The longer I do this work, the clearer it seems: Happier people have certain internal habits, or abilities. Generally speaking, they're not trending happier because they live in an easier or simpler life situation, although sometimes of course that plays a role. It's easier to be happier when our problems are fewer. But what plays a far bigger role are certain habits, or skills, for responding to pain, loss, difficulty and uncertainty.
Interestingly, learning how to meet our unhappiness is a key part of being happier.
But first, let's consider some key mental unhelpful habits:
Worrying about things we don't control, especially the future.
Trying to control what we don't control.
Blaming ourselves harshly and repetitively for our human mistakes and vulnerabilities.
Getting stuck in mental stories about our problems or shortcomings.
Being afraid or avoidant of our uncomfortable emotions.
Habitually avoiding discomfort with distractions or other escapes.
These habits are the building blocks for anxiety, depression and addiction.
Many times someone with these presenting problems enters therapy, and the process centers around a 'search for causes'. Where did these patterns come from? What happened earlier in life or in childhood that got these wheels turning? This is the core method of what's called 'psychodynamic' or 'insight-oriented' therapy: Find the smoking gun, and then the rest of the bullets can be removed. One doesn't have to keep shooting oneself in the foot. This can be enormously helpful. Still, many times people learn where a pattern started, but that insight only frees things to a degree, and the pattern stubbornly persists. Another approach is needed.
Other schools of therapy, like MCBT (Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy), say that no matter our insight or lack thereof regarding where the problem started, we must deal with it here and now by learning ways to respond differently. This is a skills-based approach, which empowers us to learn ways we can 'hack' our own mental patterns. It's much less focused on removing the painful trigger, but rather learning that what matters a lot is how we respond to our pain. This approach says that there's no way to escape painful events, thoughts and emotions. Life will inevitably ding and dent and even traumatize us. But we can learn to stop throwing salt on the wounds, and tend them more soothingly.
It's often been referred to thus: You can't stop the waves, but can you can learn to surf.
Let's look at 3 of the key skills from the present-moment schools of therapy. I think of these together as the Swiss Army Knife of mental health.
Mindfulness. Many people are now practicing mindfulness and other types of meditation to calm and focus themselves. This is generally a very good thing, but it's also important to realize the limits to this strategy: We can't stay calm and focused forever. We can't stop and sit cross-legged every time we get anxious, angry or have a craving attack. Mindfulness teaches us something with much longer-lasting and wide-ranging applications. It teaches us how to mentally step back and shift perspective when our pain, anxiety or craving comes up, to observe these internal events and know they don't control or define us. If a calming meditation is like a safe and serene harbor we visit, mindfulness is the surfboard we learn to ride through the storm. We learn we can observe our worst fears, darkest thoughts, and deep cravings, give them a little wave and a pat on the head, and with our surfboard under us, we won't be drowned by them. We don't have to avoid, fight or fear them. We accept them as part of our environment, without being controlled by them. Then we pivot on our board and keep paddling, toward our life goals that matter most. Instead of fighting our demons, or hiding from them, hoping they'll go away, we learn to swim amongst them. It's enormously freeing and empowering. And the crazy thing is it hinges on a simple shift in perspective: You are not your emotions, thoughts, history, or addictive behavior. You experience these internal events and patterns. You are you, your true self, despite whatever moods or events arise in your mind or in your life. Mindfulness-based therapy teaches these practices, empowering you to navigate your pain rather than hoping it will be forever cured.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT and MBCT) is in some ways built on Mindfulness perspectives. It teaches the client to first identify thoughts as a driver of moods and behaviors, and learn to change thoughts to ones that are more helpful and less distorted. When challenging events or moods happen, we often make things worse in the way we think about them. Years ago I had a terrible fear of public speaking. I tried everything to try to calm myself, but it rarely worked. This led me to believe that I was incapable of effectively speaking, never mind enjoying it. I began to believe my thoughts that I was “never going to be good at public speaking”. Eventually I got exposed to forms of CBT, and experimented with using a new thought: “Maybe it's okay if I'm anxious. I can still speak.” This was a game-changer. I still got anxious (and still do, a bit), but to my amazement found I generally quite enjoy public speaking! CBT shows us how to stop fighting what we feel, and think differently about it. It identifies common thought distortions, and how to think differently in challenging situations. As mindfulness helps us to observe and not fight our pain, CBT helps us “use” our minds to help us rather than hinder us.
Self-Compassion. Along with Mindfulness and CBT-based approaches, another common factor in happier people is that they have a relatively kind inner dialogue. Whether they had this habit from early in life or developed it later, the inner voice with which they talk to themselves is generally reasonable and encouraging, like a good friend. They can both hold themselves accountable, and examine their mistakes, while doing so without harsh or cruel self-talk. But many find the voice in the head is lacerating and unforgiving. It speaks without mercy, like one's worst enemy. And indeed it can become a worst enemy, demoralizing and sabotaging from the inside. Both depression and anxiety problems are often fueled by such debilitating self-criticism. And it's a key fodder for addiction- fueling the need to escape the harsh judger in the mind. But unfortunately many never even consider the factor of this voice- why would they without CBT or other specific training? It reigns with near-total and unquestioned authority.
We can learn to speak to ourselves more kindly and helpfully with practice and attention. It's not about denying the reality of mistakes we make or giving ourselves praise when we do something wrong or harmful. But we can learn to talk to ourselves with more kindness. When we're feeling afraid or lonely, we can tell ourselves we're going to be okay, with a kind tone. When we're experiencing anxiety, we can tell ourselves these are just feelings, and they can't harm us even though they're extremely uncomfortable. When we see our flaws and vulnerabilities, we can remind ourselves that this is the human condition, that everyone is imperfect, even as we will strive to grow and improve ourselves.
These 3 skill sets are relatively simple, practical and applicable to real-life situations. They aren't philosophical, but do touch on something subtle and even spiritual. They encourage us to cultivate our inner skills, to balance our outer striving in the world. They are the building blocks of wisdom, and a sense that we can learn not to entirely control our inner world, but definitely cultivate the inner life we want, especially when things are difficult.