How to be Happier in a Relatively Unhappy World
In today’s fast-paced, digitized, unstable world – with it uncertainty, childish tweets from on-high, and general dissatisfaction with things as they are – how may one become a happier person. It is clear that isolation will not work; it is clear that aggressive actions in opposition to others will not
work; and, it is clear that the cloud-dominated “friendships” of so many people
with their dopamine-pumping cell phones will not work. We know that pure material greed so common in America, unless you are very poor, will not work. Self-medication with alcohol, drugs, food, material gain, etc. will not work. All of these failed strategies have not succeeded in making us intrinsically happier people. In fact, instant 24-hour communications about so many negative events around the world keeps us on high-alert status. Being overly stressed-out is the new normal. Not only does this state harm our bodies via destructive body chemicals in our bloodstream and organs, but also our brain adapts (plasticity) so we become stressed more easily in the future. Part of the problem is in our brain. Our unlimited faith in the power of the cortex and frontal brain areas may be part of the problem. We cannot simply “think” our way to happiness. Our reward centers pretty much make secure, stable, intrinsic happiness impossible; we are simply waiting for the NEXT and the next “great thing” that spills dopamine in our reward circuits. This never-ending seeking of rewarding sensory pleasure (via dopamine, serotonin, endogenous opioids, and/or adrenaline has failed to bring us lasting, intrinsic happiness. Our ancient brain is also a culprit! The limbic system, with its never-ending danger system “ringing,” ringing,” and, “ringing” keeps us fearful, reactive and unstable emotionally. No wonder so few people experience stable emotion regulation in the chaos of daily life.
What is a person to do? There are some answers, but they require vigorous daily practice. To people who excuse themselves saying “I do not have time to do that” I say simply replace your unhelpful worry time with practice time. We
humans tend to worry incessantly abut things we have no control over. If this is you, radically accept that you cannot control the things you spend so much time worrying about – practice coping skills instead. Of course if your worrying leads to a practical solution, try it out. Experiment! However, this is an exception to the rule of worry. So what can a person do? Here is a list for you to try on your own or with guidance from a qualified professional.
- STOP self-medicating your unhappiness with food, material things, mind-altering substances.
- Every morning, begin your day with one basic happy thought.
- Practice gratitude journaling or happiness journaling. What things that you now take for granted are actually pretty BIG, and NOT to be taken for granted. Did you eat today? Do have a roof over your head? Are you relatively safe? Each day list one thing in your journal. What fleeting or BIG experience made you happy today. Write it in your journal. At a future date, re-read everything you have written.
- Play more calming music. If artistic, do more art work
- Eat a healthy diet by staying away from the SAD diet – the Standard American Diet. Way too much fat, sugar and salt there. Also way, way too many chemicals that you are not genetically made to eat. Eat more veggies, fruits, healthy fats and sugars. Stay away from ALL fast foods! Now WebMD reports that there may be unhealthy chemicals in fast-food packaging. Cut back on alcohol and red meats. Do your best not to eat processed foods. If you can afford it, eat organic foods.
- If you are plagued by Red Ants – automatic negative thoughts, learn to use cognitive restructuring skills. If you are in therapy, ask your therapist to help you. If your therapist does not know how to do so, find a better qualified therapist.
- Use a helpful self-talk mantra. Say to yourself silently a repeated statement that helps you make it through the tough spots of your day. Use the same mantra; change it only if the one you created is not helping.
- Place yourself on a pleasurable events schedule. Do thing you enjoy even if just for brief periods of time. Take control and do it!
- Use positive imagery. Sit and make internal visual images of things that are positive in your past and present. None of these images should include self-medicating behaviors.
- Do some basic exercise. Moving your body improved mood. As a minimum, walk a bit every day.
- Give and try to get social and emotional support from others. Stay with caring people; get out of toxic relationships if it is safe to do so.
- Cut back on stimulants: caffeine, drugs, nicotine, etc.
- Work hard to be more compassionate about yourself, and spread it out by being more compassionate about others.
- Try sympathetic joy rather than being jealous of what others possess.
- Self-validate yourself, and catch yourself being critical. Stop it! Be a bit kinder to your self, and to others.
- Laugh when possible, but never at the expense of others. Join a laughing yoga group and participate.
- Practice random acts of anonymous kindness to others. While you are at it, be kind to yourself.
- Learn about and DO tai chi or qi gong – ancient mindful movement practices that have potent effects on both physical and psychological (emotional) health. Again, move your body!
- We humans experience joy, suffering, and boredom in life. This is natural! Practice accepting the reality of personal suffering, but work hard at NOT having “second arrow” suffering. Our “second arrow” suffering is caused by our own actions of mind and body. When we get stuck on our suffering and make it BIGGER by our thoughts, emotions, and behavior – we make the suffering worse and longer-lasting. You may need help form a mindfulness master to learn how to do this.
- Get into the practice of smiling more. Facial emotions cause changes in the brain, so smile more to provide more positive feedback to your own brain.
- Learn and practice relaxing and/or stimulating (if depressed) breathing techniques. Again, you may need help to learn these.
- Learn and practice body scanning. Once you learn how to do this, you can access self-imposed body relaxation for the rest of your life.
- Allow joy and happiness to happen, especially via small experiences in life. Savor it, but let go of attachment. The thing you are now so pleased with will change.
- MOST important, begin a daily meditation or yoga practice. Daily meditation and/or yoga will provide much needed internal control and relaxation as a side-effect.
- End your day at sleep time with one happy, satisfying thought.
- From very early Buddhist information, know and use your “Six Best Friends.” Change your posture often: Stand, sit, walk, lay down, smile more, and practice helpful breathing techniques.
- If you are suffering from serious anxiety, depression, trauma, substance misuse, or eating problems – GET PROFESSIONAL HELP NOW!
- If the helper you select fails to help you improve (give them some time), fire them and find a more expert helper.
- Sit down and make your own bucket list of other tings that are safe, inexpensive, and helpful to improving your mood.
For more information refer to Quintiliani, A. R. (2014). Mindful Happiness…Shelburne, VT: Vermont Voices Publications, pp. 5-19, 29-34. This publication is undergoing revision.
Anthony R. Quintiliani, PhD., LADC
From the Eleanor R. Liebman Center for Secular Meditation in Monkton, Vermont
Author of Mindful Happiness
New Edition of Mindful Happiness in Production…Coming soon!