Are you the happiest person you know? Not necessarily the luckiest, richest, or most successful, just the happiest?
If not, why not? Most people will reel off their current worries — the job, the kids, the car, the price of fish. I don’t mean to sweep these aside: problems need to be solved, if you can, or waited out until they disappear . But as far as living happily is concerned you have to face a crucial fact. If you can only live happily after all your problems are solved, you are never going to live happily, because when today’s problems are gone and forgotten, others will take their place. So either living happily is just impossible, or you have to do it in spite of your problems.
Being happy depends not so much on external circumstances as on your inner life. This means all your thoughts, perceptions, beliefs, emotions, desires, dreams — your entire mental and emotional scene. Happiness is about how you react inwardly to events, what you think and believe, how you feel, how problems affect you. It may sound obvious, but like many obvious things it’s something that is often forgotten when it matters most. We focus almost exclusively on our external lives, on getting and spending and having fun, and then wonder why we are not happy. But it’s when our inner lives are tranquil that we are happiest and we call this inner peace.
So how is inner peace to be achieved? Is it a question of religion, perhaps, or yoga? These can certainly help but only if they have a positive effect on your inner life. The difficulty is that inner life is based on patterns and habits — some you were born with, most you have acquired . You don’t choose, occasion by occasion, how you respond inside when something happens. This happens and you feel angry; that happens you feel sad; you pass the patisserie and you feel hungry; you hear a tune or smell a certain scent and it reminds you of a particular time or person? Things produce a response without you thinking about it or choosing how you feel, and they don’t necessarily leave you with inner peace. So the trick is to break the pattern.
You can’t completely avoid problems, but you can change how you react to them by acquiring new habits that provoke peaceful inner responses. Training your inner life into different habits requires learning skills of thinking, feeling, and managing your beliefs and desires. These are very like the virtues many religions and philosophies advocate, but if you think of them as skills rather than virtues, you benefit from an important and liberating shift. Instead of “I must become a better person” you can think “I would live more happily if i worked on my skills” , so the change in attitude becomes a choice, not a duty. And to these remedial skills i’ve added an extra set of enjoyment skills, otherwise getting happier could turn out a very depressing affair.
This process is not something you can do overnight, it’s a whole new way of life, but the reward is what we all want most — happiness. There are five main skills you need to cultivate.
Borrowed from Buddhism , this involves developing your ability to focus your thoughts in the present. The problem most of us have with thought is having too much of it — the worrying and nonstop mental chattering our minds are prone to. Mindfulness is a key inner skill because, as it gets stronger, it lets you focus on your own inner life and catch your habits in the act. Once you can see how you are ruled by them, the change you are seeking often happens of its own accord.
Most religions rightly stress compassion. As well as being a virtue in its own right it is a practical skill that counteracts negative emotions like anger and hatred, which are terrible wreckers of happiness. Try it the next time someone annoys you: put yourself in their place and ask yourself what they might they be thinking or feeling to behave like that. Even bad people, let alone people who just mildly annoy you, often have a warped or mistaken view of the world which makes them do what they do. Wars are started and atrocities committed, for example, because someone decides that this is what their God wants. It doesn’t mean they should get away with their actions, in fact it may be necessary to take strong action to defend yourself.
These are very useful for problems with your inner belief system, as they let you stand back and explore alternative versions of reality. Beliefs have great power over your life because a belief is something you take as fact. Start to think of your beliefs as stories, and it is easier to accept that other things might be true as well, or even instead . Even true stories only select the little bit of reality we are focusing on at the moment: no one story is the whole truth about any situation. From a different point of view we would see a different story, sometimes a whole different world. This is not about make believe, it’s about reframing situations to look at them from a different perspective.
These are particularly helpful when we are unhappy not getting what we want. Generally, we are encouraged to keep wanting and to think that more will make us happier, whether it’s clothes or cars or even love. But wanting is a treadmill: as long as you have unsatisfied wants and desires you won’t be at peace, so to be happy you either have to satisfy all your desires, or let go of some of them. Letting-go skills also include forgiveness, which helps hugely if one of the things you think you want is revenge.
This last group includes skills such as patience , humour and, especially, gratitude . You don’t have to be grateful to someone, it’s enough to cultivate gratitude for things. Our minds naturally scan the environment for dangers and resources, a useful mechanism when we were hunter-gatherers . But it can make us unnecessarily pessimistic — focusing on the 10% we lack rather than the 90% we have. Cultivating enjoyment skills will help redress the balance.
Acquiring all these skills takes time and effort. The important thing is to practise them until they operate without you thinking about them. Your practice routine will be very individual , because everyone needs to prioritise different skills depending on the specific issues that are holding them back from being happy, but keep the skills in mind and you will constantly find new ways to try them out.