How can we nurture our innate ability to experience happiness? How do we define this elusive emotional state for ourselves? These are questions that many of us have considered, especially when we face situations like chronic stress, serious illness or loss.
“Just as pain serves as an alert for our bodies, we can be guided by being aware of commonly learned but ‘painful’ ways of thinking – or being with our feelings – that lead to unhappiness,” said Mark Roa, MA, LP, CBC, an integrative health psychologist at the Penny George Institute for Health and Healing.
In his work, Roa helps people who are facing health challenges, a disability, or significant anxiety or stress regain a sense of wholeness and happiness. “Those who study happiness recognize that it is associated with states of satisfaction and good self esteem, and also with the traits of gratitude and compassion,” Roa noted.
For Roa, happiness is strongly connected to our thoughts and our views of self. He has observed that all of us have learned thoughts and beliefs about ourselves, others and the world around us. Some of these are helpful and deserve our reinforcement, like maintaining the view that we are loveable. But others are very unhelpful, especially self-criticism or fear-based assumptions like, “I’ll never be good enough,” “They think I am weak and foolish,” or “I don’t fit in.”
“These seemingly automatic negative thoughts and beliefs require our gentle rethinking,” said Roa. This is the basis of cognitive therapy, but Roa believes that we can each incorporate some self-nurturing practices (see below) into our daily lives that can help foster feelings of happiness.
- Be aware of self-talk. Frequently ask yourself: What am I thinking? What am I feeling? Are these thoughts or feelings helpful to me or to others?
- Strive to adopt an intentionally compassionate, gentle and understanding view of yourself. This influences every aspect of your life positively.
- Practice mindfulness or being in the present moment. Learn how to let go of processing the past or anticipating the future.
- Consider, as needed, which is more detrimental to yourself: resentment or forgiveness.
- Don’t try to manage difficulties alone. Reach out to friends, loved ones and readily available supportive community resources. People truly want to help.
- In times of great distress, know that anxious and fear-based thinking increase the intensity of feelings, and intensity always passes.