Two months ago a new client entered my office for her first coaching session. "All I want is to feel happy," she said. "I'm miserable and I focus on that misery all day long."
It seemed like a fairly simple request, so we went to work.
Week after week I witnessed the smile on my client's face becoming more consistent, more authentic. Soon she began talking about the laughter and pleasant activities that now fill her days. So I asked whether she thought that we had achieved her happiness goal. I was surprised when she said "no."
What I learned is that this vibrant woman believed that in order to characterize herself as happy she could never feel sad. To her, sadness and other unpleasant feelings are not allowed in the life of someone who defines themselves as a happy person. But that is not what the human experience is actually about.
Remember, life doles out the knocks. And if we don't allow a natural progression of the resulting unpleasant feelings we will never fully experience and embrace the joy in life. That's right; where there is black, there is white, it's just how nature works. There are two complementary forces that make up all aspects of life and we must allow and accept their balance.
This is the understanding that my client was missing.
And it begs the question: Happiness--what is it, really?
In simplest form, happiness is a state of being. Sure, our circumstances influence the level of happiness we can access, but happiness is within us, not around us. We all have it, but we each define it differently and have varying expectations of ourselves and our own abilities to be happy. And that is what causes the confusion.
It's perfectly OK to have moments or days of feeling bad, rather than good. Heck, it's necessary. When we resist the feelings that we categorize as unpleasant, it simply causes more resistance, leading to greater unhappiness. Let's debunk the happiness myth. These steps might just help you develop a healthy--and, dare I say, happy--life balance.
1. Build a solid foundation.
Martin Seligman is one of the leading researchers in positive psychology and author of Authentic Happiness. Seligman describes happiness as having three parts: pleasure, engagement, and meaning. Pleasure is the "feel good" part of happiness. Engagement refers to living a "good life" of work, family, friends, and hobbies. Meaning refers to using our strengths to contribute to a larger purpose. Seligman says that all three are important, but that of the three, engagement and meaning make the most difference to living a happy life.
Revisit your relationships. Are they satisfactory? Do you have a good support network in place? If not, work on building it up. When you hit a bump in the road having supportive people around you will make a world of difference.
Also, review how you contribute to a larger purpose. Focusing on something bigger than you are helps to keep things in perspective.
2. Set realistic expectations.
You are human. Forcing or faking happiness leads to misery and conflict. Even if you create your happiness foundation and achieve a state of general well-being, you will have your ups and downs. It's how you deal with those fluctuations that matters. Condemnation and negativity will jeopardize your state of balance. Get real. Eliminate the pressure and you will bounce back more quickly.
3. Allow your feelings, rather than resisting them.
There are days when you will wake up feeling unhappy. Whether you fully understand it or not, it's important to accept that this happens. Be patient with yourself. Don't complain, but do indulge in a little time to examine your feelings without criticism. Rather than, "I hate when I feel like this," try "It's interesting that I have these feelings." Be OK with it and examine the feelings for a little while if they merit your attention. If not, simply turn your focus to your larger purpose to prevent yourself from dwelling on something that isn't dwell-worthy.
4. Be ready for change.
Ups and downs are normal, but if you find yourself in what feels like a constant state of unhappiness it's important to listen to what your body and mind are telling you. Life has a funny way of tapping us on the shoulder when we need to create change. If you don't pay attention to the gentle tapping, you may be surprised by a less gentle reminder--or series of them. Either way, your subconscious mind will get your attention to suggest, or force, change. So make it easy on yourself and pay attention to the gentle tap. What is the cause of your unhappiness? Find someone who can help you sort through it, and embrace the change that lies ahead. You are on your way.