Christy Matta M.A. is a trainer, consultant and writer. She is the author of “The Stress Response: How Dialectical Behavior Therapy Can Free ...Read More
What makes you happy? Is it a small piece of chocolate, time with friends or family, shopping, yoga, rock climbing, memories of loved ones, or the happiness of others?
Happiness, like all emotions, can be fleeting. A piece of chocolate or a fond memory can create a moment of pleasure, but often those moments are gone all too quickly.
All emotions have powerful aftereffects, that is, a lasting impact on our bodies, the focus of our attention and thoughts and how we act. Painful emotions, such as anxiety, sadness and anger can narrow the focus of our attention, causing us to see only the painful, annoying, or difficult aspects of our lives. What’s more, powerful painful emotions can cause us to ruminate and sink into a negative attitude, which can cause those painful emotions to stick around much longer than we’d like.
So what do you do if you want to be happier, linger in pleasurable moments and experience more joy?
The first step is to recognize that you are not helpless when it comes to your emotions. Sometimes it feels like we have no control. We’re sunk in the blues, irritated or spinning in anxiety and it can feel like happiness is out of our grasp.
But it is possible to change our emotions and to act in ways that will increase how often we feel happy.
If you want to practice the art of happiness, try the following strategies:
Choose how you think about the things that make you happy. Worry, negative self-judgment and focusing on all your obligations is overwhelming and can quickly extinguish feelings of hope, joy or enthusiasm, even when you’re in the middle of doing something that makes you happy.
Instead, give yourself permission to have a positive experience without worrying when it will end. If find yourself thinking that you don’t deserve happiness, notice that as a thought, not a reality, and let it pass out of your mind. And, when you’re doing something that causes you pleasure, say taking a walk on a beautiful sunny day, and realize that your busy listing all your commitments and responsibilities, let those thoughts go. Refocus on the pleasant activity (and repeat, again and again, each time your mind wanders off into negative thinking).
Maintain an Awareness of Positive Experiences. Remember that events in life that cause painful emotions, such as anger or anxiety, cause us to narrow our attention and notice those elements of our life that are unfair, unjust, or make you feel out of control.
Refocus from negative events to positive. There are many ways to do this, for example, if you anticipate negative events, you can surround yourself with reminders of positives that will help you refocus (pictures of your children or vacations, flowers, music that makes you happy, etc.). Or you can develop the habit of redirecting your attention to positives in the moment. For example, instead of focusing on an aspect of a conversation with a friend that irked you, refocus on something positive about the conversation, maybe your friend’s intention to be helpful or express caring.
Do things that make you feel happy. Sometimes we put off doing those things that make us happy until we’ve finished with everything we need to get done. Unfortunately, your list may keep growing and you may miss out on those happy experiences altogether.
Try thinking of positive activities as medicine that must be taken at regular intervals to be effective. Take at least one dose of happiness a day and be sure that each week you invest in activities that will pay off in happiness in the future (for example by taking steps towards goals or engaging with people who are important to you). If you start thinking that you don’t deserve to take time out for happiness or that you have too much else to get done to do activities that make you happy, remember the first strategy, choose how you think about the things that make you happy.
What makes each of us happy is different. And what makes you, as an individual, happy can, and likely will, change with time. But building happiness into your life, with purpose and conscious effort will pay off. Not only will you have a higher threshold for worry and annoyance, but you’ll also feel kinder towards others, be more likely to do nice things for people and be able to expect more joy in the future.