I’ve been on a journey to discover how to be happier for some years now. Initially it was pretty vague, but as the stressful events in my life ramped up, it took on a great deal more focus. Funny how that happens.
Happiness research has similarly taken off in the past decade or two, and I won’t attempt to be an expert on this. You can go wild reading the excellent work of other people who are experts in happiness. Some of my favourites are Sonja Lyubomirsky, and Dan Buettner who researches the Blue Zones. There are loads of others – I hope you read them all!
What I am an expert on is how I gradually learned how to happy. Yes, not how to be happy, but how to actively create happiness in my life. Happiness has not been a state that descended upon me from the Gods because of a lucky day or positive external events. It’s been a constant striving, continual learning, repeatedly picking myself up off the floor and putting one foot in front of the other type of journey. A bit like life! So that’s why I think of happy as a verb. To me, happy is a doing thing.
Also, for me, happy went in stages. I couldn’t incorporate the other happy things before the first few happy things. There are loads of ways to boost your mood but until you go back to the very basic, dirty, grubby, boring bits, the very foundation of how you think about yourself, I believe the other happy things will just float off like the proverbial water off a duck’s back.
So here was my very first Happy step: Being Kind (Or Gentle) To Myself.
I have written before about Impostor Syndrome. When I realised I had Impostor Syndrome, when it was verbalised for me, it was a revelation. That was many years ago. I worked with my Lovely Psychologist on many things not the least being Impostor Syndrome and the Voice In My Head. Do you know that voice? “You’re not good enough” “you don’t belong here” “You’re stupid” “You don’t know anything” “one day they will find out”.
One early morning, as I walked to the bus stop, thoughts swirling round my head in the usual ruminating pattern, I suddenly stopped and had an epiphany. I was creating my own prison. Nobody was keeping me in this unhappy, miserable state except for me! I felt like slapping myself. Except, I didn’t. I started treating myself as I would a very dear friend. Sometimes you want to slap that friend for the things they do. We’re so close to them that we can see everything, the good and the bad. But we don’t slap them, not physically at least. We might gently say to them that they’re being completely silly and suggest another way forward. We laugh with them. We cry with them. We sit quietly and listen. We’re gentle. We’re supportive. We hold their hand and say, I’m here with you.
The thing is, I wasn’t being there for myself.
Gradually, as I became kinder to myself, the Voice In My Head went away. First it was quieter. Then it disappeared. It pops up from time to time. I’m learning to notice it rather than give in to it. I notice how my heart starts to race (not in a good way) when the Voice talks to me. After the episode when the Voice appeared, I reflect on what happened. Why did it appear? what was going on? How can I do better next time? And most importantly, I don’t berate myself about how I behaved when the Voice took over. I was nervous. I said the wrong thing. I reacted. etc. No big deal! I noticed the Voice and gradually I’ll be able to manage it even if I’m in an important meeting or having a crucial interpersonal event.
I now tell all my patients that they have to be kind to themselves. Start with kindness. If you can’t be kind, at least be neutral. Everyone can at least hold their tongue, to themselves. Notice the things you did well. Be honest when you stuffed up – everyone does. Then move on. No big deal. You can try again. Kristin Neff is a self-compassion expert – I recommend you read what she’s written too.
So there you go. That was my first happy step. There will be more to come! I’d love to learn about your happy steps. Happiness is a personal journey, and what works for me may not be as important for you. Please comment below! x