Is happiness possible for all of us? How do we take the first step?
Cheryl Kain, Guest Blogger
Because the Constitution declares our right to pursue happiness, contentment can seem, for many Americans, like a birthright. At the same time, the quest for happiness can feel like herding cats—elusive and frustrating. We’re failures if we aren’t “happy” all the time—that’s why scores of books are written promising the secrets to happiness. But the search for happiness as an aggressive imperative can have the opposite effect, especially since happiness is relative for many people, including those facing poverty, health problems, or deep despair. The questions become: Can we ever truly achieve happiness? And could there be a set of universal prescriptions for getting there?
Teacher and author Tal Ben-Shahar, PhD, a pioneer in the field of Positive Psychology and author of Being Happy: You Don’t Have to be Perfect to Lead a Richer, Happier Life, says the number-one predictor of well-being is the time we spend with people we care about and who care about us. “Latin Americans are happier than North Americans, because of the emphasis on relationships,” he says. “Friends and family play a much more central role in their lives.” This certainly rings true for me: In my own life, I have been far happier in my thirties and forties than when I was a singing-career-obsessed twentysomething. According to Gail Sheehy’s New York Times bestseller, Passages, I am a “deferred nurturer” and, admittedly, I did not value relationships as much as I did getting ahead in those earlier years. Smack dab in early midlife, relationships trump all for me now. My daily relational experiences, whether with my bestie or the grocery clerk, far outshine the pleasure of those long-ago pipe dreams.
But focusing on relationships isn’t the only piece of the happiness puzzle. Ben-Shahar believes that people can, in fact, learn to be happy, an inspiration for Kripalu’s new certificate program in Positive Psychology for which Ben-Shahar is a presenter and instructor. Instead of focusing on overcoming challenges like depression, anxiety, neuroses, and weakness, participants in the program learn to concentrate on fostering happiness, love, success, and other strengths. (The program is open to anyone interested in personal development as well as professional development, for use in coaching, leading, teaching, nursing, social work, yoga or mind/body teaching, and psychology.)
Through delving into topics like “What Is Happiness?” and “Realizing Dreams,” he teaches people how to apply the concepts of Positive Psychology to helping themselves and their clients build healthier, happier relationships. “We’re taking the latest advances in the science of well-being, including advances in the area of mind-body, as well as material on goal-setting, coaching, and relationships,” says Ben-Shahar. “And we’re putting it together into a program that helps people lead fuller and more fulfilling lives.”
As the program explores, one way to consider happiness is to examine how it’s derived in other cultures and religions. For example, as Grace Jull, a senior faculty member at Kripalu, points out, most Buddhist monks and yogis emphasize the importance of sangha, or feeling a sense of belonging in a community, as a crucial aspect of fulfillment. “Sangha is a key piece of happiness for many,” says Jull, who teaches several programs at Kripalu that explore happiness. “The idea that, on our own, we’re supposed to pull ourselves up by our boot straps can be incredibly hard at times. But when we’re in a group that’s oriented toward our highest expression, we can remember who we are and be uplifted out of habitual neural grooves.” And while happiness is a very personal inquiry, it’s supported best in community, says Jull, who has led hundreds of “sharing circles” over 18 years on staff at Kripalu and seen how group conversation can encourage discussion that’s rare in one-on-ones. “Reconciling and reflecting on our relationship to suffering can become a stepping stone to true happiness,” she says. “The root of happiness is to recognize that it’s a human experience shared by many others; we’re not a failure for being in grief or having a loss. Millions of other people in this moment are experiencing the same thing.”
But it’s often not enough to refrain from judging our “negative” emotions. The next step, say Ben-Shahar and Jull, is to allow and even invite these emotions to have their say, at least temporarily. Personally, I’ve noticed that when I give myself permission to acknowledge and fully feel grief, anger, and guilt, those feelings move on, leaving me with greater space for experiencing contentment. Negative emotions do not mean failure, and leaning into pain or loneliness, rather than resisting it, keeps me in a “flow” that almost always leads to feelings of physical and emotional relief. Breathing deeply helps with intense emotional waves, and the more I lean into an emotion, the more quickly it passes. “One of the greatest barriers to happiness is the pressure to be happy, and the belief that being happy is synonymous with experiencing a constant high,” says Ben-Shahar. “When we accept emotions such as fear, sadness, or anxiety as natural, we are more likely to overcome them. Rejecting our emotions, on the other hand, leads to frustration and unhappiness.”
Some schools of thought encourage us to detach from our feelings and desires in order to lessen suffering. But desire itself is not bad, says yoga teacher Rod Stryker, founder of ParaYoga and author of The Four Desires: Creating a Life of Purpose, Prosperity, Happiness, and Freedom. Rather, he says, it’s our relationship to our desires that can lead to trouble. Some desires, in fact, are supportive, wholesome, and even righteous. Desire is the seedling that blossoms into goals and plans, which can lead us to a happier, more fulfilling life. Yet not getting what we want brings its own pressure and disappointment. Stryker adds, “We can ask ourselves, ‘How do I remain happy or content in the midst of having these wants and yet not having achieved them?’ or we can ask, ‘What is the most relevant desire now?’” So rather than detaching from desire, detach from the outcome of desire, and work toward manageable, short-term goals. The more we set ourselves up for little successes, the more we’ll gain confidence to move forward with our visions of a happy life. “As we get better at fulfilling our intentions, we grow to see that we are capable of achieving our dreams,” says Stryker.
I’m reminded of my efforts to go to the gym. When I establish a goal of going five days a week, I judge myself when I only make it there three days. If I make the goal easier—say, just the three days—I have a better shot at feeling successful and confident. This is also apparent in my yoga (a practice that’s itself very closely aligned with happiness). It would be a set-up for failure to expect myself to attend three yoga classes a week, or to practice daily at home. However, if I’m able to do Legs Up the Wall for 10 minutes instead of reaching for a sugary snack, that’s success. Grace Jull says, “Yoga means union—to connect with our interior world and honestly hear ourselves, whether we’re afraid or inspired, which is a rich form of happiness and wholeness.” And that’s perhaps the most important takeaway of the many efforts underway to better understand happiness: Contacting our inner world, making peace with messy emotions, and sharing our lives with others goes a very long way toward contentment.
Cheryl Kain is a writer, teacher, and musician living on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. She has practiced Kripalu Yoga for more than 20 years, and appeared on Good Morning America to share how yoga changed her health and her life.