Get Happy: Lessons from the Field of Positive Psychology
by Cheryl Kain
Is happiness possible for all of us? How do we take the first step?
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 30s and 40s than when I was a singing-career-obsessed 20-something. 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. Tal believes that people can, in fact, learn to be happy, an inspiration for Kripalu’s Certificate in Positive Psychology program, for which Tal 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 Tal. “And we’re putting it together into a program that helps people lead fuller and more fulfilling lives.”
Reconciling and reflecting on our relationship to suffering can become a stepping stone to true happiness. But it’s often not enough to refrain from judging our “negative” emotions. The next step, say Tal, 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 Tal. “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. Rod 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 Rod.
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. 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 who has practiced Kripalu Yoga for more than 20 years. She appeared on Good Morning America to share how yoga changed her health and her life.
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