. It is a harmless memory, carried through time, through your own thinking. It was real then, but it isn’t now. You can learn from your past, but it is a mistake to continually go into your past or overanalyze life in a search for happiness. If this worked, you’d be happy already! How many times have you unsuccessfully tried to think your way to happiness?
Who would you rather be? Person A, whose past was painful, but who has come to an understanding of thought and its effects on him? Or Person B, whose early life was almost magical, yet who now focuses on those few elements of his past that were less than perfect, and who believes those thoughts to the point of letting them depress him? Person A, despite his painful past, is capable of living a fully functional and very happy life, while Person B is tormented, not by his life as it is right now, but by his own thoughts that he takes too seriously. Person B, despite an outwardly wonderful life, is bound for years of unhappiness, therapy, and tranquilizers.
If you think too much or talk to others about how someone “wronged you,” you won’t feel happy. If you constantly think about how much better your life will be once the kids grow up, or once you’re married, you won’t feel happy either. This doesn’t mean that you can’t or shouldn’t think about these (or other) things. But if you obsess on these thoughts, you will sacrifice a most powerful sense of well-being -- the inherent feeling of happiness you were born with and still have access to.
Happiness and Desire
Anticipation feels better than anxiety -- but it’s not happiness. Thinking about the future and setting goals is fine, but don’t mistake it for the simple, uncomplicated, noncontingent feeling of happiness: the feeling of being grateful right now for no reason other than the fact that you are alive.
Sometimes you might feel a moment or two of happiness right after getting something you want. Contrary to popular opinion, however, this is not because your desire was fulfilled, but because you took your attention off what you didn’t have. The moment you switch gears and return your focus of attention to something else you want or don’t have, you will lose your sense of well-being and feel discontent. Your mind will again begin searching for something outside itself to gain satisfaction -- perpetuating the cycle of unhappiness.
If obtaining a desire -- any desire -- could be the cause of a feeling of happiness, we would all be happy already. But remember the countless times you have received what you wanted, yet didn’t remain happy. I am not speaking of avoiding goals or desires. Happiness must come first. Anything that develops out of this happiness is wonderful, but fulfilled desire alone does not create happiness.
Happiness versus Catharsis
Sometimes we make ill-fated attempts at happiness by talking about what’s wrong, and the temporary relief that we subsequently feel is through catharsis. This happens at the conclusion of an event such as getting something off our chest or telling a friend off. Bang! Whatever was disturbing us is gone; our minds are clear for an instant and we feel better. But this process is like banging your head against a wall so that when you stop you’ll feel better. There’s no question that you’ll feel better, but wouldn’t it be easier not to bang your head?
The difference between happiness and catharsis is this: a happy person would disregard the negative thoughts about his friend because he knows that those thoughts will come and go depending on his mood. He always has the option of talking to his friend at a later date if his thoughts are valid, but the best solution now is to clear his mind and enjoy his friend. He wants to be happy, and he doesn’t want to disturb the good feeling that exists in the friendship.
A person who relies on catharsis, however, wants to get his thoughts off his chest as soon as possible. He’s had some negative thoughts about his friend and feels it’s important to “release them.” To him, being honest with his feelings is very important. It doesn’t matter what his mood level is --he’s having negative thoughts about his friend and he must tell him now! He wants to get it over with -- he wants to be “right.”
“But I’m Just Being Honest with My Feelings.”
Being honest with your feelings is a relative thing. Are you being honest in a low mood, after your own thoughts have upset you, or are you being honest from a place of happiness and wisdom? This distinction is very important because your life, and everything in it, will look drastically different depending on your level of well-being. I know many people (myself included) who were champions at thinking we were “being honest,” only to find that honesty is a very relative characteristic. The very same things that torment us in an upset state of mind don’t bother us at all in a higher, more pleasant, state of mind.
Until you understand this concept, you might feel the need to react to each negative thought that enters your mind -- in the name of being honest. But you can stop reacting to negativity and wait for a nicer feeling to surface before acting upon your thoughts. If you can wait, you will find that many, if not all, of your negative thoughts will dissipate, and you will find yourself saying things to yourself like, “Silly me, he’s not such a bad guy. What was I thinking about?” and so forth. You will also have far more clarity, wisdom, and common sense available to you to make decisions.
Don’t Attach Conditions to Your Happiness
Happiness cannot occur when we place its source outside of ourselves. Once we assume that certain conditions must be met before we can feel happy, we are too late to experience it. Most of us do experience fleeting moments of happiness, but let them pass us by without due notice. We fail to recognize the feeling of happiness for what it is and inadvertently let it drift away with our thoughts. We do this because we are always looking to find happiness somewhere else.
Whenever you attach conditions to your happiness, you won’t experience it. The same mental process that attaches your happiness to a specific outcome will repeat the process once that outcome is obtained. A woman who believes that getting married will make her happy, will then create new conditions to be met once the marriage is in place. She may then believe that children will be the answer -- purchasing a home, a promotion, whatever. Once this trend is established, few people question their poor results. Why aren’t we happy yet?
When you can recognize the feeling of happiness when it’s there, you will realize that this feeling is what you have been looking for all along. The feeling isn’t leading somewhere else -- it’s the goal, not the means to a goal. If the bride-to-be understands that her happiness comes first from within, she can make the decision to marry or not to marry from a place of wisdom, not from a place of lack. If she is already happy, the marriage will also be happy. If the couple then decides to have children, the children will grow up in a happy environment without the pressure of being someone’s source of happiness. The same will be true throughout the life of any happy person. Happiness breeds a happy existence and a joyous way of looking at life.
You won’t keep your contentment if it depends on a ritual or a technique: if you attach your happiness to doing something right, you will often find yourself disappointed. I’ve known many people who have said, “I’m doing everything right -- how come I’m so miserable?” The reasons are always the same. If exercising is your “technique,” what happens if you can’t exercise? Even more important, exercise doesn’t equate to happiness. If it did, all people who exercise would be happy all of the time -- but they’re not. This isn’t to say that techniques are bad, and they can be useful for many different reasons. But techniques in themselves don’t have the power to make you happy. Techniques can help you reach certain goals, but they don’t create the feeling of happiness.
Happiness Is a Feeling, Not an Outcome
When you understand that happiness is nothing more than a feeling, you can help it to grow and maintain itself when you do feel it. When you place your attention on your feeling of happiness, you will notice that your mind is relatively clear -- that your thinking is diffuse. If you are thinking at all, it’s only on the task at hand, not on the outcome or on self-evaluation. It’s not that you shouldn’t think; in fact, in this nicer feeling state, you have complete access to your best thinking, your wisdom and common sense. In this nicer feeling state, your mind is disengaged -- not overly focused on the content of your thinking.
In this state of mind (which is available to anyone at anytime) it is possible to maintain your happiness, even if things around you aren’t to your personal liking. Happiness is a feeling, not an outcome; know what to look for and you will be able to stay in this feeling, rather than missing it and continuing to look elsewhere.
As you experience the feeling of happiness, don’t think about it. If you do, it will leave you. If you understand the dynamics of your own mind, this won’t be a problem. As you quietly recognize serenity in your life, it will stay with you for longer periods of time. And when you lose the feeling, it will come back more quickly. The key is to understand the dynamic, not to think about it, just notice the feeling without analyzing it. Thinking requires effort, however small. Happiness requires no effort at all. In fact, it’s more of a letting go of unhappiness than it is a striving for happiness. “Letting go” is nothing more than taking your attention off whatever it is you are thinking about -- not forcefully but easily.
“Happiness comes from within” is a cliché, but it is true. Happiness is the way, the only answer you need. When you understand your own mental process, you naturally see and feel the beauty in life. When you’re in your positive feeling state, what once seemed urgent and upsetting seems insignificant. And the simple beauty in life that you took for granted for so long -- children playing in your neighborhood, a gentle breeze, people helping others -- you now see with new, appreciative eyes. When happiness is your goal, you can experience it regardless of your surroundings. When you understand how to realize your own contentment, you will no longer choose to entertain thoughts that take you away from this wondrous goal.
Happiness is right now. Your life is not a dress rehearsal for some later date -- it is right here, right now. The invisible quality of happiness we have all been looking for is right here in a feeling.
Excerpted from You Can Be Happy No Matter What by Richard Carlson, Ph.D. Copyright © 1997 by Richard Carlson, Ph.D. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission from New World Library. $12.95. Available in local bookstores or call 800-972-6657 or click here.