Several years ago, I interviewed author Marci Shimoff, (Chicken Soup for the Woman's Soul, Happy for No Reason, and others) for my book Kensho: A Modern Awakening, and she shared some ideas on revolutionary approaches to experiencing deep and lasting happiness as well as what I refer to in the book as "conscious optimism." I came across the interview recently and it made me think more about defining true happiness, and how to reframe challenging circumstances.
Here is an excerpt from the interview:
What is the difference between a happy person and a "happy for no reason" person?
Most people in our culture are trained to look for circumstantial happiness. We have this inner dialogue that goes something like this: 'When I have a great relationship and the right job and enough money, then I will be happy.' I call this 'happy for good reason.' There's nothing wrong with having good reasons to be content with your life, except that when they go away, there goes your happiness. What I define as 'happy for no reason' is an inner state of peace and wellbeing that does not depend on circumstances. People who are happy for no reason don't look to their life experiences as the source of their happiness. They bring their happiness to their life experiences.
You interviewed a hundred people for your book and I found it fascinating that the one belief that they all held in common was that they felt supported.
Einstein said that the most important question we can ask ourselves is, 'Is this a friendly universe?' What I found is that people who are happier believe that ultimately this is a benevolent universe and that, when things happen to us, they happen for some sort of good reason. There is a measure of blessing or gift in everything that happens to us.
I love that adage, "Life doesn't happen to you, it happens for you."
Yes -- what it means is that you should assume, as a working hypothesis in life, that everything that is happening to you is happening for your highest good. The problem is that you may not understand it that way right now. When I am speaking to an audience, I ask them, 'How many people have been through a challenging time or a crisis?' Everybody raises their hand. Then I say, 'How many of you would say that that experience was one of the best things that has ever happened in your life?' Almost everybody raises their hand. In retrospect, we are able to see why the challenge or crisis was a blessing. Happier people are actually able to have faith or trust that challenging times are a blessing even while they're going through them.
We all get caught up in the media headlines: job losses, financial and environmental crises, war, terrorism, and so on. How do we unplug from the fear and embrace optimism?
What you put your attention on is what grows stronger and more dominant in your life. Many people get caught up in focusing their attention on all the negativity that is occurring in the world. They spend hours 'feeding' that in themselves. When you're watching the news, it's like you're taking in food. It's registering in your body. I am not saying to be oblivious to what's going on in the world. What I'm saying is that we overexpose ourselves to negativity. It's junk food for your brain, and for your heart. We are indulging in a bad mental diet.
Here are seven steps to help you look for the gift in a difficult situation:
Look for the Lesson and the Gift
1. Sit quietly by yourself. Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths.
2. Recall a specific situation that has caused you to feel wronged or to blame others. Picture the person or people involved, the setting, and what was said or done.
3. Imagine taking several steps back and observing the situation from a distance, as though you were watching a movie on a screen.
4. What part of what happened can you take responsibility for? Did you ignore signs that should have clued you in that there was a problem? Did you act in a way that might have provoked the situation? Did your thoughts or actions escalate the situation?
5. What's your lesson to learn from what happened? Do you need more patience or better boundaries? Do you need to listen more, say less?
6. Ask yourself: If this were happening for a higher purpose, what would that be? Can you find the gift?
7. Write down the most important thing you can do differently as a result of finding the lesson or the gift.
There is a saying, "Don't focus on what if, focus on what is." Blaming and finger pointing are futile -- but inspired, openhearted energy can move mountains. If you can strive to focus more on the positive aspects of life, you find yourself becoming more positive over time. It may seem virtually unachievable at times but looking for the lesson or the gift in challenging situations can help you move forward, more willingly.