Hello my dear happiness nerds, welcome (back)!
It’s a grey autumn’s day here in Zurich. The blanket of clouds is so thick that it’s dark even at noon. And it’s raining non-stop. Everybody I know would call this weather ugly and depressing. I get it. The beautiful warmth of sunlight on our skins is intuitively more pleasant. Also, one doesn’t have to wield a cumbersome umbrella just not to get soaked on the way to work. And it’s cold and windy and dark and so on. I get it. But also, not.
See, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and while I acknowledge that we’re probably hardwired to prefer sunny weather, I think we can calibrate our software to enjoy the allegedly depressing grey just as much. Part of the solution might be positive reframing, that is seeing the dark clouds and heavy rain in a more flattering light: Water is essential for life, it grows our beautiful trees, and people in other parts of the world pray for and even fight wars over water. We get it for free, pouring down from the sky. It forms puddles for children to jump into, it washes away the dirt on our streets, and it gives us a great opportunity to cozy up inside and listen to the sound of raindrops against our windows (they sound even better on a tent!).
Yet, positive reframing isn’t the whole story to enjoying undesired weather, which may look different from our heavy clouds depending on where you live. It’s neither the whole story for everything else that momentarily isn’t the way you want it to be, so listen up! In my experience, if you develop an attitude of presence, calm, appreciation, and gratitude, nothing’s rarely ugly, inconvenient, annoying, or wrong—and even if it is, it isn’t so for long.1 The occasional positive reframing won’t accomplish much if you’re anxious, stressed out, and grumpy the rest of the day. And if you have to reframe most of the situations you’re in, you should probably change your life more fundamentally anyway. For a generally positive outlook on life, you need a general attitude and conduct that is conducive to such an outlook.
Building an attitude of presence, calm, appreciation, and gratitude takes time and effort, of course. But it is time and effort well invested, because the return of your investment won’t take long to materialize. Most of the benefits are instant, in addition to the more cumulative, long-term ones. The moment you behave in a present, calm, appreciating and/or grateful way, you feel better (it’s so simple, it’s almost tautological). This is, because these states are largely (but not always completely) incompatible with negative moods and feelings such as anxiety, stress, and grumpiness. We know this from psychological research and you can probably also verify it in your own experience: If you’re like me, you’re usually either grateful or stressed in any given moment, rarely both at the same time. And you’re definitely never calm and stressed at the same time, because these two states are incompatible by definition.
But how do you build such a “happy attitude” as we might call it? Do you, for example, just act calmly when you’re actually stressed out? That sounds awfully inauthentic and probably ineffective, too, right? Psychological research agrees. Suppressing negative feelings is rarely your best option and can have hidden costs. But sometimes in life it’s necessary, so don’t completely discard it. Also, I would argue, occasionally it can help to remember that you can act in a different (e.g., less stressed) way and the negative feelings will subside naturally and authentically. Doing things in a frantic way probably won’t make you accomplish more in less time, but it will definitely drain you. Therefore, do them calmly, deliberately, and efficiently instead, if you can. I love this quote from Laozi, the great Daoist: “Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.”
Additionally, positive reframing can help prevent unnecessary states of anxiety, stress, and grumpiness before they happen, which is generally better than fighting them once they’ve fully formed. If you suffer from such negative emotions chronically, though, I’d suggest you get professional help. It’s way less stigmatized than in the past thanks to increased mental health awareness, and it’s just unnecessarily hard to get out of such chronic misery by yourself. Like with repairing a car or getting a new haircut: If you want to get it done well, call a professional (in this case a certified psychotherapist). If you can’t bring yourself to do it or can’t afford it, call friends or family. They’re usually happy to help, so you actually do them a favor.
In any case, mindfulness of one’s emotions and the ability to step out of them can be really helpful. A daily five-minute mindfulness routine in the morning can already do wonders, but probably do a course or retreat first, so you can learn the techniques properly and experience the benefits more clearly. This way, you’re more likely to really make mindfulness part of your healthy habits.
Apart from such quick fixes in the moment, how could a long-term roadmap to a happy attitude look? I’ll try to give you a rough sketch and I’m grateful for any suggestions in the comments on how to improve it. A note on how to use this roadmap before I outline it: You don’t have to master one step before you can move to the next. In fact, you shouldn’t. I’d advise you to do the first step just well enough to move on to the next one and be able to perform it with only a reasonable amount of difficulty. When you’ve completed the last step, go back to earlier steps and deepen and widen your practices there. It’s an upward spiral in terms of development and insight. Its goal is to make you happier, wiser, and more resilient, which inevitably will also make you more productive, kind, and beneficial to humanity, which is and always has been in dire need of improvement. As you will see, I’ll rely heavily on the wisdom of various traditions of thought and practice, and I’ll point them out as I go. My contribution is merely to provide a possible framework for development that I haven’t seen in this form (at least I’m not aware of such a framework—please let me know in the comments if my roadmap reminds you of an existing one).
- First, know yourself. Know your strengths and weaknesses, your preferences and values, your patterns and baggage. What do you want from life? How can you be of service? Which talents and interests should you therefore nourish? I can recommend you looking into Ikigai, a Japanese philosophy that can really help with these questions. Also, Daoism, Stoicism, and Vipassana insight meditation offer great approaches to these questions. Another really important question here is this: Which of your patterns of thinking, feeling, or (non-)acting hold you back, lead to unnecessary conflict, and make you and the people around you miserable? We all have those, so be brave and acknowledge them without guilt or shame. Psychology and psychotherapy are the best approaches to this question in my opinion (but as a trained psychologist I may be biased). I’d especially recommend schema therapy as well as acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT).
- Second, reduce, declutter, and say no.2 Say no to activities and people that unnecessarily drain you or don’t give you value. Note that this in no way is supposed to mean that you only use people and give nothing in return. Neither does it mean that you drop them once you got what you wanted, not at all. I think all people have inherent value and should be treated with dignity and respect. What I want to say is that you should surround yourself with people with whom you mostly have constructive and fruitful patterns of interactions and (respectfully and compassionately) cut ties with those with whom you mostly have toxic patterns of interactions. Don’t’ forget, it takes two to tango. Read up on this topic, because relationships are one of the biggest and most important elements in our lives, if not the number one. Regarding activities: Don’t follow every initial excitement or let alone hype, but choose a few or even just one activity that really suits you and that you love doing. Do less and therefore do it better and more joyfully. You know what you enjoy and what is of value to you from the first step. Likewise based on the first step, make working on one of your destructive patterns a personal project—you don’t want to say no to working on your issues. I recommend Epicureanism, Daoism, Buddhism, and minimalism/simple living as helpful approaches.
- Third, devote time, love, and attention, but expect nothing. Now that you know with whom and what you want to spend your time and you have removed distractions and obstacles, it’s time to get to “work.” But there are better and worse ways to devote yourself, even to the people and the things that you’ve chosen wisely and with all your heart. Don’t do it in a half-arsed way (excuse my British), but really be present, pay attention, and invest some genuine effort. It’s scary, I know, because in the case of “failure” you don’t have the excuse that you didn’t really try, which can call into question your judgment, skill, and worth. But we’ll take care of this problem with the next aspect of this step: Don’t expect or even desire certain outcomes. Real success is not maintaining a certain relationship or meeting a certain target, which always involves luck and factors outside your control (you aren’t omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient, are you?). Instead, real success is having done everything you could to make a desired outcome most likely. Not at every price, of course, but in the most ethical way available to you. So, define success as doing what you should be doing and doing it well, because it would be very unwise to make your happiness hinge on factors outside your control (i.e., the outcomes of your actions). The path will be much more enjoyable and with patience you’ll regularly attain desired outcomes anyway (but you don’t depend on them). Last but not least, engage in your relationships and passions with love—for the persons and activities, but also for yourself. If you dare to invest love and make yourself vulnerable, you will enjoy your relationships and activities more, and effort will be effortless much of the time. In the case of activities, you’ll also get started more easily and procrastinate less. But, like every human being, you’ll procrastinate at least a little bit, even the activities you usually enjoy doing. That’s ok, perfection just isn’t in the cards for us humans (and gods most likely don’t exist outside of ideas). Therefore, be loving and kind towards yourself, too—you’re worth it as much as any of us. For this step, I recommend Stoicism, Buddhism, and Daoism as the most useful approaches.
In a nutshell: In Step 1, getting to know yourself gives you the right direction in your life, because, among others, you identify what’s important to you (which definitely will be partly different from what’s important to others or society as a whole). In Step 2, decluttering gives you the necessary focus in that right direction, because you spend less time on activities that aren’t essential to you, and you get less drained from relationships that are toxic for you and your counterparts. In Step 3, devoting yourself to your path without expecting anything gives you true fulfillment, because you do what you care about and what you’re good at in a way that guarantees real success at every step.
I hope this roadmap will help you move from getting annoyed at the dark clouds to appreciating the beautiful sound of raindrops in a present, calm, and grateful way. As always, all the best, yours truly, Thomas.
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1 I’m not saying, though, that you should just accept all negative circumstances in your life or that of others. Change what you reasonably can, vote and fight for freedom and justice, but also cope with the unavoidable and unchangeable as well as you can. Because, ideally, it doesn’t take much to be happy: Just marvel at the example of Diogenes in his “barrel” (actually, it was a large ceramic jar called “pithos”).
2 One of my dearest readers, my girlfriend, asked why I dont’ just call this point “select,” because “[…] saying no” is so negative and avoidant (and in general it’s more advisable to set approach goals, that is, specify what you do want to achive). She’s right and I considered this point when I was writing the blog. I deliberately chose this “negative” framing, though, because people usually put too much on their plates. At least that’s what I’ve observed here in the so-called “western world.” Therefore, I want people to focus on decluttering, make it a goal, and define success also by doing less (but doing it better and while feeling happier). Lastly, saying no is a competence that really helps a lot in life. It’s not trivial to be able to say no and it doesn’t come easily to most people. That’s why it’s actually part of social competence trainings, which are more powerful than one would believe. I want to end this footnote like this: Know who you are, know what you stand for and what you want, know your worth and dignity, and thereby say no to the things that are incompatible with and unnecessary for you. Thereby, have more vigor behind the yesses that you give. For yourself, for the ones dearest to you, and for the whole planet.