Researchers at Harvard University have found that 50% of a person’s happiness is due to their genetics, 10% to the environment they live in and their external circumstances, but 40% is unaccounted for: they suspect that 40% is made of the choices that each of us take everyday. I was watching this documentary called Happy last night, and those stats stuck to my head like a chewing gum under a shoe.
It struck me that nearly half of the time you choose to be happy.
Now, I have always been an optimistic person. That’s probably my genetics kicking in. I would say, my mum and my brother are pretty much the same. I always find something good in the bad, a lesson to learn, a justification for bad behaviour. And that certainly helps during rainy days. However… at times life showered me with such massive piles of crap, especially in the last 10 years, that even the most optimistic person in the world would have needed, in my shoes, to re-evaluate their outlook.
So I read a lot about happiness, and optimism, and for a long while I was determined to use my natural optimism to my advantage and to trial it on the Law of Attraction, i.e. the ability to attract into our lives whatever we are focusing on. We all have experienced at times wishing for something to happen to our life, and somehow, things get moved by the universe and that very thing happens. Or the opposite, focusing so much on the negative, wishing that it won’t happen, and again, that very thing happens. Some say that it is because we attracted that thought into our life, by dedicating our full attention to it, good or bad.
So, I made my very own vision board last January, putting on it pictures of all the lovely things I wished for my life by the end of the year: living with my partner, going to New York, starting the business we talked about so much, starting to meditate more regularly. Guess what? NOTHING happened. Nothing. I haven’t moved my arse from home, apart from the usual back and forth from Italy. My partner and I are still living 2,500 km apart.
Since making the board, the business we just tried to start failed miserably, due to lack of funds. And we lost quite a bit of money in the process. Nice.
Fair to say, visualising without doing nothing significant towards that idea, did nothing to make it happen. I felt deflated and frustrated, but then realised that one of the issue with the law of attraction is that it builds up expectations, when we are virtually impotent in front of life. It just happens the way it wants to happen, and I can certainly stir it a bit here and there, but if I get run over by a bus tomorrow, there won’t be any vision board to help me. Nevertheless, it helps if you actually do something. But what?
I recently read a book titled The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking. There are a couple of points from the book that stuck with me.
The first one, is the stoic attitude towards life, described by the author, for which an apparent negative attitude of expecting always the worst actually has the result to make you feel happy. Because rarely the worst happens, you feel relieved at the very minimum. On the opposite, expecting life to throw roses and violets at you instead of crap, is going to disappoint you, sooner or later. As the Buddhists know well, every being is bound to experience illness, suffering and eventually death in their life. You might as well accept it and move on.
Another point from the book that I found quite interesting: it has been demonstrated that setting specific goals makes people a) more ineffective b) unhappy. Because again, life happens and disappointment kicks in when expectations do not become a reality. People become more productive when they have a direction they push their actions towards, but not necessarily specific, time-bound goals. We need to accept we are not in control of our lives, but we can certainly stir it towards our aspirations, with some intention.
Personally, it was also the taking action element I was struggling with massively.
I am a procrastinator. Always have been. Many times I found myself finishing a university assignment at 5am on the deadline day. Snoozing my alarm clock every five minutes, 25 times (this is an actual number, not an exaggeration).
But… out of all the ‘failures’ from my vision board, I have started to meditate more regularly. And, I feel happier that I’ve been in a long time. Because I found a new way of dealing with my procrastination: habits.
I recently came across Zen Habits by Leo Babauta and James Clear‘s blogs, two wonderfully inspiring readings that I wholeheartedly suggest you take a look at if you are interested in improving your life.
First, I choose intentionally to move my life towards a certain direction. I don’t set a specific or time-bound goal (the exact opposite of the famous SMART goal they teach you in business courses!), I don’t tell myself: I want to meditate every day.
I rather ask myself: How does meditation make you feel? Do you like that relaxed, present, happy self, after having spent a few minutes meditating? The answer is, obviously, yes. That gives me a strong motivation when I struggle to find the willingness to do it.
Second, I don’t rely anymore on ‘inspiration’ to do the things I set myself to do: Nike-like, I just do it. I tell myself: I’ll make a start, just ten minutes (and that’s the third thing, I set myself a ridiculously small goal). Often, I find myself doing a lot more than ten minutes, and I don’t beat myself up if, occasionally, it is only ten minutes: that’s better than nothing.
Finally, I automate as much as possible the activity I want to do, so I don’t rely on a ‘when I feel like doing’ attitude. These days, I wake up at 5am (me, yes, 5am!! The woman who needs to be woken up with a bucket full of ice!) with a wonderful sunrise simulator light (which made a massive difference to my mood and to me actually waking up, instead of ignoring the alarm clock. And, big bonus, I found it super-cheap at Aldi), I open my eyes, I sit up, and I start meditating. No thinking involved.
I now literally intentionally stumble upon the things I have set myself to do when I’m full of good intentions.
A few more ingredients to my own happiness recipe:
- Accomplishing some of the things I want to do without making my life an endless to-do list;
- Pacing myself;
- Spending time with my loved ones being silly and doing fun things;
- Exercising regularly;
- Enjoying the here and now, whenever I remember (humanly impossible to do it all the time, but it is good to stop and smell the roses now and then);
- Being grateful for what I have;
- And something I would love to do more of: contributing to other people’s life.
Phew! I managed to finish this post, and I will probably dwell more into some of the themes above in the future, but I’d be interested to learn what other people do to make their life happier. Do stop and say hi!