Stop reciting the fairy tale myth
We know it all too well; boy wins the affections of a girl, the rightful princess gets her kingdom back, frog becomes a prince…We are motivated to seek and find happy endings. We are told to see the light at the end of the tunnel, the silver lining and the other side of the coin. However, this narrative is so ingrained in our psychology that we start to believe that if we are not happy all the time, something must be wrong with us.
In fact, Dr Hariss pulls the covers on the fact that happiness is not the natural state of all people, yet most of us walk around thinking that everyone is happy except us.
Stop rejecting your negative thoughts
Dr Harris suggests that it’s important to accept that negativity is a normal part of life and that we are not to blame for the turbulent emotions that can creep up inside us.
Instead of chasing constant happiness, it would be better to strive for a life of rich values and ethics — because happiness usually follows close behind. We evolved to survive, and that means we lean away from danger and avoid things that cause us pain. This is the basic operating system of the human brain — to survive and reproduce. Harris says that we can purge our survival-based negative thoughts by exercising mindfulness and taking committed action to reframe or let go of these thoughts.
“Happiness is not something ready made. It comes from your own actions.” ― Dalai Lama XIV
Having negative thoughts is not the real problem; it’s fusing and accepting those thoughts to the point where we can’t see that we’re thinking at all. We can’t totally remove negative thoughts, so when they pop up we need to diffuse them. An effective tactic is saying “thank you brain, I realise that you’re looking out for me, but I’ll take it from here” when a negative thought arises.
Stop avoiding your negative thoughts
It’s important to create space to experience the full spectrum of human emotions. Trying to repress negative feelings or drown them out does more harm — It allows the negative emotion to metastasize.
You can have a room in your house that you can retreat to, book in time with a therapist or put some headphones on to close yourself off from the world and any judgments. The point is to give yourself the room to look at your negative feelings — this is called ‘becoming the observer’, where you can look at your feelings from a bird’s eye view.
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” — Viktor Frankl
When we weed out our negative thoughts, it’s important not to struggle with them. Struggling with negative thoughts is like trying to fight your way out of quicksand, the more your struggle, the faster you sink. You need a new approach, and it’s as easy as doing nothing. Allow the pain of the negative thoughts to be present and realise that your brain is trying to keep you safe the best way it knows how; through fear and stress.
The Buddhists said the suffering = pain x resistance. We can’t control pain, it’s a reality of life, but we can control how much resistance we put up.
The Stoics affirm that we choose either to suffer or be happy by our responses.
“We cannot choose our external circumstances, but we can always choose how we respond to them.”
Building the skills of being happy
Lots of high performers use visualisation to increase their expertise. This is a method used by athletes, business coaches, musicians and more. There’s one thing to be careful of when engaging in visualisation; don’t visualise yourself as calm and confident when you are engaging in the activity. We don’t have control over our states of mind, and if we are engaging in an area that’s important to us, there’s a high chance that we’ll be feeling nervous and anxious. Instead of visualising yourself as confident and calm, visualise yourself as diffusing these emotions when they arise. This reaffirms the important skills needed to deal with negative thoughts and emotions instead of assuming that they won’t arise — because they will!
“I experienced a flash of panic, but that was to be expected. It never changes: even after 2 decades of negotiating for human lives you still feel fear” — Chris Voss, FBI hostage negotiator and founder of The Black Swan Group
Having negative feelings doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with you, it means that you’re human. Remember that happiness is a skill that revolves around accepting our negative thoughts but not fusing and identifying with them. We choose to be happy by taking committed action to diffuse and reframe negative thoughts, and by affirming our power to choose how we respond to negativity.