Of course there is no such thing as a happiness muscle. However, just as a muscle raises our hand when we try to raise our hand often we can be happy by simply trying to be. "Wait a minute" you say, "there have been plenty of times that I've wanted to be happy and I couldn't. If everyone could just be happy by trying to be there wouldn't be so many unhappy people." One thing that is wrong with this argument can be understood if we go back to the muscle analogy. If you give a person a ton of bricks and say lift it he can't. That doesn't mean that if you gave him one brick he couldn't lift it. If someone is in a depressed mood then it may be very difficult for them to be happy. But if they are in an OK mood just trying to be happy may do the trick. Another thing that is wrong with this argument is that not everyone wants to be happy. "Why would anyone not want to be happy, you may ask?" One of many answers might be may feel it is necessary to defend against a threat and be in an anxious mood. Some of the answers to that question are discussed on the "Happiness is a Choice" web page.
"So what do you do if you're depressed?" you may ask. Often a contributing factor to depression is constantly thinking negative thoughts. Challenging those thoughts before they weigh you down like a ton of bricks may be the solution. Once one is depressed, depressing thoughts are very convincing and its hard to believe they are not true. It's much easier to believe they are not true before one is depressed. The time to be happy is now. If you postpone it then later on you are unlikely to be happy either. Enjoy yourself, it's later than you think is a song that has a lot of truth to it.
If we have difficulty in being happy when we try to be happy, we can examine where the resistance is coming from. We can listen to our own self talk when it responds to our efforts to be happy. One can learn a lot by doing this. One time I made an effort to try and be happy my response was "I can't be happy because than I would accept things the way they are and wouldn't try and improve my situation". Another time I told myself "Try to be happy", and the answer but "I may lose my job" came to mind. In both these cases the response of our mind is the source of resistance. By trying to be happy we are uncovering the resistance to our happiness. Trying to be happy can thus be a tool for self diagnosis.
After identifying the source of resistance we must ask whether it is valid. One should ask "Is the resistance telling me something I ought to do something about?" If it is one should make a plan of action to do something about it. The next step is to address the emotional distress it is causing. There are two basic ways to do this. If one has come up with a viable plan of action one can tell oneself, "I have a plan of action, I will do the best I can and continuing to be unhappy about this won't help.." If one has no plan, one can address the emotional distress by telling oneself "I may not be able to change the situation but at least I can stop being miserable about it." The final step is to try and be happy again.
Resistance may come from something that is very hard if not impossible to change. One may be unwilling to accept that and constantly try and think of a way out when there is no way out. Then one is dwelling on a problem without anything positive coming out of it. In fact dwelling on the problem in this case just causes one unhappiness. The best thing one can do in this situation is to try and think about something else and seek happiness elsewhere.
Resistance may come from one's physiology. If all day at the job one has been thinking I have to rush or else, one won't come home happy. Whatever the physiological changes caused by the unhappiness and anxiety at work are, they probably won't go away instantly when one gets home. Just trying to be happy might not work in that case. The solution then is to change one's thinking at the job so that when one comes home just trying to be happy does work.
One recent experience I had which illustrates some of these points was when I came home with a feeling of shame one day. I tried not to feel it but I felt it anyway. I knew that shame felt under the category of low self esteem so I asked myself if I had been attacking my own self esteem during the day. I realize the answer was yes. I had done something foolish and had been self critical about it. I started telling myself positive things about myself to boost myself esteem. I told myself "I respect you", you're terrific and so on. Eventually the shame was gone. A similar situation happened when I had feelings of insecurity and didn't know where it came from. I had been worrying about my job during the day and that fear built up into feelings of insecurity.
The simple effort of trying to be happy can be made more powerful if after trying one says to oneself, I am proud of you for trying. That way you boost your self esteem as well. The boost of self esteem will help make you happier. Praising oneself is a healthy way to improve one's mood and to encourage behaviors in oneself that one wants. If for example one wants to be friendly to other people, praising oneself when one is, besides improving one's mood will help one become a friendlier person.
We can motivate ourselves to be happy. For example if one of our goals in life is to be attractive to the opposite sex we can tell ourselves "You'll be more attractive to the opposite sex if you're happy" (See the Power of a Smile web page). There's always a reason to be happy including the fact that happiness is its own reward.
Optimism is an important part of being happy yet we all face threats. How do we deal with this? Do we try and minimize the threats to ourselves? I think we need to be realistic about the threats that we face for reasons that I give on the facing reality web page. So then how can we be optimistic? For one thing just as we have a happiness muscle, we have an optimism muscle as well. Sometimes we can just try and be optimistic without thinking up reasons to be. If you need a reason you can be optimistic that you can be happy and that you'll be happier if you are optimistic.
We have the ability to contract and to relax our muscles. Analogously we have some ability to reduce unpleasant emotions simply by trying. We if we're angry, for example, we can try to feel less anger and just doing that sometimes can reduce it.
The standard way of approach emotional problems in psychotherapy is to try and understand what is causing them and asking oneself why one feels unhappy is generally a good first step to trying to deal with it. Sometimes when I ask myself that question, I don't know the answer. I then tell myself, well since you don't know why, you might as well try to be happy. Sometimes as I described above doing that causes resistance and that gives me a clue as to why I'm unhappy. If it doesn't, that's good too, I still am happier than I was before trying to be happy.
c o p y r i g h t ( c ) 1 9 9 9 - 2004 Karl Ericson Enterprises. All rights reserved
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