A few months ago a friend of mine called. His housemate had been through a trauma and needed to speak with someone “who didn’t know her”. She wasn’t sleeping much, had nightmares when she did and was lashing out at her pals. R knows I have counseling training – and I have spoken with some of his friends in the past – so would I do him a favour? (R is also a great human being – plus he brings me lobsters during the season – so how could I possibly refuse.)
The story Bee told me was horrible: a man at work had a heart attack. Bee had some first-aid training and was called to help resuscitate him. As she described the intervention to me I could sense the revulsion and fear she had felt. By the sound of things the man had died before she had even started CPR – but she battled for 40 mins before admitting “failure” as she put it.
What was apparent as she spoke was that this incident had magnified how she was feeling about her life. I didn’t go there with her that day – but said she should let me know if she ever needed a follow-up chat.
I got the email the other day. In it Bee told me how unhappy she is in her job. How she feels it will never go anywhere, how restrictive and thankless it is, how she wanted to do something new and challenging. She said she wanted to go back to university to do a Masters Degree. But could we meet – because she “needed to change her life”.
Which I thought was interesting. The email was about her job – the need for change was about her life. Though interlinked – essentially different things. Which very often happens – we use the micro as an excuse to review the macro. She added at the end: “I need advice on how to be happy.”
This made me smile. Had I given her the impression I know how to be happy? I go up and down on this one – some days better than others. Even some minutes in some days. Life is real and mucky – and we can’t all be buddhists or zen masters.
But it got me thinking – are there some basic rules for happiness?
So I crunched through positive psych books, checked out some of the tennets of faith and art and added in a few hard-learned lessons of my own.
Seems that everything starts with limiting beliefs – unhappy things we experienced as a child, internalised and then hardwired into our perception of ourselves and the world. We view everything through these lenses and, if they are flawed, our chance for happiness goes to hell in a hand-basket. But, recalibrate those lenses (usually through therapy) and we’re on our way to being happy bunnies.
Seems so simple – trips me up all the time. And, maybe some of you as well. We don’t all have the time, inclination or resources for therapy. So I thought I would share the six fundamental things that psychologists, pragmatists, people of faith, great songwriters and poets all seem to agree… torpedo happiness:
1. Self-defeating self-talk
Do not believe everything you think. You are not the fattest person in the world. You are not the slowest, most stupid, dumbest, ugliest, most unlovable … And even if you are convinced you are one of them – you are very unlikely to be all of them. Nasty self-talk is a cunning bugger – it will cut your knees right out from under you. Would you talk like this to someone you love? (If the answer is yes – skip to number 2) No – then why would you talk to yourself like this? It’s abuse. When it starts – simply tell that voice to shut up. Don’t listen. Find a phrase that works for you: mine is “Shut-it monkey” said like an English gangster. Repeat until the thoughts stop.
2. The need to control
aka – attachment, the need to be right, perfectionism. Hard, hard, hard, hard to pull off, sunshine. Because things seldom work out the way you want them too. In sofafamily we call this phenomenon “the fuck-up fairy”. She will alight when you least expect it. Gleefully waggle her wicked little wand – ruining your best laid plans. By trying to keep everything perfect, we end up making our and other people’s lives a nightmare. Plus it is exhausting. Sometimes things or people just are what they are. Let it go. Let them be. You don’t always have to be right.
3. The need to impress others
No-one spends as much time thinking about us as we think they do. They are way too busy thinking about themselves. Stop trying so hard – get on with being you. That’s not to say you should turn into a narcissist psychopath. Just do what feels right and you’ll be all good. And, by the way, if you are with someone who is expecting you to change to suit some idea they have of you – forget it – it isn’t do-able. You will never get the brief right. And they’ll change their minds anyway. So get that monkey off your back and move on.
4. Resistance to change
Face it. Change happens. So we may as well embrace it and make plans with what we have to hand. It’s frightening – sure. But there’s nothing else we can do except get on with it. If you still you can’t – refer back to point 2.
and excuses. The twin siblings of unhappiness – summarised in three little words: “I can’t … because…”. Fear exists in our heads. We create it when we feel overwhelmed by events. Or when we start to believe Point 1. Excuses are fears verbalized. As the wise woman once said: “Feel the fear and do it anyway”.
6. The Past
Maybe it was better, maybe it was worse than things are now. Either way it is gone. Done, finished etc. Those cringe moments, remembered only by you. That sentence you wish you had never uttered: said. The bad lover, job, boss, dress, decision – over! Cannot be changed. If you need to make amends – make them. If you need to forgive – yourself or someone else – do it.
So – there we have it. Of all the wisdom I read when researching this piece, my favourite came from the great Dr Seuss in his book “Oh, The Places You’ll Go“….. “You’ll get mixed up, of course, as you already know. You’ll get mixed up with many strange birds as you go. So be sure when you step. Step with care and great tact and remember that Life’s a Great Balancing Act. Just never forget to be dexterous and deft. And never mix up your right foot with your left.”
(Image of monkey found in the public domain. Image of Chameleon copyright Grant Pengilly/National Geographic)