My 7 Keys to Happiness

Loved and nurtured children naturally live in their joy
Loved and nurtured children naturally live in their joy

I am happy. Actually, I’m more than happy. I am giddy with joy. I feel at peace within myself. I feel great and abiding love for all things. I feel clear. I am happy to be me, and I have no desire whatsoever to be anyone else. I love myself, flaws and all. Instead of dwelling on my imperfections, I forgive myself for them, learn, and move on. And I find myself surprised and amazed to be here after years of what seemed like a long struggle. How did that happen?

Looking back, I can see that I have steadily applied myself to my own path. One foot in front of the other, I plodded along on easy roads and hard ones. I made mistakes, I beat myself up, I despaired, I wondered how I would ever get past my own human frailties, and yet, here I am. I’m happy.

If I could point to some keys to my happiness, I believe they would look something like this:

1. Decide That You Matter

Given my toxic upbringing, I was not allowed to matter. My narcissistic mother was the only one allowed to matter, so I was not accustomed to having any of my needs met. I was in my 30s when I finally understood that my mother was mentally ill, and then I had to defend myself and my family from her worsening behavior. It was then that I could finally separate from my parents and become a person in my own right—a person who mattered. A person who could make her own decisions. I drew boundaries. And then I redrew them. I drew a final boundary when I had to cease all contact with my parents. That was a hard thing to do, but it was the only thing I could do in a world where I (and my wife and children) mattered.

2. Forgive Yourself

After spending many years being my own worst critic—saying things to myself that were far worse than anything my mother ever said—I made the decision to forgive myself. I didn’t make the decision to try to forgive myself. No, I decided to forgive myself, even if I did it imperfectly. The simple act of making that decision was in itself a miracle. Yes, I still had days of beating myself up, but I began to catch myself doing so. When I did, I changed my thought to something more positive about myself. Over time, I began to do that more automatically. And gradually, the self-abuse began to fade, so slowly that I didn’t even notice for a long time. But today, I look back and think, “Wow! I did it! Good for you!” And I give myself a well-deserved high five.

3. Recognize and Name Your Feelings

It is astonishing how often people navigate their lives without really knowing how they feel. So often, we are told to stuff our feelings, or that our feelings aren’t welcome, or they make somebody uncomfortable. And we forget that our feelings are our messengers, and we ignore them at our peril.

When I was in my 20s, I could be in my parents’ presence for less than 10 minutes, and I would become seethingly angry. I literally had no idea why this was. Perhaps it was a character defect. My parents certainly thought so. Why couldn’t I control this? Of course, what that feeling was saying was that I was incredibly frustrated. That I was unheard. That my feelings, thoughts, and beliefs did not matter and were not considered important. It drove me nuts. Anger was the only outlet I had, because it was the only outlet I had ever been shown.

With practice, I have now come to recognize a variety of feelings that are triggered by old patterns. For example, I now know that when I feel resentful and hurt, I tend to retreat into passive-aggressive behavior that is meant to show my loved ones that I’m upset. It’s what my parents did, and I learned it well. I now understand that this feeling of resentment is saying to me, “You need to make your needs known to your loved ones so that they have the opportunity to help you out.” So I do two things:  I ask for what I need (“I’m tired; please help me with the dishes” or “I had hoped we could play a game together”) and I recognize that the resentment does not serve my own peace, so I let it go.

4. Live in the Present Moment

Memories are peculiar things. Have you ever notice that if you dive into a memory, whether good or bad, that you relive every single feeling you had in that moment? Memories are emotional, and if something upset you 20 years ago, it will upset you again if you dwell on it.

Likewise, if you are daydreaming about something, your emotions respond to whatever thought you are creating in that moment. If you are imagining telling off your mother-in-law, then your blood pressure probably goes up, and you become angry just thinking about it. Of course, in this scenario, none of it is real! It’s just a thought in your head.

Living in the now, or the present moment is the most freeing thing you can do. It allows you to take in what is before you. If you are truly present, you will have the ability to think before you react. If you observe something upsetting, you can decide if you want to react to it with upsetness or with peace. This does take practice. Most people are not accustomed to this way of being. But practice is like exercise:  it helps you to build that muscle.

5. Learn to Relax

My old Tai Chi and Chi Gung master once told me, “Tai Chi people are the laziest people.” At the time, I didn’t fully understand what he meant, but now I do.

Take a moment to feel your body. Where are you holding tension? I’ll bet you’re holding it somewhere. In your neck, back, shoulders, hands, feet, stomach, or even your buttocks. Is your breathing shallow or full? Take a deep breath into your stomach. Feel the difference?

When I was learning Tai Chi, I thought that in order to master it, I had to be very strong, which meant being very tense. This is the opposite of what was required of me. What I needed was to be as relaxed as a rag doll, flowing slowly and easily through the forms. The only effort I needed to put forth was the barest effort to keep myself upright and my limbs flowing. I needed long, deep breaths. Keeping my muscles taut was interfering with my ability to do the forms correctly.

These days, I do yoga, but the principle is the same. Relax, relax, relax. And as your body learns how to relax, a funny thing happens:  your emotional body follows suit. Most people who are uptight are not relaxed. If they were, they would be calmer and more easygoing. Your state of mind mirrors your body, and vice versa. If you are having a hard time calming your mind, then calm your body first. The feedback from your body will help you calm your mind.

Relax, relax, relax. This, too, requires practice, but it builds upon itself.

6. Build a “Core of Care”

We wrote about the Core of Care last fall, and it really does matter. It will help your healing tremendously to be supported by close friends and loved ones, whether they are your blood family or your spirit family. I am so at home with my family and feel so loved and nourished by them, that healing and happiness just naturally flows from that.

People who have never had a true Core of Care, however, may tend to subconsciously sabotage truly nurturing relationships. If you can’t seem to attract healthy, loving people into your life, then that is something for you to examine. Are you so comfortable with discord and toxicity that “healthy” feels completely alien to you? Sometimes people opt for the devil that they do know instead of the angel that they don’t know. Give yourself a chance to get used to being loved and respected, even if it feels uncomfortable at first. Remember, to move forward, move fearward.

7. Trust the Universe and Pursue Spiritual Growth

I could never be happy because of my own lone efforts, because I am not alone. I am part of the Great I AM, the Creator, God, whatever you want to call it. I am not separate from anything, so in order to find myself, to love myself, to value myself, to be at peace with myself, and ultimately to find happiness within myself, I had to open myself to this great understanding of who I really am. I had to connect with all life. I had to see myself as One, not separate. This has been a journey in itself, and I had to learn several key lessons:

  • I am not in control. For a control freak, that’s a scary proposition. But I slowly began to internalize that the only things I did control were my thoughts, beliefs, and reactions to whatever happens.
  • Trust that my needs will always be met, and that whatever happens is meant for my highest good. This certainly took practice, but I have found that my needs are always met, and I have been given the skills and resources to deal with whatever comes my way, whether joyful or difficult.
  • Always allow for miracles. Whenever I run into a wall and think I can’t go any further, I ask for help, and the wall simply disappears.
  • Open my heart and keep it open. Unfortunately, it is a common belief that an open heart must always lead to heartbreak. This simply isn’t true. An open heart feels many different kinds of feelings, certainly, and some of them are not happy ones. But the open heart is capable of giving and—more importantly—receiving love, and Love with a capital “L.” The open heart and mindfulness of the present moment can help you to understand what is yours, and what is not. There may be people who don’t love you or even like you, but you can choose how you react to that. You can take it personally and be hurt, or you can bless them and send them on their way. You’ve had the power all along.

If you are reading this, chances are you’ve read many books about how to learn to love yourself and let go of old baggage, and you may be despairing that you’ll ever get there. Know that you can, but that it won’t occur overnight. Healing is a journey, not a destination. You can choose to be happy today. Why not practice happiness? Who cares if you do it perfectly or not? Take one step at a time and see where it takes you.

It took me a number of years to see and appreciate the slow change that was occurring within me, but now I am amazed and grateful. I am at peace, and life is just amazing. I give thanks for it every single day. And I can’t help but imagine how our world would transform if everyone else felt the same way. Don’t think that could happen? I do. I expect miracles. In my experience, they occur every day.

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