If you were to ask me, “What is the key, essential component of happiness?” or, “What is a fundamental element of happiness? my answer would be simultaneously simple , yet very complicated. Here, I’d like to explore the fundamental element of happiness. When we “get it,” when we understand it, when we live by it, we will be happy. What is it? What is the fundamental key to happiness? Though it may seem very easy, finding the key to happiness can be one of life’s most difficult and elusive tasks; yet it is possible. It is absolutely possible.
First, let’s explore what causes suffering. Why do we suffer? Some time ago, there was a woman with whom I worked who really struggled with life, although she was a wonderful person. One of the biggest sources of her unhappiness was her weight. She felt as though she was too heavy and thus unattractive, and she was very self-critical of this fact. She once related to me an episode that had occurred years and years ago, perhaps 10 years prior to the time that I worked with her, when she and her husband were out on a dinner date. Her husband made a comment about her weight which wasn’t kind. He immediately took it back, and apologized profusely for what he had said, but in her head she kept hearing the hurtful remark over and over again. His words stayed in her mind and unfortunately, she added to this barrage of negativity by commenting upon her own weight over and over again in very damaging ways. Even though her husband had only made the comment once, ten years prior, his words kept resonating in her brain and his remark, along with her own negative self-criticism, caused her great suffering.
What we worked on together wasn’t so much fixing what had happened, because her husband truly was sorry for what he had said and the hurtful event had occurred ten years prior. Instead, what I helped her to discover was that her suffering was coming from her own thoughts. When she was thinking negative thoughts or making negative comments about herself, she suffered. When I persuaded her to stop thinking these negative thoughts and making these negative comments about herself and to just enjoy life, her suffering was no more.
Now you may be thinking, “Hmm, I don’t know about this. Give me some more proof.” Perhaps the best proof I can offer is what I do for a living. I am a clinical psychologist. People come in to see me because their lives are difficult and I am able to assist them. I have been practicing as a clinical psychologist for about 25 years, and while I also pursue other avenues such as public speaking, writing books, and participating in the media, clinical psychology is my main calling. You can probably imagine that with over 25 years of experience, on occasion I work with clients that are experiencing very challenging situations or have had enormously difficult things happen that they are seriously struggling to deal with. Sometimes, a client needs my help immediately. Like many psychologists, from time to time I get calls from people who feel like they are going to die and want my help. So what do I do? Do I spend an hour on the phone with them? Do I drive down to my office and meet them there immediately? No. Instead, I do the same thing I have always done. I listen to the person and listen to the situation they face, and then I ask them to go for a walk outside, perhaps for half an hour or an hour, just spending time outdoors in the fresh air. If after that time, at the end of their walk, the person still feels upset, I tell them to give me a call again. In my 25 years, I have never gotten that second call. I have never had to hospitalize anyone.
Now why does this work? Why does going for a walk, spending time in nature, work?
It’s because all of our suffering comes from our mind. Yes, we have painful experiences, but there’s a difference between suffering and real pain. Pain is a physical or emotional sensation that we feel immediately, and then it passes. Suffering is the story and the dialogue that accompanies the pain, the thoughts we play over and over again in our mind like, “This is terrible. This hurts. Is this going to last forever? Oh no, oh no, oh no!” That is suffering. Suffering is the mental story that we create; whether, for example, like my one client’s negative inner monologue concerning her weight or like my other clients, where the suffering manifests itself as the feeling of, “I want to die because life is so bad right now.” When we stop the negative thoughts and we just “be,” then all is well. Really, all is well. All of our suffering stems from the harmful mental stories that we create. Yes, we experience hard times, but those hard times are manageable; challenging and difficult, yes, but manageable. There is no event or situation we can’t handle as long as we learn not to react by creating a deleterious inner commentary.
I have known people who have been incarcerated, people dying from cancer, severely deformed, or suffering physically. Contrary to what one might think, these people were all completely happy because they didn’t create a negative mental story about what they were experiencing. They were doing everything in their power to make their situations better, and importantly, they were not allowing the events in their lives to keep them from loving life. So, the key ingredients to achieving happiness are two-fold, yet they are really the two faces of the same coin. What are they?
The first key ingredient is mental stillness. When our minds are still, all is well. We don’t suffer when we’re not creating negative mental stories. Let me say it again. We don’t suffer when we’re not creating negative mental stories. We must remember that these harmful stories are in our minds and that when we quiet our minds, all of our suffering ends.
The second key is being present, because when we are present, we can always find beauty in something. One can be locked up in prison, in solitary confinement, and yet be mindful of the magnificent rays of the morning sun as they illuminate everything they touch. Listening to your heart beat so gently, so rhythmically, can be just as beautiful for someone preparing to die and feeling their heart beat for the last few times. These experiences can still be beautiful. Yes, these examples may be the exception, but as long as one person on the planet is able to find happiness in such things, it means it is also a possibility for you and me. Be present, be still. Be present and be still. For only then will happiness, instead of being something elusive, something that comes only fleetingly, be our natural state. We will achieve our natural state when our minds are still and living in the here and now without negative mental commentary. If we do so, life will be well and we will experience true happiness. And if you still do not believe me, I want you to take a challenge.
I want you to go somewhere outside, and if possible, somewhere that you can find absolute quiet; perhaps a park, a meadow, or a beach. Go to this place and allow yourself to be totally quiet and free from thought for a minute, or five or ten. I want you to choose something: it can be a bird, a tree, a flower, or anything else you can be 100% attentive to and watch. Listen to this object, watch it, and just be with it. This is all I want you to do for the entire time. Don’t analyze the object, just be with it. Your mind is still and you are being present with the thing you have chosen. After the exercise is over, I want you to reflect upon this time. Were you sad? Did you feel depressed? If you truly were present with your chosen object, what you will find is that you felt happy and at peace. All is well. Yes, this feeling may have only lasted for a short period of time, but for some people it’s enough to get a sense of “Wow, I can do this!” and trust me, you can!
Keeping our mind still and present is a skill. This is actually a skill we possess as children, as all young children do this all day long; however, we unfortunately forget or suppress this skill over time. If we learn to employ this skill again and go back to what I would call “our natural state,” then we are happy. These are the key components of happiness: keeping our mind still and being present. When we learn these things, we enter the world of happiness. Any among us can do it, it just takes effort.
If you would like to learn more about Dr. Robert Puff, please visit: www.DoctorPuff.com
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