The Pursuit of Happiness Starts in Your Own Mind

In my line of work, I spend much of my time supporting people to improve different areas of their lives, to find more success or fulfillment or happiness. So it’s always fascinating to me when I encounter someone who is worried about experiencing too much success or happiness. I recently called my friend Julie to wish her a happy birthday, and she filled me in on Kevin, the new beau she was dating. Everything was going great, except….

She told me how when they first met, she thought Kevin’s positive attitude was just because he really liked her. Then, as they got to know each other more and more, she realized that his ability to always see his life as a glass half full, to roll with the punches and maintain his enthusiasm, was actually his normal way of seeing the world.

“He’s almost too happy,” she complained. “He was up for a job promotion, and he was very excited about it, always talking about how great it would be to get it,” she recounted. “If it was me, I realized, I would be worrying I might not get it, or hold myself back from fully daydreaming about the opportunity, just so I wouldn’t be as disappointed if I didn’t get the promotion.”

Julie went on to tell me how, a few years ago, she’d had a really rough year. She was laid off, lost a dear friend to a devastating illness, gained 40 pounds, and used up what little retirement she had to stay afloat. What’s more, just before all this began, she was feeling exceptionally happy about where her life was going.

“I remember driving in the car, singing at the top of my lungs to the song on the radio and just giving into the entire feeling of being 100 percent happy,” she recalled. “Then as I was driving my boss called me up, and told me he wanted me to see him in his office the next morning. I knew it was not a good sign. The next week, Jerry’s diagnosis came back terminal. I remember a voice in my mind telling me, ‘See, you know not to feel too happy. When you do bad things happen.”

The idea of bad things always following good ones might seem like an obvious logical fallacy. Julie’s boss has his own needs and agenda that had nothing to do with Julie’s singing in the car. And it’s not like her friend Jerry’s illness was monitoring her happiness levels before choosing to kick things up a notch. Julie knows it’s not logical, yet she still believes if she allows herself to feel hopeful or joyous, she’s inviting bad events to occur in her life. But logical or not, this belief — that the universe is going to find a way to “balance the scales” if you get too happy — seems to be a common, and often subtle one.

In fact, it’s so prevalent in society that it has a name, cherophoiba; chero meaning to rejoice; gaiety or happiness and phobia meaning fear. One only has to think of popular sayings like, “Expect the worst and you won’t be disappointed,” or, “They were getting too big for their britches,” or, “I’m just waiting for the other shoe to drop,” to see some of the many ways it can show up. For people like Julie, tamping down on happiness can be a way of feeling more in control of her life, and creating safety. If the ups aren’t too up, the downs won’t feel so down. It can also feel like a shield against feeling hurt, disappointed or even just foolish.

No matter what that little voice in our head might say, the end result tends to be an arbitrary limit being placed on our emotions. Like the governor on a high-end sports car that prevents it from going faster than 140 miles per hour, this fear of allowing oneself to surrender to the emotions of happiness quietly runs in the background, tempering our experiences. Often, this “happiness governor” is so below the radar, it takes a naturally happy person like Kevin to help us notice it’s even there.

The good news is one’s aversion to happiness doesn’t have to be permanent. All we need to do is exercise our “happy muscles” — practice being happy in little ways until it feels safe to stretch a bit more, then a bit more. Just as our body grows stronger the more we workout, your brain is also malleable with some time and practice.

One of my favorite happiness exercises is to write the good things that happen to me on little strips of paper and keep them in a “good things” jar. This activity marks for the mind that a really good thing happened and it deserves to be recognized and honored with some happy feelings. The brain can receive this activity as a safe place to let the happiness in. On top of that, on News Year’s Eve you can read all the good things that happened to you over the year, and enjoy them all over again. Some people also like to write down five things they’re grateful for each day, either first thing in the morning or before they go to bed.

Another great strategy is to find or create experiences where you can be safe while not in control. The idea that maintaining control over our levels of happiness (and our lives in general) will keep us safe can best be countered by having experiences where we’re safe even though we’re not in control. As our definition of what feels safe expands, our need to clamp down on happiness lessens. I have a client whose daughter likes to blindfold herself and have others guide her, whether it’s around the house or to a store or restaurant. If that’s too dramatic, just saying yes to experiences or invitations you might normally avoid can create openings. A friend of mine started taking improv theater classes — not because she wanted to perform on stage, but simply to practice being in the moment in a safe environment. “I’ll start out with some idea in my head and then things go in another direction entirely,” she shared. “If it goes pear-shaped we all have a good laugh. But often it turns out brilliant!” (She’s British, in case you can’t tell.)

Whatever the method, the key point is to slowly but surely coax our minds into taking it’s proverbial foot off the brake and letting our happiness emotions flow through us unabated. Even a small change in the flow of happiness can have a profound and lasting impact on our lives, and the lives of those around us. After all, happiness tends to be contagious.

Have you ever considered you might have a “happiness governor” encouraging you to keep positive feelings in check? If so, how does this limiting belief present itself? Regardless of how it shows up, are you willing to exercise your mind and surrender to happiness for at least 5 minutes today to get started?

“A man who suffers before it is necessary suffers more than is necessary.” — Seneca the Younger

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