“Happiness is not something ready-made. It comes from your own actions.” ~The Dalai Lama
A while back my sister arrived for a family get-together and remarked, “Your mad laughter is missing. What’s happening?”
My mind trailed back to my childhood and teenage years and showed me images of a girl who could laugh easily, loudly, and madly.
Somewhere along the line I had lost my ability to laugh—truly laugh, with wonder and without worry.
At first I brushed it off because I didn’t even notice myself changing. The change was gradual, imperceptible.
I had come to take life too seriously.
As a child and teenager, I had disappointments. But as I think back, the hope for my future greatly outweighed my setbacks.
Of course, my future didn’t play out exactly as I’d imagined it would, and I encountered a series of disappointments.
My financial situation was far from great. My relationships went through turmoil and turbulence. I let them become set in stone and define my life.
I blamed myself for not being wise enough to make good decisions. I blamed myself for not being smart enough to catch my wrong decisions. I felt miserable. And then I blamed myself for feeling miserable, because strong people don’t waste time feeling miserable, do they?
I became angry and, even worse, I felt entitled to my anger. I felt horribly wronged. I directed my anger at people. I became less capable of experiencing joy, and therefore, giving it too.
Reading Tiny Buddha’s 365 Love Challenges emphasized for me how self-love is the beginning of the expression of love toward everyone else in our world. Still, it’s not always easy to be good to ourselves.
The inner critic is the most active when we need that voice to be appreciative and loving. Instead of spending more time understanding ourselves, we indulge in self-bashing, self-abuse, and harsh judgments about ourselves.
It takes some serious mindfulness and awareness to turn that around.
So, after a few more observations from people who thought I mattered enough to give me feedback about my attitude, I decided to observe my thoughts and myself.
I began to think of what made me feel better, and what helped me keep the feeling longer, so I could get my smile back.
After months of watching myself, I saw that a few things helped me consistently.
1. Being aware of physical and emotional triggers.
I started paying attention to my body. My health had a big effect on my mood, and vice versa. I starting eating what would calm my stomach and keep my body at ease.
Things like procrastinating made me feel bad about myself, so I kept up my schedule with greater caution. I also learned to avoid over-scheduling myself so I didn’t have things piling up, making me feel inefficient and inadequate.
Your body is constantly giving you signals even when you are trying hard to ignore it, so start paying attention.
2. Being aware of reactions.
I started focusing on the results rather than on the source of the problem. If things did not go as planned, I consciously avoided looking to fix the blame and looked at fixing the problem. I felt less overwhelmed and more in power. It also made me more approachable.
Develop the mindset to look for solutions, and avoid “if-only” thinking, since this only keeps you stuck.
3. Dressing up.
No matter how I felt, I always felt better when I got up and freshened up. Wearing well-fitted clothes, clothes that I liked, made me look better and, therefore, feel better about myself almost instantly.
There is a whole lot of science about dressing the part, so pick colors that will soothe and accentuate you own personality.
4. Following a ritual.
The simple act of following a ritual—any ritual—gave me a sense of stability and grounding.
Following a ritual that aligned with my beliefs and values made me calmer and more in control over other areas in my life.
I chose the ritual of mantra chanting before having my first meal in the morning, and that uplifted me immensely, giving me the assurance that I could change other areas of my life too.
5. Smiling more.
We smile when we’re happy, right? Wrong! Studies have shown that our external expressions act as a continual feedback loop reinforcing our internal emotions. So, smiling more even when we are unhappy gradually makes us feel happier.
True to this, smiling at strangers while standing in a queue or during a walk made me look beyond my world. To put it simply, it made me feel good, and I kept at it. Not to mention that smiling through a bad situation automatically seemed to defuse it.
Take time to do things that give you more scope for “happy-time,” like seeking the company of children, listening to music, dancing, cooking, reading, cleaning—anything that makes you feel like yourself.
6. Talking to somebody who loves you.
One afternoon, when I was recovering from an intense anger bout, my father called. I did everything I could to hide my anger from him. But during the conversation, he referred to an incident in my childhood and said, “You are always so childlike.”
It threw me off. Here I was, bashing myself for being angry and hurt, and feeling even more angry and hurt for not being able to control it, but a simple conversation with my father reminded me that I wasn’t always this way. The fact that he remembered it so fondly made me like myself. It made me want to let go and try again.
Make time for your old friends, your parents, your friends’ parents, and siblings—anybody who has been a part of your past who sees the best in you.
7. Being kinder.
Formerly, I had the tendency to show indifference to people with whom I was angry (and not necessarily engage in a war of words or palpable anger). However, it still made me miserable, irrespective of whether they noticed it or not. When I consciously resisted the urge to be indifferent to them, I felt more in control.
A kind exchange has the power to set the tone for your day. Kindness is not restricted to a physical exchange; even a gentle conversation over the phone or a kind email made me significantly happier.
There are hundreds of studies to show that kindness can impact your brain in a powerful way and increase your feeling of connectedness.
8. Making that decision.
After accidentally discovering my passion for writing about three years ago, I continued to put up with a stressful job and kept putting off my plans to start doing something that filled my soul.
Making the decision to quit and re-focus wasn’t easy. But making up my mind and letting go felt like I was clearing stale clutter and starting afresh in my mind. I felt invigorated, though it was hard work.
If you are on the brink of a major decision, making it one way or the other will be a great emotional leveler.
9. Starting somewhere.
I kept putting off my plans because it was not yet there—in my mind. In short, I was afraid of showing my imperfect side to the world. In reality, I was only judging myself.
Waiting for the perfect time to start/launch something is a mistake we all make. Even nature took billions of years to be where it is today. And it will continue to evolve for billions of years from now. Then, why do we have to be perfect today?
10. Breaking the negative thought pattern.
Every time I felt angry with somebody, it was because I associated something negative with him or her.
I started consciously associating positive things with them, like remembering the skill they are really good at or the one time they helped me or somebody else, and the negativity seemed to melt away. Of course, it kept coming back, but the more I countered it with positive thoughts, the less power it seemed to have.
So, the next time you are really annoyed with somebody, try remembering a nice thing about him or her. It makes a world of difference.
11. Remembering that everyone is only human, and that includes yourself.
Forgiveness contributes greatly to our well-being, fulfillment, and happiness. There is really nobody in the world who hasn’t been hurt or let down by somebody they trusted, or at least wishes they had been treated differently.
Everyone—that includes yourself and the people that hurt you—is only standing at one single point in the huge learning curve of life, and our actions spring from what we are exposed to from that particular vantage point. Understanding this was a huge milestone for me in learning forgiveness.
To seriously learn forgiveness as a life skill, spend more time with kids. They are the only people who unerringly practice the art.
To sum it up, for renewed happiness: Invest in yourself, take time to understand yourself, be gentle to yourself, do the things you love and, most importantly, give yourself time to heal, no matter how much it hurts!