Welcome to part one of this three part series where we explore the simple truth that Happiness is a choice*. We can begin our pursuit of happiness in earnest when we understand its basic framework:
Happiness is honesty: In part 1, we cover our tendency to tell ourselves false stories to excuse/validate our emotions and how honesty can disrupt this destructive habit.
Happiness is authenticity: In part 2, we discuss the economics of spending our time and attention wisely and how living authentically can help us take control.
Happiness is belief In part 3, we investigate the role of personal beliefs in establishing our mindsets and how we can calibrate them toward happiness.
Source of emotions
Our emotions are unique to each of us. They arise spontaneously from inside ourselves when we are exposed to a specific triggering thought or experience (together termed 'triggering stimuli'). Our feelings are reinforced and strengthened the more we react in a predicable way to a specific triggering stimuli.
Deflating Example: Triggering stimuli: Getting a finance charge on a credit card. Underlying Feeling: I feel ashamed for spending more money than I have.
Inflating Example: Triggering stimuli: Finishing first in a local marathon. Underlying Feeling: I feel proud of my commitment to a rigorous training program.
How we process our emotions
When experiencing an emotion, we naturally react to it without thinking. Equipped with powerful brains, we tend to intellectualize our emotions by explaining our reactions to them (rather than understanding their source). This results in the creation of a 'story' where we assign responsibility for our actions to ourselves, others or the external environment.
When our stories are true
When we accurately attribute a feeling to its underlying cause, we are able to take action to influence the recurrence of that emotion.
Deflating Example: After honest inquiry, I discover that I felt ashamed for overspending this month. While I'm generally able to pay off my credit card, but wasn't able to this month because I had to replace my water heater and didn't have an emergency fund to cover the expense. To minimize the recurrence of this shame, I have reworked my budget to create an emergency fund.
Inflating Example: I realize that I truly enjoy my training program, and that my commitment to it helped me finish first in the marathon. To continue to build my pride and the recurrence of joy, I've decided to continue the program as I train for my next marathon.
When our stories are false
Many of our emotions are incredibly challenging to face with honesty, sincerity and authenticity. We have a tendency to excuse our negative emotions by assigning them to other people or external factors and to seek validation for our positive emotions by assigning them to our egos or to a source of external validation (e.g. the end result). These false stories mask the underlying cause of the emotion and prevent us from taking control.
Deflating Example: Rather than correctly attribute my anger to overspending, I may falsely assign it to an external factor such as the "shady" business practices of credit card companies or to another person such as my boss for turning me down for a promotion.
Inflating Example: Rather than correctly attribute my pride to my level of commitment to training, I may falsely assign it to the external validation I received (e.g. finishing first in the marathon) or to my ego by feeling athletically superior to the other participants.
Our false stories will face relentless attack, because they're false
As our false stories persist and gain strength, we must hold on to them with ever-increasing rigor to withstand the constant barrage of conflicting evidence. Naturally, we dig in deeper to defend them against each genuine attack despite our intuitive sense that they are false. We often chose to react ferociously to a threat, rather than face the emotional wounds that come with re-evaluating our story.
Deflating Example: If I had blamed the credit card companies, my anger may spread wider to the banks or bankers that profit from the finance charges or to the wealthy people that don't ever have to incur them.
Alternatively, if I had blamed my boss, it may affect my relationship with him or perhaps the person that was promoted over me. Additionally, the continued anger could fester to resentment and impact my job performance or my relationships with the entire department.
Inflating Example: If I had assigned my pride to the end result of finishing first in the race, I will continue to seek ways to finish first in other races. I will likely seek out a "better" training program, even if it it makes me miserable as my focus has shifted from enjoying the process to winning.
Alternatively, if I had assigned my pride to athletic superiority, I will continue to seek evidence to support my inflated self-image. As my pride is determined by my comparative position; in order to continue feeling good about myself, I will be forced to constantly look for weaker athletes, or the faults of stronger ones.
Each of us craves the truth
As we cannot face endless attacks to our stories, eventually we must either cut off the flow of the attacks or let go of our story.
Cut off the flow: This will harden us as we're forced to cut-off the stimuli that give rise to the attacks. Unfortunately, this is often the people and experiences that can reveal the truth we so desperately desire. In the deflating example, this could be resigning myself to a lifetime of credit card debt and resentment toward bankers. While in the inflating example, this could be giving up running altogether because it isn't fun anymore. In either case, this enormous pain will never be undone, unless we're able to...
Let go of the story: We rely on our stories help us make sense of the world and our place in it. Therefore, letting go of a story is often very painful and is accompanied by a period of chaos as we re-sort through our emotions and actions in an effort to discover the truth. It should be noted that the act of letting go of our most important stories (e.g. career, relationships) could throw us into a full-blown identity crisis.
Unerringly, the cause of this conflict is that our thoughts and actions are taking us away from our true happy authentic self; the one that was brought into this world before it was clouded by all of our stories.
Fortunately, we can exert control over our emotions
While we can't influence the thoughts and experiences that happen to us, we don't have to resign ourselves to the default emotions that are currently controlling our lives.
Any time we have an emotion and have not actively determined the internal cause for why we are experiencing it, we are being controlled by our past. By taking active responsibility for our feelings, we are given the opportunity to take back control and influence our emotions in the way that best suits us.
Ultimately, we're emotional beings with an intellect, rather than intellectual beings with emotions.
Our preference for considering ourselves intellectual beings leads to a tendency to explain away our emotions with our intellect rather than allowing our intellect to support us by expressing the self-compassion required to clearly understand the emotions created by our true selves. Allowing ourselves to accept this subtle shift in perspective can have an immediate and profound impact.
Building awareness of our emotions is a fundamental skill for Self Mastery that requires consistent practice to gain expertise. It starts with understanding the true cause of one emotional reaction at a time.
We cannot do this alone. This process requires us to dig into the unsavory parts of us that have been hidden behind our stories. This leaves us incredibly raw and vulnerable and can lead to the perpetuation the problem by creating new false stories to protect us from the emotions we're drumming up. Having a trusted advisor (e.g. mentor, counselor, spiritual leader) will ensure we feel secure during this process. Friends, spouses and family can also provide assistance; however, we must be aware of their biases, as they have likely contributed to your stories.
Interested in more on the impact of our stories?
The following video provides an incredibly insightful summary of the powerful and pervasive impact of the stories we tell ourselves.
* Disclaimer: Along with all posts at Illumed Mind, this is not intended to replace the guidance of a licensed counselor or physician; especially for those who are dealing with trauma or mental illness.