How is it that Pharrell Williams’s light-hearted song, “Happy,” has become such a global hit? The daily news suggests that the world is going to hell in a handbasket.
Williams sings: “…clap along if you feel like a room without a roof, Clap along if you feel that happiness is the truth.”6
What he’s singing about, of course, is perspective. Happiness is a state of being on which he is choosing to focus. It’s a refreshing perspective, given how much focus we can put on what’s wrong with our lives and this planet.
It can be hard to maintain a focus of “happiness as the truth” if we are only relying on external circumstances as the measure for feeling good. When things are looking bad on the outside despite our efforts to create change, we can easily lose perspective.
For many of us, happiness often is described in terms of some sort of acquisition (or in terms of getting rid of something). For example, I often hear clients say: “I’ll be happy when …”
- I’m out of that difficult relationship
- I find the relationship I’m longing for
- I’m away from that boring job or controlling boss
- I have the career I’m striving for
- I have more money
- I finish my studies
- I have my own house, car, children (fill in the blank)
- The dog next door stops barking
And when we get those things, are we happy? Yes! — for a little while, until we start longing for the next thing that we have to have in order to feel happy again.
Over the years I have come to appreciate that if we rely only on certain external circumstances or conditions in order to be happy, the feeling is fleeting and ultimately unsatisfactory.
If we don’t get the pay raise, house, partner, vacation despite our efforts, then what? I would like to offer two important keys that are crucial for building a foundation of happiness despite outer circumstances:
Get to know your shadow.
Your shadow involves aspects of yourself that you may dislike, tend to push down or feel shame around or perhaps feel irritated about when observed in others. This could be neediness, loneliness, fears or anger.
One way to dissipate your shadow’s energy is to acknowledge its existence. That in itself can be a huge relief. Working with your shadow helps to increase your capacity to love, forgive and accept yourself and your relationships. It is empowering to consciously live out these parts rather than feeling that they are beyond your control. Our shadow often is where our internal gold lies.
Connect to an inner life.
We are stimulated by electronic devices that link us to each other and to the world on a 24-hour basis. We have become increasingly externally focused, with a reduction in our capacity to attend to one thing at a time.
When we are alone and quiet, we may start to feel anxious, agitated or lonely. Practices that plug us back into an inner life help to quiet the mind and calm our nervous system. Disconnecting from external stimuli and learning to self-soothe is crucial for calming our adrenals and activating our parasympathetic nervous system. Our mind, body, and spirit need to decompress, unwind and restore itself.
It is during our quieter states that insight and inner wisdom start to arise. Take in a deep breath several times a day, turn your gaze away from the computer for five minutes, and look out the window. Take in the activity of life happening outside of the screen.
Simple practices that help nurture an inner life:
- listening to soft music
- doodling, drawing, painting
- humming quietly
- slow dancing to candlelight
- sitting in silence with eyes either open or shut
- looking at nature — a park, the ocean, trees, the backyard
- quietly listening to your own breathing
- remembering a place that you love to go to
- sitting in a room with candles at dusk
- visiting an art gallery
Add your own thoughts to this list.
Regular practice of gratitude and appreciation for the things that already exist in our lives (no matter how small) train our brains to focus on what is good in our lives — regardless of whether you got the job, got the house, got rid of the noisy neighbor or got a raise.
When we practice remembering and focusing on those things that made us happy, made us feel good, safe, content and even gleeful, we stimulate those emotions in our brains. They fire up parts of our neurological network. Over time these wire together to produce ongoing states of ease. These are the things that create lasting change and a deeper sense of happiness.