Happiness is an elusive thing- we define it as an emotion, but it’s also a feeling, and a quality. Most importantly, however, happiness is a habit. Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do”.
So if it’s happiness we’re after, it should be a habit that we practice and not a single event that we’re striving for. The important question then becomes, what are the habits we should be practicing when we’re aiming for happiness?
Habit 1: Practice Releasing Yourself From Your Own Thoughts
Did you know that thoughts are extremely sticky? One thought often leads to another thought and before we know it, we might end up in a puddle of tears. This is because the thoughts we think affect how we feel and the emotions that we experience.
All of this functions to make our thoughts feel really true because the sticky string of thoughts end up reinforcing each other. For example, if I’m trying something new, I might think “I’m going to try it” and then “I hope I don’t embarrass myself” with a nervous feeling in my stomach and then “I hate embarrassing myself…I always get red and I hate that feeling, and then this other awful thing will happen and…” with more nervous feelings reinforcing the thoughts.
Eventually, I’m at the bottom of a cascade of thoughts with a bad feeling and a belief that it’s all going to go wrong. Sticky thought patterns aren’t always negative; they can include expectations, comparisons and ‘wanting’ thought patterns as well.
Once our minds are stuck on sticky thoughts, the urge to follow them is powerful, and it only serves to reinforce thoughts and make them feel true.
If this sounds like you, the practice that can stop the sticky thought pattern is one of simply noticing and paying attention to what you are thinking. Check in with yourself, at whatever points you can, and tune in to the thoughts you have been thinking.
Notice how you are feeling – are you feeling bad, good, bored or curious? Make a note to yourself if this is a common thought when you think about certain topics, or when you are around certain people.
Put “sticky notes” of commentary in your head on your thought patterns so you can begin to recognize them as they happen and eventually step out of them. Remember: thinking a thought doesn’t make it true, so you don’t have to follow it.
There are many techniques to help you do this, like deep breathing, noticing 5 things in the room, focusing on your body, and many others. With practice, you will begin to recognize sticky thought cascades and you can say “’I’m going to focus on something else rather than follow that train of thought any further” and free yourself from your own sticky thoughts.
Habit 2: Practice Releasing Yourself From Reactivity
Another thing we don’t usually notice is how much of our life is created through reaction. Because our brains work so quickly, jumping from thought to thought and feeling to feeling, we don’t see how reactive we can be. This is because there’s no space for anything else. What is the opposite of being reactionary? (Hint: it’s not always being calm and collected.) It’s being intentional about how we want to respond to the situations before us.
When we’re being reactionary we’re acting without intention. Most of the time if we are being impatient or short with someone who is annoying us, for example, we don’t actually like acting that way. We do it because it feels like an automatic result of being annoyed, like we can’t control it.
Unfortunately, later on we might not feel great about ourselves for having reacted that way. But, if you take a moment to pause and see your feelings, it opens this tiny space where you can choose a different response. Small as that opening may be at first, practicing this habit will make a huge difference in your actions.
How do you know when you need to pause? Usually reactions come from uncomfortable feelings that you don’t want to feel (eg. irritability, annoyance, loneliness, feeling shut out, invalidated, fear etc). The more you practice seeing your uncomfortable emotions and your impulse to react, the more you will be able to be intentional. Psychologists agree that we really do feel better about ourselves when we act from intention instead of reaction.
Habit 3: Practice Developing Self-Love And Self-Care
This is the most important practice that has a cascade effect in all aspects of our lives. No matter how much we work on releasing ourselves from reactivity and sticky thought patterns, if we’re doing it with a harsh, judging attitude about ourselves then it is hard to feel good.
The truth is that you are going to be with you longer than you will be with anyone. It is vital that you get that relationship right before looking for love in another.
If you have a voice in your head that constantly says “You should be better”, eventually this will wear on you. Also, if we have a habit of being harsh with ourselves, this won’t simply go away when we are “better” at the above practices, or at anything else in our life. A different relationship with ourselves, one of compassion, forgiveness, and care, comes from practice.
So what does practicing self-love look and feel like? There are many different ways to do it, from formal guided meditations, to simple affirmations, mini pauses of self-appreciation throughout the day, and even treating yourself.
It can be verbal (“hey self, you’re doing your best today”), non-verbal (putting your hand to your chest and appreciating your heartbeat), or an action (taking a bath). It doesn’t have to be “I LOVE MYSELF” although that is great, but it can be gentle self-forgiveness as well, instead of self-criticism.
Basically, self-love is practicing being your own best friend. If you wouldn’t talk to your best friend the way you are talking to yourself, then you have to question why you are allowing yourself to treat* yourself so poorly.
The practice can feel cheesy and fake at first if you’re not used to it, but psychologists teach that it truly does sink into the subconscious, and your subconscious will thank you! Also, it is important to note that the thoughts you think affect the physiological cascade of hormones that gets produced in your body.
You really are listening. Therefore, it is important to shift the relationship you have with yourself to one of self-compassion and love.
Beginning with these 3 practices, it is possible to create habits that will lead to greater happiness in life. The power is in you to cultivate it. Go out and try it (and be kind to yourself along the way).
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