The Dalai Lama says the most common human desires are: wanting happiness and avoiding pain. We all want to experience happiness, pleasure and joy. How easy are they to attain, though? They don’t necessarily come easy for everyone. If you’re like me, these emotions are mingled with both excitement and anxiety. In fact, they can sometimes be tinged with unease.
North American culture often associates guilt with pleasure, as in ‘guilty pleasure’. As if there’s something wrong with enjoying our lives. We often hear about people hating their jobs, bemoaning their relationships or the general state of their lives – for the most part, lives that they chose for themselves. Happiness sounds like it should be an easy ride, but sometimes it can be elusive. You plan a fun day out and you get bad news that makes it hard for you to enjoy the day. You get a promotion but find it hard to feel good about it. We may be unconsciously sabotaging our happiness.
How did this happen?
Culture and upbringing both have something to do with the discomfort some of us feel toward pleasure. There’s the sense that if we work hard, we’ll be rewarded eventually with something good. Work hard and one day you’ll be somebody. Work hard five days a week and you get two days to enjoy yourself. There’s an implicit message that happiness has to be paid for in advance, that it’s not our birthright. But what if it is?
There’s also the unique ways we were each brought up. If our cultures expect payment for happiness, then most likely our parents and caregivers were raised with the same messages and passed them onto us. My parents live by the rules of hard work. I’ve never seen my mother relax or sit still for more than ten minutes. Having fun was particularly hard for us and was covertly frowned upon. Vacations felt more like boot camp. We’d get up in the wee hours of the morning, so that we could squeeze in as many moments of ‘fun’ as we could. Scheduled fun is like eating stale bread. It’s just not worth it.
For us, hard work was easy. Seriousness was acceptable. Lightness and frivolity? No. It’s no surprise that I have a hard time embracing anything that deviates from the well tread path of suffering. I don’t blame my parents, though; they taught me what they learned from their caregivers. They couldn’t have been any other way.
A path to change
We’re given our unique circumstances so that we can learn to transcend them. I think this is the purpose of life – to take what’s given us and use it to become our best selves. Without the grain of sand agitating the oyster, there can never be a pearl. We’re each a pearl in the making. Our unique set of challenges is the agitation that will get us there.
Here are the things I’m doing to become more comfortable, and ultimately revel in pleasure and happiness:
Notice the small pleasures: Throughout the day, there are a multitude of things that can make us smile. It could be that first sip of morning coffee, the sound of a good friend’s voice, or a welcomed rain storm after a long heat wave. This afternoon I ate the best chocolate ice cream I’ve ever tasted. One lick of this Belgian chocolate wonderfulness and I was smiling all over. As you master savouring small pleasures, it’ll be easier to embrace the big ones.
Reframe: The way we operate in the world is dictated by our core beliefs. If we believe that happiness is only for other people, then that’s what will happen. We’ll spend our days watching others enjoy life while we trudge through ours. If we expect something bad to happen whenever we indulge in pleasure, then we’ll unconsciously create circumstances that adhere to that belief.
Ultimately, we live into what we believe. If you hear yourself repeating a negative message, reframe it into something positive. Instead of “happiness is for others”, say to yourself “I’m learning to be happy”. Change “something bad is going to happen if I’m happy”, to “I deserve happiness just like everyone else.”
Challenge the thought: Is it true? Is happiness only for others and not you? Does life have to be hard? Each time we challenge the limitations we place on ourselves, the boundaries crumble a little. Our shackles become looser. Challenging our negative beliefs, along with reframing, will eventually shift our behaviours and our lives. There’s a great book by Byron Katie called, Loving What Is. It describes a simple technique that can quickly transform negative thoughts. I highly recommend it.
Uprooting: When weeding out a garden, it’s important to yank the weeds out at the roots. Otherwise, they’ll keep returning. It’s the same with unhealthy beliefs. You have to find out where they came from and why they were created in the first place so that you can permanently remove them from your life. Was there a negative message you often heard growing up? Was there an unspoken expectation of hardship? Once you know where it came from, you can begin to challenge and change it into a positive belief.
Have compassion for yourself: Even when our behaviours hurt us, they’re usually there for a good reason. Our intuitive, unconscious selves are always acting in our best interest. It’s always trying to protect us, even when it propels us to do unhealthy things. Have compassion for yourself when you do something you know you shouldn’t, but can’t help it. That act may be saving you from a greater perceived threat.
This is where finding the root causes can help immensely. It’s much easier to have compassion for yourself when you understand why you do what you do. For me, being happy usually came at a cost during my childhood. It became easier and safer to avoid it or to have it in small doses. As I grew up, I continued to live out this belief even though the danger was gone. Now that I know this about myself, I feel a great compassion for my younger self that did the best she could to deal with the confusion around her.
I’m going to spend this summer noticing the small pleasures and leaning into happiness. Along the way, there will be uprooting, challenging out-dated beliefs, and heaps of kindness for myself. I believe a life that embraces happiness and joy is one truly worth living.