Welcome back to the conclusion 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.
With self-mastery, which is built on the foundation of living honestly (part 1) and authentically (part 2), we can reliably create a sustained feeling of fulfillment, which opens the door to happiness. In order to walk through the door, we must believe that happiness is abundant and deserved.
Before diving into the incredibly subjective and emotional world of beliefs, it is helpful to lay the groundwork for an objective and analytical discussion, starting with the definition of a belief, which is "something that is accepted, considered to be true, or held as an opinion."
By definition, beliefs are not fact, but are formed from "acceptance, consideration or opinion." Therefore, we must allow ourselves to accept that none of the beliefs we hold are "right" or "wrong", and that they are most certainly not going be true for everyone. While others may apply similar frameworks and reach the same conclusions, the underlying details and rationale for all of our beliefs will be uniquely ours. For instance, a million rational, intelligent and compassionate people would likely hold a million uniquely rational, intelligent and compassionate beliefs on any challenging topic (e.g. What is the definition of success, and why?).
It's also important to recognize that our beliefs blind our objectivity. We will predictably have positive emotional responses to stimuli that reinforce our beliefs and negative emotional responses to stimuli that threaten them. Therefore, we must consciously let go of our emotional guards to have the opportunity to assess our beliefs as an objective observer.
Beliefs Form the Foundation of Thought
Our beliefs dictate the thoughts that arise from a particular stimuli. For instance, we could hold a firm belief around the thoughtfulness (or lack thereof) of our significant other, as follows:
We believe they are the most thoughtful person in the world. If they were to bring us a gift spontaneously, this experience would reinforce our belief and make us feel good. Similarly, if they forgot an important date, this would threaten our belief and makes us feel bad. We would likely attribute their error either to ourselves (e.g. I forgot to remind them) or to an external factor (e.g. they have been under a lot of stress).
We believe they are the most self-centered person in the world. A spontaneous gift would threaten our belief and make us feel bad. We would likely question their sincerity and wonder what external factor motivated their action (e.g. seeking forgiveness for something they did wrong). Similarly, if they were to forget an important date, this would reinforce our belief and (sadly) make us feel good that our belief was correct -- they just don't care about anyone other than themselves.
We do not have the ability to intervene between stimulus and thought. However, we can preemptively influence our future thoughts by changing our beliefs.
Alignment Between Belief and Experience
Our beliefs are formed by our earliest experiences with a specific stimuli. They create patterned responses that generally do not change until we disrupt the pattern by reexamining the belief.
Going back to the level of thoughtfulness of our significant other:
Most thoughtful person: What if the spontaneous gifts stop flowing and they continue to forget important dates?
Most self-centered person: What if the spontaneous gifts continue to flow with regularity and they consistently remember important dates?
In either situation, the constant flow of threatening stimuli would consistently illicit negative feelings. If we wanted to take action to stop our suffering, we would eventually be forced to reexamine our belief.
It is painful to operate with beliefs that aren't aligned with our experiences, and even more painful to be forced to open them up for reexamination. Therefore, we should aim to build beliefs that remain both accurate and fluid.
We are always growing and responding to ever-changing circumstances, therefore it is not feasible to fully future-proof our beliefs. However, we can ensure they are more likely to remain relevant by seeking perspective before setting them. We generally gain perspective by exposing ourselves to deeper and wider experiences with the goal of gaining a complete picture of the stimulus we're attempting to explain.
Beliefs built on perspective have increased strength to withstand harmful attacks and fluidity to embrace helpful changes.
There are two key steps we can take to maximize our perspective:
Seek out alternative beliefs: Are there others we respect who believe differently from us? If so, we would greatly benefit by understanding their underlying rationale. This doesn't mean we have to accept it, it simply enables us to be aware of the alternatives before we come to the conclusion of what's right for us.
Visualize our future self**: Since beliefs are most effective when they are uniquely tailored to us, who better to gain perspective from that our ideal self in 10, 15 or 20 years? This allows us to short-cut the "experience" part of gaining perspective. It's powerful to think of all of the beliefs that we held as "the truth" 10 years ago that are no longer valid for us. Imagine how much easier the last 10 years would have been if we held the beliefs we have today.
To gain additional perspective of how we perceive the level thoughtfulness of our significant other, we could:
Seek out alternative beliefs: Request advice from a trusted friend to gain valuable insights from their interpretation of the facts. This conversation would help us identify our emotional "blind spots" and faulty logic. For instance, they would be able to provide enhanced objectivity in benchmarking the actions of our significant other against the societal norms. They may also help us see how our views of the thoughtfulness of our significant other plays into our overall happiness in the relationship.
Visualize our future self: Channel our best self 10, 15 or 20 years down the line. This would free us from the baggage of our current life situation that is clouding our judgement (e.g. Is this the person I see myself with in 20 years?). The additional perspective frees us to objectively assess the thoughtfulness of our significant other. More importantly however, it helps us to see the wider picture and determine whether their overall character is aligned with what we need from our life partner.
Happiness Defaults as a Shared Belief
The level of happiness we have in our lives today directly stems from our core beliefs. Until we have actively sought out our own belief, our view of happiness defaults as a shared belief that is heavily influenced by our family, friends, community and/or culture.
For most of us, our beliefs around happiness have either been directly or indirectly impacted by commonly held views, such as:
Happiness is a predisposition. We are either born happy or not.
Happiness is only for the naive or unintelligent. Smart and intelligent people know and understand too much about how unfair, cruel and evil things really are.
Happiness is just around the corner. I will be happy as soon as I achieve or acquire [fill in the blank].
Happiness is inherently selfish. How can someone be happy when there is so much pain and suffering in the world?
Happiness is only for those lucky enough to have not experienced extreme pain or trauma. If people understood the severe suffering that I've endured, they would see that happiness is not possible for me.
Happiness is a limited resource. Those who get the opportunity, recognition, love or accolades that I've attached to happiness do so at the expense of everyone else.
Each of these beliefs is:
Incredibly powerful, as they're shared with others. We are boeyed when we encounter others who share our view and are emboldened to reject alternative views since we are far from alone in our belief.
Easily reinforced, as these beliefs are not based on are objective or measurable criteria, we can easily support them by cherry-picking the lives of others that support our view. Inconsistencies with our belief are considered to be outliers.
Make it impossible to be happy, as each of these beliefs view happiness as something that is achieved "out there" by people that have what we don't, like: luck, naïveté, accomplishments, selfishness or health.
Forming Our Own Belief
The process of forming a new belief starts with acknowledging our existing views and understanding how they have shaped our experience. A powerful exercise to understand our current belief around happiness is to ask ourselves the following question:
What would it take for me to be happy today?
Many of us will have difficulty coming up with a cohesive answer based on realistic and actionable criteria. We will likely be focused on the external factors that are preventing our happiness, such as: our job, boss, employees, significant other, children, family, friends, health, wealth and unwanted commitments.
These factors directly point to our underlying beliefs around happiness. We absolutely cannot ignore any of them as they a critical to our wellbeing. So much so that we believe that they are preventing our happiness. Armed with this knowledge, we can take action to remove the barriers that are within our control and to accept the ones we can't change.
However, we must also accept that these factors are not preventing our happiness. They are masking the truth. The truth is that we're not happy because deep down we believe that we're not deserving of happiness.
Happiness is never achieved, or prevented by, factors that "out there". It is an internal state that is built on the following universal truths:
I am special and deserve to be happy,
Everyone else is special and deserves to be happy, and
Happiness is abundant, there is an infinite amount to go around.
The only way we can lose our right to happiness is by not accepting responsibility for actions we take that impede another's right to happiness.
This belief gives us freedom to apply the principals of self-mastery and actively pursue happiness from our experiences, as follows:
We have permission to be happy when we have positive experiences. Many of us are prone to sleeping through them, questioning why we had them, or fretting over how long they'll last. We also tend to significantly limit the sphere of happiness that we participate in by hoarding our own happiness and by not allowing ourselves to be happy for others. Viewing happiness as scarce will always produce scarce opportunities to experience it.
Gives us distance to reflect on our 'negative' experiences trusting that they will shape us into our best selves. With time and reflection, we are given the opportunity to learn the lessons that these experiences have taught us and how they have facilitated our growth. Without reflection and acceptance, our negative experiences will sabotage our ability to pursue happiness.
Will you give yourself permission to believe that you are special and deserve a life overflowing with happiness?
It is the only thing standing in your way.
* 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.
** For more on seeking the perspective of our future selves, check out episode 412 of "The Tim Ferris Show" where super-guest Josh Waitzken discusses the effectiveness of this approach [min 32.44]