What is your definition of happiness? Many of us answer this question by identifying the things that “make” us happy. A great vacation. A new love. Quality family time. Try listing five things, ten things, twenty things that you believe make you happy. It’s a fun exercise and it feels great. That’s because we love thinking about the things that make us happy. If you imagine the wonderful vacation you are going on next week, you already feel good just thinking about it. Ah, the sleeping late, the pina colada by the pool, that great novel you’ve been dying to read. It’s going to be great! We are feeling good because we are anticipating being happy in the future.
Depending on our expectations, we can feel completely different about the same event. For example, how would you feel about that same vacation if you were anticipating getting food poisoning, sunburn or seasick? Chances are you would be filled with dread instead of excitement. You would practically have to hold a gun to your head to get yourself out of the house on the departure date. Same vacation, two completely different feelings. So our feelings about an event are determined by our expectations and our beliefs about whether we would be happy or unhappy.
For many of us, our happiness and our unhappiness are tied to events and our expectations about how we will feel about them. Our current state of mind is based then upon how we think we will feel in the future. When we anticipate being happy, we are happy already. But, the reverse is also true. When we anticipate being unhappy, we are unhappy already. So what do you imagine comes next? We try our best to create and control events so that we can have control over our lives, and how we feel. Our present is composed of imagining future scenarios. Even when we are enjoying ourselves, we are very close to the tipping point that can occur when things start to go downhill. The beautiful vacation is “ruined” by bad weather, delayed flights, lost passports.
When we link our happiness and our unhappiness to events, we’re like helpless organisms rising and falling on the ebb and flow of life’s circumstances. We end up spending our lives struggling to orchestrate the good things and avoid the bad things. Even when things turn out great and we get what we want, there’s bound to be a tinge of discomfort around the edges. It’s all so precarious. What if, we might ask ourselves. What if this goes wrong and that? How will I feel than? If the answer is “unhappy” in some way, our wants have turned into needs, and we have become addicted to success on some level. Our happiness is contingent upon things happening just so. What if it didn’t have to be that way?
To see how your happiness in connected to what happens to you, try this simple exercise. Imagine you just got fired. Imagine how you would feel about getting fired if you were planning on quitting and were anxious about what your boss would say. Alternatively, imagine how you might feel if you have three children to put through college and you are the only breadwinner? The same you, the same situation but two different sets of thoughts running through your head and most likely, two completely different reactions.
Clearly, there is no cause and effect operating between the event and your feelings. It depends on what you bring to the event and especially, what you believe you will feel.
Your beliefs about how the event will “make” you feel is the sole determinant of your feelings. No event has the power to make anyone feel anything unless they believe it can.
We all have our reasons for believing we have to be unhappy, but if we are willing to discard the notion that unhappiness is necessary, we open the door to deep understanding of the true causes of unhappiness. When we are willing to question unhappiness instead of accepting its inevitability, we infuse simple questions like, What are I unhappy about – with life-changing power. Have you ever really questioned your unhappiness in a non-judgemental, loving way? Imagine what that would be like to ask the question, Why am I unhappy without blaming circumstances or events. When we blame circumstances or events, this question is a dead end question. “Because I lost my job” “Because I got poison ivy” “Because I am alone on a Saturday night!” Wouldn’t you be unhappy? But when we don’t blame circumstances or events, the question becomes open-ended and our answers are deeply personal and meaningful. “Because I won’t be able to pay my bills” And what is there about that,that you’re unhappy about? Because if I can’t pay my bills, I will lose my house, my car, etc.” And what is there about losing your house, you car, etc. that you would be unhappy about? And so on and so until we can go further and have identified the real connection between the event and my unhappiness. Which may be something like, I will have proven that I am bad for myself (to have allowed such a thing to happen.
That is why it is possible to get very good at drilling down through the feelings to find out what we are really believing about the situation. Beliefs about unhappiness tend to operate behind the scenes until we bring them into the light and question their validity. Sometimes these beliefs have been operating since we were young children. We adopted them from our parents or other role models and simply never questioned them. Beliefs that are not questioned are held as truths, but once exposed, we have the ability to ask ourselves, Why do I believe that?
To your happiness, Wendy Dolber
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