Number 2: Let Go of Your Rules for Happiness

Photo: © Fuzzbones / Dollar Photo Cl

Photo: © Fuzzbones / Dollar Photo Cl

If a person wins the lottery that person will be happy. The mere idea of winning is enough to make someone happy. The lottery itself does not create this happiness. Instead, the idea of it triggers the chemical reactions in the mind-body that we know as the feelings of happiness. We humans have the power to experience spontaneous happiness — all we need is a trigger. But, why do we need a trigger? Why can’t we just be happy all of the time? The answer is, the mind-body seems to be set up so that you can only be happy when its rules for happiness are met. However, it is possible to ignore these rules. You can let them go, and just be happy.

From the day we enter the world, we see everyone striving for happiness by doing things. So, we try to do things to make ourselves happy. As we do this, our experience appears to show us that happiness does indeed come from what we do and what we have – from the circumstances of our lives.

Nobody seems to question the assumption that, in order to feel happy, something good must happen. But, why does it have to be this way? Happiness comes from inside of us and is natural to us, so why can’t we just be happy?

The mind-body seems to be stuffed with rules for when you can and cannot experience happiness. In other words, we all have internal rules for what it takes for us to permit ourselves to be happy.

For example, your internal rules may say that you can be happy if A, B, and C happen. However, if A, B and D happen you cannot be happy.

If you believe that getting a certain job will make you happy, and you get that job, you will be happy when you get the news. The new job does not make you happy since you have not yet started it. The idea of it makes you happy. Happiness spontaneously arises within you when something good happens. The thing itself has no power to affect how you feel. All it can do is trigger happiness in you if your personal rules for happiness are satisfied.

YOU permit yourself to be happy. You have your internal requirements for happiness, as we all do, which seem to function automatically. However, it is still YOU who permits yourself to be happy. You permit yourself to be happy when the conditions of your life are right, and when those conditions no longer meet your personal requirements, your happiness goes away.

It may seem silly that, even though the potential for happiness is always inside of you, your mind-body permits you to experience it only when its rules are met. However, that is how we all operate.

Why would you permit yourself to be happy only when your rules are met? One explanation may come from our evolutionary past. Psychologists tell us that happy people are not as careful as those who are not happy. [1]  100,000 years ago, if you were a happy-go-lucky sort you did not last long in the jungles and plains. You were not as alert as you needed to be. So, to keep us safe our mind-bodies evolved to see the world as a dark and dangerous place. This kept you unhappy, alert and alive.

The mind-body has not evolved far since then. The mind still tends to see more bad in the world than good. We still perceive bad as stronger than good. [2]  In some places of the world this makes sense. But, a lot of the time seeing the people and the world around you as dark and dangerous only creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. This makes for bad relationships and a lot of unhappiness. In addition, it keeps you in a constant state of “fight or flight,” which is not good for your long-term health.

So, if you are looking for happiness to come from what your mind-body tells you to do, you may not see a lot of it in your life. The mind-body would rather keep you unhappy, but alive.

The kind of rules-based happiness I have been talking about is what I call “conditional happiness.” It is conditional because it exists only if the conditions of your life are just right – not too hot, not too cold. This kind of happiness is inherently temporary because the conditions of life always change.

Also, even if the conditions of your life do not change much, this happiness can disappear as you adapt to the circumstances of your life. Studies have shown that after the initial rush of happiness from winning a lottery, the winners return to being their same old selves. Having more money from winning the lottery did not make a lasting difference in happiness. In fact, some winners reported finding less enjoyment in life than non-winners. [3]

Adaptation works to limit happiness in other ways as well. One large study showed that getting married gives both the husband and wife a happiness boost for about two years. However, once the couple adapts to the situation, they both return to their previous levels of happiness. [4]

A new job can make you feel better for a while. However, after a brief honeymoon you may find that the new job does not bring you the kind of lasting happiness you sought. In fact, while the new job may look a lot different from the old job, it may feel the same.

Because our mind-bodies withhold happiness from us until conditions are right, we spend most of our time dissatisfied with life, waiting for the next great thing to come around the corner. Sure, when we satisfy some major desire there is a temporary mood boost. But soon new desires arise and new dissatisfaction. So the cycle repeats itself, over and over. Our basic pattern of existence seems to be:

  • Dissatisfaction with life and desire for something new,
  • Happiness on achieving that desire,
  • Disappearance of what we wanted, or adaptation to the new circumstances, and
  • Back to dissatisfaction with life and desiring something else.

So, our system of internal rules for happiness kind of sucks, but what else can you do? And, what is the problem in trying to do things to make ourselves at least temporarily happy?

Yes, you might find conditional happiness in the world if you look long enough. But if that is where you focus your attention real happiness will continue to elude you. When you seek happiness from what happens in the world, you keep reinforcing the wrong ideas about where to look for happiness.

Your mind is probably full of plans and strategies for future happiness. Unfortunately, focusing all of your attention on your plans, strategies, hopes, and desires may use up all of your time and energy. You may have little left to look inside, which is where real happiness comes from.

What to do

To be happier, you have to learn to allow yourself to be happy for no reason. This is something anyone can do. You can just be happy right now if you permit it, without anything changing in your life. Admittedly this is a radical idea. However, the practice of being happy for no reason has been around for thousands of years. It works for me, and I am nothing special. So, there is no reason that it cannot work for you.

To be happy right now, you need to ignore your personal rules for happiness. Just let them go, and be happy for the sole reason that you choose to be happy.

Here is an exercise:

Think of something that you want, and which you believe will make you really happy. Now that you have it in mind let us enter into a fantasy. In this fantasy, you now have what you want and having it makes you happy. As much as you are comfortable doing, allow yourself to believe that you have what you want. Experience the happiness that comes with it. Don’t hold back. Allow the happiness to well up inside of you. Allow yourself to experience this happiness as completely as you can.

Now, while staying in touch with the happiness that you feel, let go of thoughts about what you wanted. Focus your attention only on the happiness you feel, and let go of your thoughts about what triggered that happiness.

If you can let go of thoughts of what caused your happiness, try to see that the happiness exists independently of what you wanted. Notice that you can continue to feel the happiness even when thoughts about what you wanted are no longer there.

In this exercise, I want you to see that happiness is inside of you, waiting for a trigger that releases it into your consciousness. You can experience it whenever you want. The only trigger you need to be happy is the thought that you want to be happy. The object of this exercise is to weaken the way that your internal rules for happiness block your experience of it. If you give this exercise a chance, you will feel just a little lighter, as the burden of carrying all of these rules lessens.

Now, say to yourself, “I choose to be happy, right now!” Say this to yourself a few times, and really mean it. Let these words be your trigger for happiness. You should be able to sense the feeling of real happiness in you. If you even sense a little of this happiness, you have taken an important step on the path to lasting happiness.

Posted by D.E. Hardesty

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For more, see Finding Your Power to Be Happy.

finding your power to be happy

[1] See Kahneman, Daniel (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

[2] See Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Finkenauer and Vohs, Bad Is Stronger than Good, Review of General Psychology, 2001. Vol. 5, No. 4, 323-370.

[3] Brickman, Coates & Janoff-Bulman, R. (1978). Lottery winners and accident victims: Is happiness relative? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36, 917-927.

[4] Lyubomirsky, Sonja, The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want. Penguin Group US.


One thought on “Number 2: Let Go of Your Rules for Happiness

  1. Pingback: Number 2: Let Go of Your Rules for Happiness | How to Be Happy

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