This week on our Morning Mindset sessions Jonny, our Mindfulness and NHS Counselor, is exploring the theme of happiness. The idea of finding happiness tends to be an end goal that many people are in pursuit of when they're drawn to something like mindfulness or mindset training. But is that pursuit and constant striving for it part of the problem? Are there certain things that hold people back from finding a sense of content? To kick the week off we looked at some of the myths of happiness, which I wanted to share, along with some of my own thoughts.
#1 'Happiness is a natural state for humans'
This is in fact not true. As most of us will testify, now more than ever, it is the neurotic, anxious part of our brains that most easily gets fired up and historically this would have stood us in good stead. The ability of our ancestor's brains to sense danger, keep themselves and their tribe alert and safe, is a real genetic advantage. Being chilled and laid back all the time wouldn't necessarily have kept your gene pool in the mix for the future generations to come. It is not to say that happiness isn't a beneficial genetic characteristic, it's just it doesn't come as easily to us as our fight or flight responses have.
#2 'Happiness is a constant state of pleasure'
I found this one to be really interesting. The idea that for us to live happy and fulfilled lives we must constantly feel pleasure and be in a comfortable, fluffy existence. Jonny made the point that actually when we experience anything constantly we naturally become desensitized to it, a phenomenon known as hedonic adaptation. Like the neighbour who loves to rev his motorbike engine unnecessarily loud each morning, the first few times you hear it, it jars you, annoys you. But eventually, it dissolves into white noise, it's nothing (I'm fine though, doesn't annoy me one bit, no really). If all you feel is pleasure then soon it becomes less powerful. The highs and lows of life can often make those pleasurable, happy moments, even more powerful. I think perspective in these moments can make us even more appreciative, than if we simply always experience nice things.
#3 'If you are not happy you are defective'
This is something I personally have experienced and gotten better at during lockdown. I have experienced a whole host of emotions, like we probably all have, for various reasons. But one of the biggest skills I've learnt in recent weeks is to recognize those emotions, especially the negative ones. Verbalize them. Talk about them (often to myself, and out loud for extended periods of time!). Try my best to understand them. Then accept that just like the weather they will pass and a new emotion will come along soon. Failing that I'll get out for a run for a dopamine hit. The point being is that it is ok to not be ok all of the time. Our range of emotions is one of the amazing idiosyncrasies of being a human. Getting used to negative emotions, from a young age, interpreting them and learning to understand them, is actually an important part of happiness. It's not always an easy journey, but it is a crucial step.
#4 'We can control all of our thoughts and emotions all of the time'
The final myth is often a misconception when people turn to mindfulness training. The idea we can train our minds like Jedis and control what goes on in there so that our thoughts are only ever filled with our idea of perfection. The perfect ramen, the idyllic swim in the ocean and that first time you meet up with all of your mates post lockdown (an insight into my idea of happiness). When this isn't always the case it can lead to a feeling of failure when it comes to mindfulness practices. The idea we can stop certain thoughts coming into our minds just isn't true. Jonny likes to use the idea of the white bear. He doesn't want you to think about or even picture the white bear. Just don't think about the white bear it's simple. Don't think about it... Bet you thought about a white bear didn’t you? Trying to resist those hard thoughts is like providing me with a tub of Häagen Dazs salted caramel ice cream and asking me to not to finish the tub (currently on discount in my local supermarket, proving to be my latest lockdown addiction). What's more useful in finding a state of happiness is training your actions, attention and your response to those thoughts. Those things are trainable and can be improved. How can I react differently to certain emotions? Can I stop and think about why I might be feeling a certain way rather than just accepting it and having a bad day? It is the improvement of those skills that will help bring you happiness. Please note I'm not currently in training to improve my response to Hagen Daz though so back off.
And to finish a fitting quote that the session started with - "Happiness is like a butterfly, the more you chase it, the more it will elude, but if you turn your attention to other things, it will come and sit softly on your shoulder." Henry David Thoreau. Really looking forward to the rest of this week on Morning Mindset and learning more about finding happiness.