A couple of weeks ago I was talking to a group about simple ways to find more happiness in life. I shared a story about a man who was very successful in that he had his own thriving business, had lots of money, and loved his work as a business owner. Someone had asked that man why he worked so many long and hard hours.
He answered that it was because he wanted the things that came with success. He wanted things that were enjoyable to touch, taste, smell, see and hear. The other man then asked why he wanted those things.
On it went, the successful man answering why, and the other continuing to ask “why” back, again and again. Eventually, they got down to the core reason why he did what he did, and that was to be “happy.”
If we all were asked the same question – “Why do you do the things you do?” – the core answer for many of us would be because we too want to be “happy.” But some of us are “unhappy” most days of our lives, and the idea of happiness seems so distant and so unrealistic at times that we become pessimistic about life and doubtful about the possibility of happiness.
But, what is happiness, really? If you ask ten people you’ll probably get ten slightly different answers. One may tell you being with their family is happiness. Another may say happiness is to have meaning in life. Still, another may suggest for them happiness is having stability. It’s easy to see that happiness is defined by many as an idea or vision rather than an emotion.
In reality, however, happiness itself is an emotion. It is just like sadness, anger, frustration, or joy. It’s fleeting. So what we’re trying to do is capture something that changes from instant to instant and hold it indefinitely in a sustained state. This is virtually impossible for most people, simply because we don’t have years of practice in the ways of meditation and deep introspection that is required to find a continual and perpetual state of bliss.
Instead, we find ourselves with the challenge of understanding that what we believe happiness to be and what happiness really is are two very different things. And if we continue to chase after happiness the emotion with the idea of realizing the vision of what happiness represents for us, we will find ourselves unsuccessful and, eventually, unhappy too.
May I suggest to you that instead of holding on to this idea of “happiness,” that you focus on ways that you can become more resilient, have a more positive outlook, be more aware of your surroundings, look inward more often, and develop your ability to stay focused and fixed in concentration on a single task or idea. The reason I suggest this is because these are some of the emotional styles that have been identified through roughly forty years of research into our emotions by Dr. Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin.
There are six emotional styles that “define” our personality, and these play a huge role in how “happy” we are from moment to moment. For example, if you are more resilient, meaning that you can bounce back relatively quickly from setbacks, you are generally going to sustain a more positive emotional state, so to speak, more often. If you’re interested in learning more about these emotional styles and even take your own emotional style quiz (and receive tips on how to improve some of these if you’d like), please follow this link.
The good news is that you can alter your emotional state through what Davidson calls “effortful training,” but the not-so-great news is that this type of training does take some time. Chances are you’re reading this because you’re trying to figure out ways that you can help yourself now (while starting on that effortful training too, right?).
One thing I suggest to help you determine whether you are “on the right track” in life for you is to do a very fast and easy exercise called the “I am…” practice. To get started, find a blank sheet of paper and a pen or pencil, and write the words “I am” at the top of the page. Next, think about how you would describe yourself at your very best — think about how you would view yourself in perfection and write those words down.
You may write words like, “loving,” “kind,” “compassionate,” “silly,” “respectful,” and the like. Just keep writing down as many words as you can think of that describe the perfect version of you. After you believe that you’ve come up with a sufficient number of words, take a look a what you’ve written. These are your personal core values.
Core values are your “moral code” for the life you lead. It’s the rules by which you play the game of life, and when you follow those rules, life is “better” more often than it is not. For example, if you wrote down that you are “honest,” then “honesty” would be the core value. If someone asked you to be dishonest, or if you were dishonest yourself, chances are you would not feel “good” about yourself because you are acting in contradiction to one of your core values.
Generally, if someone is rather unhappy in their life one of the reasons may simply be that they are living a life that is not in alignment with their core values. After all, if you’re playing the game of life by rules that oppose the ones you’ve established for yourself, it’s not going to be a fun game at all. While there may be other causes for unhappiness (obviously), if you are struggling to know if you’re on the “right” path for you in life, starting with an assessment of how closely you’re aligned with your core values is a great way to begin.
I suggest pursuing those “virtuous” values, like love, generosity, kindness, and respect. Start by making a purposeful effort to embody those virtues as often as you can, while being mindful and aware of the times when you begin to violate those values. For example, you may find that you employ sarcasm on a regular basis throughout the day. This does not align with love, kindness, or respect. Once you pick up on this, you can turn things around and refrain from sarcasm until it becomes something you don’t do anymore.
One last tip – listen to those nearest and dearest to you. Are they telling you things about your behavior? For example, my wife had told me that I seem to need to have the last word in conversations or discussions. Was she right in her assessment? Well, after thinking about it and being mindful in my conversations, yes, she made an accurate statement. Sometimes it takes our ability to set the ego aside and listen to those who not only see us as we are but also are not afraid to tell us to learn of those things that we do that are not in alignment with our values.
If you’re looking for a way to get started today to determine whether you are on the “right” track for you in life, just take a few moments to describe who you are at your very best, and then do some soul searching and practice some introspection to see how closely you are aligned with your own personal core values. Chances are if you find that you’re closely aligned with your values, life is pretty good for you. But if life is not so wonderful more days than not, I suspect you’ll find that there are some core values that really mean a lot to you from which you are far removed. The more distant you are from your core values the more pain you experience from that distance. If you are suffering, take some time to really think about what you can do right now, here, today, to start honoring your core values more often. It just takes a few small steps in the “right” direction for you, focused on your core values, to get you started on the “right” path in life for you.