Have you ever had the experience of witnessing something which made you feel very lucky yourself? (A typical example cited by many people is feeling grateful and happy to have two sound legs after seeing someone in a wheel chair). Almost everyone has these experiences, and everyone reports the same occurrence: the feelings of luck, gratitude and happiness soon fade away.
There are many experiences which give us a moment of perspective, in which our own condition in life seems good, resulting in a feeling of increased happiness. The idea of Fifteen Principles for Happiness is to provide you with a ready-made set of perspectives to help you to re-create those moments of increased happiness.
Please read the fifteen principles described below, and then the suggestions at the end.
ONE. It’s all a bonus. If you have ever had a close call with death, then you know that, in a sense, you are fortunate just to be alive. Therefore, regardless of what you have in your life today, tell yourself that it’s a bonus – it’s that much more than you would have if you were no longer alive.
TWO. It’s not my world; it’s the world. When you feel unhappy or frustrated about the state of things in the world around you, protect yourself from any sense of personal failure. Don’t take it personally that it’s not a better world. It is, after all, not your world, but just the world.
THREE. Humor. Have you ever said or thought the following: “Someday I’ll look back on this and laugh”? Why wait? Laugh now, even if the only humor you can see in the situation is the humor of the absurd.
FOUR. (rhyming word: war). Do you remember January of 1991? It was the start of Operation Desert Storm – the Persian Gulf War. Have you wondered what it would have felt like to have lived in occupied Kuwait during the Persian Gulf War? We probably would have felt absolute terror every day. Regardless of what you have to face today, it’s probably not too bad when put into that perspective.
FIVE. (rhyming word: hive). Picture a group of hikers out for a walk. A bee hive is disturbed and a dozen bees come swarming out and sting . . . one hiker. Why that one?!? Answer: random. We all get some bad luck, and it’s best not to take it personally when you get yours . . . best not to feel as though life, fate or nature ganged up on you personally.
SIX. (rhyming word: sick). Imagine a hospital patient, on his death bed, dying of stress related disease. He looks up before dying and sees, on his bedside table, a glass of water – half full. Before dying he smiles to himself and says, “Here I am, dying of stress related disease, because I spent my entire life seeing that glass as half empty instead of half full.” It’s best to accept the fact that the glass will always be half empty – that there will always be some imperfections in your life. But there are always some aspects of your life which can make you feel happier – if you will let yourself enjoy them.
SEVEN. (rhyming word: heaven). If there is such a thing as heaven on Earth, it comes when we are fully aware that life is a process and not a product. Your life is not a resume . . . not a portfolio . . . not a house under construction. The expression “my life is ruined” is possible only when we feel life is a product instead of what it is in reality – a succession of moments for us to experience.
EIGHT. (rhyming word: gate). Imagine a big wrought iron gate, or fence. Inside the fence is a park in which people are very happy, playing, singing, and relaxing. A person is trying to climb over the gate and into the park, but cannot make it because she is carrying excess baggage. The baggage consists of the demands and expectations of the (dead) past and the (imagined) future. We can make it into the happy park as long as we can prevent our consciousness from being dominated by the demands and expectations of the dead past and the imagined future.
NINE. (rhyming word: wine). If we want to drink the wine of life with any gusto, it probably takes some hard work and self-discipline. No one has ever achieved optimal human happiness by just sitting around trying to passively or uncommittedly enjoy themselves.
TEN. (Rhyming word: den). Imagine a den of lions eating their kill. The operant word here is “kill,” or death. We will all die. Between now and then we will have many feelings, and we have a right to all of them, no matter what they are. However, if we are indulging often in certain negative felings such as feeling put down, put upon, cheated, angry, hateful, etcetera, we may want to ask ourselves how much of our precious time we want to devote to those feelings.
ELEVEN. (a football eleven). Imagine a quarterback with his team pushed all the way back to their own 5 yard line. He desperately wants to score a touchdown, so he keeps throwing long passes. The defense, sensing what is happening, defends easily, and the quarterback fails. If he had been content to throw short passes, he might have picked up 6, 8, or 10 yards every play. The point: take what the defense gives you. Be satisfied with small steps of progress toward your ultimate goals and desires if, as is usually the case, you cannot achieve them all at once.
TWELVE. (Rhyming word: shelf). Imagine a trophy shelf with all the trophies signifying a person’s accomplishments. But they are all jumbled in together and look like a mess. On the wall nearby is a simple, elegant plaque which states that this person had reasonable values . . . and lived by them. In the final analysis we are probably happiest if we know who we are – know what we value – and live accordingly.
THIRTEEN. (Rhyming word: hurting). Imagine a person with a sprained wrist. He wanted to do carpentry that day, but cannot. First he bandages the wrist, but then immediately turns his attention to other activities which he can enjoy without use of his wrist. The point: do not ignore the parts of your life that are going poorly. Take at least one step toward improving things. Then consider turning your attention to matters which are going well and which can bring you some happiness now.
FOURTEEN. (Rhymimg word: courting). Imagine two lovers (courting) on a park bench. But they are not busy courting; they are staring at some people doing T’ai Chi in the park. T’ai Chi, an eastern martial art form, involves slow, elegant motions. The point: We are probably more efficient and happier when we do things in a moderately-paced, well-considered, elegant way than when we do things in a rushed, hectic, helter-skelter way.
FIFTEEN. (Rhyming word: lifting). Imagine a weight lifter, looking in the mirror and comparing himself to other weight lifters. The idea here has to do with comparisons. When we compare ourselves to others, we get one of two results. Either we judge ourselvs superior and feel vain or we judge ourselves inferior and feel deprived . Neither feeling will make us happy. Some comparisons are inevitable, but it will be in our better interest to limit them if we can.
- Review all fifteen principles twice a day for two days.
- After the second day, select a shorter list of between five to eight of the principles which seem most meaningful for you.
- Continue to review your selected list twice a day. Give the ideas a chance to sink in the the point that you can feel them intuitively or “in your gut.” It is not enough to just repeat the words (e.g. “It’s all a bonus . . . . . yeah, it’s a bonus”). Stay with the thoughts until you can really feel them. Just one of these principles can lift your spirits at any given time. Principle #9 emphasizes that happiness takes some hard work and self-discipline. Work conscientiously at this exercise and . . . feel happier.
Michael R. Slavit, Psychologist, Ph.D., ABPP, is Board Certified in Cognitive Behavioral Psychology. This column is not intended to be a substitute for help from a qualified professional.