If you want to master anything, you have to practice it, think about it, dream about it, talk about it, and do all of this at a pace and a level of involvement that you can maintain over time. This is true if you want to become a competent businessperson, doctor, writer, artist, or scientist. It is true if you want to develop satisfying relationships. It is true if you want to become a good fisherman.
The same holds true if you want to live a happy and gratifying life.
I could tell you lots of ways that you could do short sprints that would be fun in the moment. That may be worth doing, as long as it is in the context of your values and responsibilities. But doing this alone is like eating fruits and vegetables one day, when your overall diet is regularly full of fats and too much meat. Or doing a good deed once in a while, when you normally are guided by a harmful morality.
Today I want to encourage you to set up a program for yourself that will build your happy life consistently, at a pace and a level of involvement that you can maintain over time. I have found that these are some of the most common things I help people with in my coaching practice.
Happiness is not an idea. It is an experience that comes largely from practicing certain skills and restricting certain harmful indulgences.
Some of the skills to incorporate into your daily routine are:
1) Gratitude – count your blessings each day, appreciate the people in your life, past and present, who have helped you, encouraged you, supported you, challenged you, and loved you. Look for the good around you, and actively, purposely, acknowledge it.
2) Optimism – look for the opportunities and the benevolence wherever you are. When you find yourself thinking pessimistically (seeing the negative as permanent, pervasive and personal, and seeing the positive as transient, exceptional, and unrelated to you or your actions), actively dispute that pessimistic stance, while looking for the positive.
3) Forgiveness – whenever and to whatever degree you can, forgive others their trespasses, as you would have them forgive yours.
4) Flow – create situations in your life that are challenging enough that you feel stretched, not so challenging that you cannot hope to manage them successfully, and not too easy that they are boring. Allow yourself to become completely absorbed in the tasks you are engaged in – including the tasks of marriage and parenting.
5) Fun – make sure that you take time to have fun, enjoy the opportunities you have, eat good food, take time to play with friends, engage in the joy that the world has to offer.
6) Collect more experiences than stuff – Actively engage yourself in things that have benevolent meaning to you. Try and do something wonderful that you will remember fondly for the rest of your life at least once a year. You will habituate that great new stereo system a few days or weeks, but you can look back fondly and freshly on your adventures all your life.
7) Live with integrity – know what you believe, what you feel, what you know, and let your words and deeds be congruent with these. Follow through on your commitments. Keep your promises. Be honest.
8) Build and maintain warm, loving relationships – treat the people in your life with compassion and benevolence, and value the time you spend with those you love. Let this be part of your spirit of adventure in life.
Some of the indulgences to restrict are:
1) Catastrophic thinking – when you find yourself expecting the worst of a situation, think of what the worst outcome would be, what the best outcome would be, and what the most likely outcome will be. Find one thing you can do to make it less likely that the worst will happen, and more likely that the best will happen. Prepare yourself reasonably for the most likely thing.
2) Don’t hold a grudge – do what you can to forgive, but what you can’t forgive, try actively to put it down somewhere, so that you are not carrying it around with you. Think of it as a burden that you are carrying because of something that was done that hurt you in the past – either by someone else, or by yourself. See what you can do to put that burden down. It does not serve you to carry it.
3) Pessimism – see #2, “Optimism” above. You wouldn’t let someone come in and mess up your house, don’t let pessimism come in and mess up your life, either.
4) Envy, covetousness, adultery – restrict compelling and seductive thoughts, desires, and the actions that they would encourage, that you know will hurt yourself or others. I don’t mean that you should freak out when you feel something uncomfortable, or think something disturbing. Thoughts and feelings flit in and out of our awareness constantly like wildlife in a rural backyard. Over a lifetime you will certainly have thought or felt just about everything at one moment or another.
But it is not the wild animals that wander through your yard that will hurt you or others, it is the wild animals that you feed. Don’t indulge in fantasies and desires that will hurt people. If you wouldn’t do it, or wouldn’t want it done to you, don’t spend time feeding the thought of it.
5) Passivity – don’t do nothing when you could be doing something productive, engaging, and/or fun. Everyone needs time to rest and relax, but inaction leads to and intensifies depression and passivity. Make sure that you aren’t getting drawn into inactivity. This can be easier said than done, of course. Often we feel stuck when the tasks we need to accomplish are too big. Break them down into smaller, do-able chunks, and begin working on them one by one. Taking small but useful steps is much more effective than you might think.
In addition to the above, I would encourage you to go through my other columns occasionally and revisit some of the suggestions and exercises that speak to you. Sometimes things may occur to you on a second or third reading that didn’t strike you as relevant a year ago.
Here is your homework to begin to master the skills of living a happy and gratifying life: pick two or three items from the menu here, or from my other columns, and take a couple of months incorporating them into your life at a pace and a level of involvement that you can maintain over time. Reflect daily on how you have used what you have chosen to work with. Once these skills have become habits, incorporate a few more, again at a pace and a level of involvement that you can maintain over time.
There is nothing mysterious here. Be patient, be persistent, be benevolent, be devoted, and you will earn for yourself a happier and more gratifying life.