Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.
‒ Mahatma Gandhi
As we enter the second month of a resolution-filled 2019, it’s only natural to do some soul searching: what is working in your life? What isn’t? What would you like to change? While people’s answers to these questions naturally run the gamut, most will have something on their list about becoming happier or more at peace.
As a Manhattan psychiatrist, I regularly see people just like you and me who are striving for greater contentment, peace and satisfaction in their lives. Having treated over 1,000 patients, here are five things I learned that can increase your happiness quotient in 2019 and beyond:
1. To thine own self be true
William Shakespeare said, “This, above all, to thine own self be true.” How often are we afraid to say what we truly believe because it is all too important how the world perceives us? Sometimes we’re so busy trying to look good that we forget who we really are.
In my personal experience and work with patients, I have learned that aligning with your authentic self is key to living a happy life. Without even realizing it, many of us may be living somebody else’s life. Rather than aligning with our soul, listening to our intuition and discovering our true calling, it may seem easier to conform to the expectations of our culture, our society, our parents, our teachers, etc.
In fact, living life in an authentic way is a great relief. It frees us from the pressures of striving (and often failing) to be somebody other than who we really are. Instead, it allows us to be transparent and to connect more deeply with other people. When the true self is set free, a sense of emptiness disappears and an unexpected wealth of vitality is discovered.
Throughout the day, begin to ask yourself the question: what do I most deeply want? Then let the answers come to you. They may come instantly or slowly. The answer may present itself to you in words, images, a visceral sensation, a gut feeling or another way entirely. Be open to the ways your answer may show up. If the answer does not come to you after a few minutes, ask again later. With this question, you have planted a seed into your subconscious mind that will slowly grow and evolve into an answer over time.
2. Listen to your intuition
The word “intuition” comes from the Latin intuir, which means “knowledge from within.” It is a still, quiet voice that can only be heard when we temporarily silence the screaming of our thoughts. Our intuition allows us to access wisdom we may have been completely unaware we possessed. It can poignantly guide us in some of life’s most important questions: what is my calling? Should I take this job? Should I marry this person? Intuition can also break through to show us the right way when we are about to make a mistake. Our intuition is actually communicating with us at all times. Sometimes we hear it and sometimes we don’t, but it is never silent. Whether you call it a “gut feeling,” an “inner voice” or a “sixth sense,” a well-developed intuition is becoming increasing touted as a Superpower.
It can be nearly impossible to access our intuition in the everyday cacophony of life’s demands. But a daily contemplative practice such as journaling or meditation will allow you to hear this voice. This guided meditation will help you to cultivate a state of mindfulness and presence in your everyday activities, thereby opening you to a deeper level of intuition.
3. Lose the self-hatred
Self-hatred and its close cousin, self-criticism, are two of the most common issues with which my patients struggle. Why are these self-sabotaging tendencies so prevalent in our society?
One of the reasons is our tendency to focus on and yearn for what we lack instead of being grateful for what is already in abundance. We focus on all the things we need to fix and take for granted what is already pretty darned good. In reality, there is so much that is right in everybody’s life. Most of us have eyes to see, ears to hear, food to eat, a bed to sleep in, legs to walk, clean air to breathe and clean water to drink among many other things. These are simple things we take for granted. Yet we are consumed by obsessions about what we lack.
To make matters worse, we can fall victim to the “compare and despair” mentality. No matter who we are, there will always be somebody who is smarter, richer, thinner, blonder, taller or more accomplished. Frequent self-comparison makes it hard to love ourselves and find the happiness we so desperately crave. The antidote is to stop comparing ourselves to others and develop a regular practice of gratitude, appreciation and counting our blessings.
Ask yourself each day: what are three things for which I’m grateful in my life? Express genuine gratitude to at least one person per day. Make a positive difference in somebody’s life by doing a random act of kindness, volunteering with a non-profit organization, devoting time to a social cause or giving to a charity whose mission you support.
4. Challenge your fears
I like the pneumonic F.E.A.R: False Evidence Appearing Real. The majority of what we most fear never comes to fruition. It is not uncommon to have many fears: fear of failure, fear of rejection, fear of uncertainty and fear of loss – just to name a few. But what is even more painful than failure, uncertainty, loss and rejection is the pain of regret that comes with not having truly lived.
This is precisely the role fear plays in our lives. It stops us in our tracks, makes us succumb to our internal demons and keeps us from taking the risks necessary for living a full, authentic and courageous life.
Fear also blocks our capacity to feel love fully and completely – for other people, for ourselves and for life. In other words, fear keeps our hearts small. For this reason, the opposite of love is not hate or indifference – it is fear.
Just like turning on a lightbulb eradicates the darkness in a room, feeling love can eradicate feelings of fear. As Dr. Lissa Rankin writes in her book The Fear Cure, “Courage is not about being fearless; it’s about letting fear transform you so you come into the right relationship with uncertainty, make peace with impermanence, and wake up to who you really are.”
Too often we figuratively shut our eyes and turn away from our fears, hoping to avoid them. It doesn’t help. We still feel them anyway. But turning away like that does keep us from questioning whether our fears are legitimate or not. You can find part of the answer in the triggers. If you can identify the triggers, you can anticipate the fear, so you won’t be thrown off as much by it.
Ask yourself the question: what provokes my fears? Maybe your one goal in life is to meet a life partner. Two triggers that could set off your fear of failure might be “When I go online, I come up empty, never connecting with anyone.” and “My self-consciousness about my own flaws or vulnerabilities makes me fear that no one will want me.” If instead you have a fear of commitment, your trigger might be, “When someone starts wanting to get serious, I suddenly start daydreaming about leaving.” Once you identify your triggers, notice where your resistance lies. Then ask yourself the question: how can I use my fear to grow as a person and expand beyond my current limitations?
5. Find your calling
Rabbi Noah Weinberg said, “If you don’t know what you’re living for, you haven’t yet lived.” Your calling is the unique way you choose to use your talents, skills, abilities, passions, desires and experiences in the service of others. This may include choosing a profession or career which centers on helping others, fighting for a social cause, giving to a charity you believe in, improving the world or raising children. The possibilities are endless.
Inherent to the concept of a calling is the idea of giving and sharing. The more we give of ourselves – our talents, skills and abilities – the more we are able to actualize our full potential. It is a practice that expands positivity and counteracts darkness, fear and stagnation.
Identifying your calling is a vital stepping-stone to happiness. Though we may not always be aware of it, we are instinctively searching for a purpose that transcends the boundaries of our own personal lives. It is a deep human hunger that we can only satisfy by living in such a way that, by the end, we will have made the contribution we have come into this world to make.
To begin to identify your calling, ask yourself the following questions: when do you feel most alive? What do you love to do? What are you passionate about? When you were a child, what did you want to do when you grew up? What comes most naturally to you? What have people always told you that you’re good at? What unique talent, skill, ability or interest can you share with others?
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As you take steps towards cultivating greater happiness in your life, remember that happiness is a lifelong journey – comprised of intention, discipline and personal growth – rather than a final destination. I wish you all the best with your journey!
Read more from our “Happiness Series”: