A friend recently confided that she doesn’t feel as happy as she’d like to be in her life. She hasn’t been feeling at her best and wants to be happier. Her question to me was simple, “Where do I start?”.
I told her, “You’ve already started! The first step is the awareness that you are not as happy as you’d like to be.”
This blog is for my friend and for everyone who is feeling the same way. And I know that she isn’t alone.
Sadly, many of us go through life in a kind of default mode. As a society, we’ve come to know a happiness baseline much lower than our potential. Shawn Achor talks about this as the “cult of the average” in his popular TED Talk, The happy secret to better work.
So, for those of us who’ve identified that we aren’t as happy as we’d like to be and we’re ready to take action, let’s dive deeper into the question of where to start.
Recognize happiness is a journey
First, accept that happiness is a journey and we’re not likely going to magically have a permanent state of inner peace overnight. While this has happened to some people, like spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle, it is definitely not the norm for most of us. So, be patient with yourself and take it one step at a time.
Secondly, recognize that your life situation (as defined in Good Morning, Life!) is separate from you and is not directly the cause of your unhappiness. Oftentimes, we attribute our unhappiness to our external circumstances but that just takes the attention away from our internal state. While our life situation may not be ideal, and perhaps at some point we may choose to make changes (e.g. job, relationships), our happiness is mainly about our mindset and how we are perceiving and reacting to our external situation.
We also tend to blame others for our unhappiness. If those around you aren’t on the same happiness journey it can be tempting to feel that they are holding you back. Just remember, you have control over your behaviour, actions and words, but not others’. We must focus on ourselves. Having said that we may be surprised how, as our energy changes in a positive way, we may positively influence those around us. Positivity has a ripple effect.
After we’ve set the intention and prepared ourselves with an attitude of patience, we’re ready to practice!
Where to start – mindful awareness
Mindful awareness is where the happiness journey really begins. And here is a reminder that my definition of happiness is inner peace. Inner peace is already within us, it’s just clouded by our busy, compulsive, hectic thoughts. The thoughts created by our mind also have a negativity bias. When we practice mindful awareness, we become aware of our thoughts, separate ourselves from them and create more positive thoughts.
How to practice mindful awareness
There are lots of ways to practice mindful awareness. I recommend you find one that resonates with you and that you can easily build into a daily habit. Research on habits suggest that we start small (per popular books like James Clear’s Atomic Habits or BJ Fogg’s Tiny Habits). Here are a few suggested mindfulness practices to choose from that worked for me:
- Mindful journaling – Set aside regular time to write down your thoughts. You can include how you are feeling, and whatever is on your mind. Doing this helps make you aware of your thoughts and make sense of them. Incorporating gratitude and writing things you are thankful for is a great way to level up this practice as well. See more about the benefits of gratitude in my earlier blog. Journaling was a starting point for me because I could incorporate it into my busy schedule. I used my daily train commute to journal.
- Meditation – there are a lot of different types of meditations available, and lots of apps (Daily Calm, Headspace, Insight Timer, to name a few). To start with, commit to doing whatever time works with your schedule, whether it’s five, ten or fifteen minutes a day. Generally, meditation guides you to focus inward on your breath and your body, dropping you out of your thoughts (at least for a moment or two before the thoughts drag you back, lol). Figure out the time of day you want to practice and try to be consistent.
- Present moment awareness – Doing whatever you are doing fully attentive to the sights, sounds, and smells around you. Eckhart Tolle‘s books/guidance point to this awareness practice. You can do it while you are brushing your teeth, washing your hands or waiting in line. The key is that you are focused fully on observing and taking in the world around you with no judgments or thoughts. If you notice a thought or a judgement, let it pass by. Practicing present moment awareness via nature walks (or forest bathing) is a great way to incorporate the benefits of exercise and nature.
When I first started I practiced present moment awareness while reading Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth. But my habit really got traction when I started daily journaling. Now, I have a morning ritual that includes mainly meditation, but with a combination of present moment awareness, yoga and journaling. While I started small, now I can easily do thirty minutes every day. It’s like a gift to myself each morning and I can see the benefits throughout my day. If I miss a day I notice it. It’s kind of like brushing my teeth, it doesn’t feel right if I don’t do it.
Now it’s over to you! Pick the practice you’d like to start with (it really doesn’t matter which one) and now is the time to start. Inner peace is found in any moment that you become aware of your thoughts separate from yourself. There is no need to focus on any particular destination, just focus on the moment you are in. The moments will build on one another and moment by moment you will be building a happier life.
Once you’ve started and found some grounding in the present moment, you can dive into the other elements of the happiness formula, including Gratitude, Purpose, Balance, Do Your Best, Let Go, and Love.
For more details on the who, what, why, where, and how of mindfulness awareness, and for a glimpse of what it looks like to start a practice, check out Good Morning, Life!: One Woman Waking Up to Happiness, One Moment at a Time.