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Surprising Insights About Lasting Happiness

We all want to be happy, but happiness can be fleeting. These surprising insights hold the key to lasting happiness.

Happiness Doesn’t Last Long

On Sunday mornings, I work out with my trainer, Emily. This is a pretty recent and very positive development in my life. With her unwavering support and perfectly timed pushes, she’s teaching me, building my strength and my confidence, and helping me reach my goals (Michele Obama arms and 10 push ups). I find myself (surprisingly) looking forward to the creative tortures she designs for me each time. Today’s wrapped up with a grueling round of conditioning: 6 45 second intervals of explosive exercises. At the end, with my heart slamming and breath panting, we fist bumped, and I prepared for my short walk home. My heart continued to pound the whole way, and it took a solid 15 minutes or so for my breath to fully return to normal and for my body to achieve homeostasis. But I’m so glad it did.

Homeostasis is defined as a self-regulating process by which an organism maintains a relatively stable internal environment in the face of external changes. In other words, it’s our body’s ability to return to baseline when things throw it for a loop. It’s the reason my heart rate and breathing slowed this morning. Can you imagine what would happen if our bodies weren’t designed to do this? If our heart rates didn’t settle back down after being elevated by exercise or adrenaline? At this morning’s intensity, I’d be dead within the week!

So homeostasis is a good thing…and it’s one of the reasons lasting happiness is so hard to find. 

It’s Impossible for Happiness to Last

Homeostasis isn’t just a goal for our physiological systems. It applies to our psychological ones as well. That means that when something happens that makes us happy, say we get something we really want like a new item or achievement, the high fades pretty quickly, our brains seek homeostasis, and we return to baseline. This makes happiness elusive. We’re not going to get – and keep – happiness indefinitely, contrary to what a lot of people believe is possible. 

When you stop and really think about it, this is a brilliant design feature from Mother Nature. If happiness were something we could easily get and keep forever, we’d lose our drive. We’d have no reason to strive for anything again and would basically become big lumps of nothing. Thus, happiness, by nature, is fleeting. 

Yet, the title of this post is surprising insights into lasting happiness. And, yes, I do believe lasting happiness is possible. It just requires a complete reengineering of how we think about it.  

What Is Happiness? 

Through a series of luck and good fortune, I ended up being able to attend the TEDxKC event on Friday. If you’re not familiar, this kind of event involves a series TED style talks in which dynamic speakers spread big ideas in 18 minutes or less. It was inspiring and expansive. One of my favorite talks was by Arthur Brooks, a professor at Harvard School of Business, prolific author, podcast host, and happiness expert. Dr. Brooks spoke about the keys to lasting happiness, and I could not wait to share his insights. 

The first adjustment in our thinking we have to make when it comes to lasting happiness is how we even define what happiness is. Dr. Brooks made the point that happiness is multi-faceted and that it includes so much more than the pursuit of pleasure or the experience of the simple emotion we call “happiness,” both of which so many people equate it to. According to him, there are three components to real happiness: enjoyment, meaning & purpose, and satisfaction. 

Without spoiling his entire talk (it’s well-worth watching when it’s available online), he highlighted a couple paradoxical points. Besides the one we’ve already covered – that we are designed to return to baseline so a perpetually elevated state is biologically impossible – he challenged another widely belief: unhappiness is bad. The cultural myth that we can – and should – be happy at all times is backwards and harmful. It’s not possible, for one, and it diminishes the role of pain in happiness. 

Wait. Isn’t happiness really the absence of pain? No. Pleasure is the absence of pain, and pleasure is just one tiny slice of the happiness pie. Pleasure is a sense of “I like this” in this moment. It factors into the enjoyment aspect of happiness if you think of enjoyment as pleasure + a recognition and appreciation of the moment and a cognitive appraisal that “this is good.” Enjoyment alone, however, is not enough for lasting happiness. We get sated and return to baseline. Think of the first bite of a yummy pie with ice cream compared to the 100th. You get bored of the flavor and bloated with fullness. Enjoyment decreases over time. More is not better, and the constant chase of pleasure will actually end in pain.

That’s why all of the leading thinkers and researchers in the field of happiness, from ancient philosophers to modern scientists, know that lasting happiness includes more than just feeling good in the moment and that pain is unavoidable and, perhaps, even beneficial. 

When we consider meaning and purpose, a foundational contributor to our happiness and wellbeing, we must consider that it often arises from pain or hardship or, flatly put, unhappiness. It is often our struggles that illuminate our path toward purpose. Heartbreak and hardship can provide the impetus for our passion and for work that gives us a sense of meaning. And without that preceding pain, we may not find this important component of happiness. 

Pain, struggle, and unhappiness are integrally interwoven with satisfaction as well. I can tell you that I decidedly did NOT enjoy struggling through pull-ups this morning with Emily. It was physically hard and uncomfortable. Mentally, it made me aware of my current weakness, and I had to fight the urge to give up (not that she would let me). Yet, I endured that displeasure, that discomfort because I know that on the other side of it lies a sense of satisfaction. I know that I will be happy when I can knock out those push ups in the not so distant future. That feeling of pride, worth it-ness, and accomplishment contributes to our happiness and wellbeing, but it demands a measure of unhappiness to get there. 

If we can take these insights into account – embracing the fleeting nature of happiness and its intricate link to unhappiness – we may become freer, especially in the face of inevitable pain and discomfort, knowing that it is an important and recurring stop on the path to lasting happiness, a prerequisite to meaning and satisfaction. We can challenge ourselves to expand and be willing to embrace this dark side knowing that pain and joy are two sides of the same coin. And in doing so, we may just find more happiness overall. 

“The key to happiness is not being rich; it’s doing something arduous and creating something of value and then being able to reflect on the fruits of your labor.”
– Arthur C. Brooks

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Making Sense of the Senseless

How can we make sense out of tragedy, trauma, and loss? How do we move forward in the face of unthinkable events?

Coping with tragedy, trauma, and loss

It’s Memorial Day in the U.S., which is celebrated with 3 day weekends, BBQs, and the opening of swimming pools. The true meaning of the holiday, however, is much more somber. It’s a day dedicated to remembering those who died during military service, for honoring their sacrifice and that of their loved ones. For me, personally, it marks the anniversary of my brother’s unexpected death 11 years ago. This year, in the wake of events centering on violence in schools and in my neighborhood, it feels particularly heavy, weighted by the unnecessary loss of life and those who must carry on with broken hearts. 

I intended to write this week about supporting someone with mental health issues to close out Mental Health Awareness month. That’s a worthwhile topic, and one the Peak Mind community asked for. I just can’t bring myself to do it, though, given everything else. 

Instead, I find myself thinking about how we make sense out of tragedy, trauma, and loss. How do we move forward in the face of unthinkable events?

I don’t have the answers for addressing the systemic issues that lead to such horrific tragedies as war and school shootings. I don’t even have all of the answers for how to cope with the fallout of these events or the loss of a loved one or the myriad other bad things that can leave scars on our lives. I do, however, have a knowledge base that sheds some insights, and I’m willing to share some of my own experiences on the off-chance that it helps someone find hope in the darkness. 

Understanding what causes tragedy and trauma

It’s human nature to want the world to make sense. We like nice, neat explanations for events, and we want our cause-and-effect to be linear and straight forward. We like to think that good things happen to good people and that people who do bad things are evil. We like to think that it won’t happen to us and that there is always a clear, easy to understand reason why things happen.

We like to think the world is just and logical. Unfortunately, it isn’t.

When things happen that violate our idea of how the world works, our foundation gets shaken. We desperately need things to make sense again.  

In the aftermath of tragedy, our minds look for an explanation. They want to assign blame. If we can finger point to something that is clearly at fault, better yet if that some one or some thing is evil or greedy or broken or flawed, it restores our sense of balance. It rights the topsy turviness that happened in our worlds. 

The issue is that it may not be that simple. 

The assumptions we make about who is to blame may be faulty or myopic. They may not take into account all of the possible contributing factors. As tempting as it might be to put all of the blame on one person (or group) or one factor, my experience is that it’s rarely that simple. 

We need to understand what happened in a way that allows us to move forward. That likely means that we must expand our thinking and question our assumptions. We must side-step faulty logic that leads to inaccurate or unhelpful conclusions. We must be intentional about meaning making because the story we tell ourselves about what happened, why it happened, and what it means about us, others, and the future will greatly shape our path.  

It’s not black or white

There is a kind of therapy called DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy) that is based on the concept of dialectics, which are two opposing things that are both true.

Dialectics are hard for our minds to navigate because they seem contradictory. Logic holds that if one is true then the other is not. Yet, they both are. The challenge is to simultaneously hold these contradictions and seek the broader truth, the one in which they both exist. We must resist the urge to throw one out in the interest of simplicity. We must resist the EITHER OR and embrace the BOTH AND mentality instead. 

Today, I am embracing the dialectics. I find myself torn between seeing the world as utterly f*ed and seeing the incredible opportunities ahead, between being angered, disgusted, and devastated by the realities that our world is terrible and simultaneously awed and grateful for the wonder of that same reality.

Bad things happen to good people AND there is justice.

People are suffering AND there is beauty in the world.

We are on opposing sides AND we can collaborate.

I will never be the same AND I will find a way to have joy again.

Feel your feelings

It’s normal to feel a range of emotions following a foundation-shaking experience. We may feel sad, angry, guilty, anxious, confused, disgusted, and/or dozens of other ways. We may feel like we are going to be crushed by our pain or feel a strong urge to numb. As difficult as it may be, we must feel our feelings but not wallow in them. We must make space for them but not be buried by them. We will not be able to heal otherwise.

I remember walking in the hospital parking lot with my dad while my brother was on life support. “Do you want a xanax?” he asked me. “No,” I told him. “This is supposed to hurt.” 

I’m not a masochist, but I am a psychologist. I had spent years at that point teaching people how important it is to experience rather than avoid even the most difficult, painful emotions. I am not judging my father for needing a xanax in that moment. I have no idea the magnitude of a parent’s pain in the face of losing a child. I’m not a parent myself. All I know is that I viewed my pain as important. It signaled to me how much I loved my brother and how much my world was being devastated. And in that moment, I had the capacity to hold my pain and weather the storm. In the moments since, I have continued to embrace the pain when it arises, to acknowledge that love and pain are two sides of the same coin, and to use that pain to fuel some of my actions and efforts. 

In the face of personal or collective tragedy, it is important that we feel our emotions, that we heed their message, and that we consider what they are directing us to do. Perhaps that means finding a way to honor our lost loved ones, finding a way to take meaningful action to affect real change, or finding the courage to experience joy again even with the heartache.

Wise mind

One of the concepts I appreciate from DBT is called Wise Mind, which is the overlap of logic and emotions. When we operate from Wise Mind, we acknowledge and feel our feelings but are not ruled by them, and we listen to and are guided by logic but are not irrational, cold, or devoid of feeling. Finding this place of inner wisdom in the aftermath of tragedy or loss is important. Feel your feelings and take their message. Challenge your assumptions and faulty logic, but do let reason guide you. Take your next step with your head AND your heart. 

The choice point

Victor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, wrote a famous book called Man’s Search for Meaning. In it, he says “Between every 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.”

Modern day psychologists often refer to this as the Choice Point. This is the fork in the road. We do not necessarily get to choose what happens to or around us, but we do get to choose what we do in the face of it. We get to choose who and how we want to be. We may not get to choose what we feel, but we can choose to feel it. We may not have the power to affect the change we want to see in our world, but we can decide to point fingers and play the blame game or we can take meaningful action. We can choose to go down the path of nihilistic despair or the one of growth and strength, if only we have the courage. We can channel our pain into a life that is worth living, even in a world that doesn’t make sense

“Between every 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.”
Victor Frankl
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The World Feels Heavy: Reduce Cognitive Load

There are times in our lives when the weight of the world feels too heavy to bear. 

Things seem to be going wrong…

The world’s problems seem so large…

Right now, in the U.S., we’re moving toward one of the most dramatic and volatile and tense elections in our nation’s recent history.

Across the globe, and in our own homes, we’re facing challenges like the ongoing pandemic, climate change, racial injustice, economic and educational disparity, and so many other big, important challenges.

It can all feel….HEAVY. 

I’ll be the first to raise my hand and say that I feel overwhelmed at times. The weight of all of these challenges, coupled with the complexity and responsibility of my normal, day-to-day life can feel so tough to bear.

Today, I want to share a little formula I used just the other day, to help myself re-focus and regain a bit of mental balance in this complicated time.

You can’t focus on it all

Let’s begin with the reason WHY all of this feels so heavy: we are incredible human beings who are constrained by their own biology.

Our minds only have so much capacity.

When we simultaneously try to focus on too many things, solve too many problems, make too many decisions, our minds feel cluttered and overwhelmed.

The scientific term for this is ‘mental or cognitive load.’

We experience cognitive load when we exhaust the amount of working memory our minds have available at any given time.

It’s especially likely to happen when we’re already in a time of stress, when we’re tired, when we’re emotional, or when we’re not biologically taking care of ourselves.

We recently did a podcast episode on this very topic and included some tips for combatting cognitive load in your day-to-day life. You might want to check it out. (Episode 0196 | “How to create a more spacious mind”)

2 Questions

Today, I want to offer you the formula I used in the form of 2 questions that can help you move through complex and heavy times. This really helped me the other day, and it might just help you too.

When things start to feel too heavy to bear, I want you to ask yourself 2 questions:

First, ask yourself, out of everything that’s going on right now, which of it truly matters to me? 

Don’t think about what should matter to you or what matters to other people. If you’re being 100% honest with yourself, which of the challenges truly matter to you?

Second, ask yourself, out of everything that’s going on right now, which of these things are inside of my direct control?

Don’t worry about what you wish you could control. Similarly, don’t worry about what you think you could control if you worked hard to convince someone else to change their behavior.

Focus on what is inside of your direct control.

You basically end up with 4 boxes:

Narrow your focus

Because you are an incredible human being who is constrained by biology (working memory, in this case), the biggest thing you can do to lessen the overwhelm you’re feeling is to narrow your focus to the things that:

  • Truly matter to you
  • That you can directly control

If you look at the 4 boxes that result from asking yourself those 2 questions, the bottom 2 boxes are truly wasted energy. If it doesn’t matter to you, regardless of whether it’s under your direct control or not, let’s not waste any more precious energy worrying about it.

Consider this your permission to just let it go.

However, if it’s something that does truly matter to you and is inside of your direct control, here’s where your attention, focus, and effort belongs.

Your limited cognitive and personal effort will go much further if you’re focusing it on the things that fall in that upper-right quadrant.

Acceptance

I’m also going to invite you to ‘let go’ of the things that fall in that upper-left quadrant….but it’s likely to be a challenge.

You see, many of us have that list of things that truly matter to us, but they just aren’t inside of our direct control. 

Outcomes and challenges that are governed by other people’s actions frequently fall into this category.

Sure, we might be able to argue, bargain, and debate with that other person in order to try to influence their behavior, but the ultimate outcome isn’t inside of our direct control.

That’s tough.

In this case, your best bet is to practice acceptance. 

Acceptance means acknowledging the situation for what it is, without trying to fight against it or change it.

It doesn’t mean you agree with it, endorse it, like it, etc. It simply means, you acknowledge it.

On the surface, this seems like the dumbest concept. I know. But, when you unpack it, it really is powerful.

Acceptance is the opposite of avoidance. Acknowledging a situation means staring it right in the eye. Seeing it for what it is. Turning toward it for a moment to face it head-on. 

Psychological research tells us we have better outcomes when we face a situation, rather than avoiding it.

Acceptance also removes our involvement from a situation we can’t control.

Remember that limited amount of capacity each of us has, practicing acceptance helps us save our precious, limited energy for the things we can directly control, rather than wasting it on things we can’t.

Take care of yourself

Do what you can to protect your energy and your capacity. The world needs you, but you can’t solve it all or do it all alone. Self-care, REAL, effective self-care, is needed now more than ever. Self-care [by Design] is designed to help you take care of yourself so that you can be the best, most effective form of YOU, each and every day.

Focus on the areas in that upper-right quadrant. Protect yourself and your capacity by narrowing your focus.

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What Do Grammar and Math Have to Do with Acceptance of Pain?

What do grammar and math have to do with mindset and emotional pain? More than you might think!

There’s an old Buddhist saying: “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” Once you learn this, your quality of life will greatly improve. 

If you’ve ever heard me speak, or even had a conversation with me, you’ve probably heard me say, “Just because life gives you a cactus, doesn’t mean you have to sit on it.” Roughly speaking, don’t do things that cause yourself to suffer unnecessarily. Instead of touching the cactus, admire it. Let it bring you joy, not pain. 

I’m not ashamed to admit that I got that pearl of wisdom from a meme on Facebook. In fact, it’s probably the best thing I’ve ever gotten from social media.

Why is that?

Because that saying so beautifully illustrates a critical math problem for life:

Pain + non-acceptance = suffering

This is something they don’t teach you in school. This equation does a great job encompassing one of the hardest lessons to learn. We often have little choice or control when it comes to pain. And there are many types of pain: physical pain, emotional pain, psychological pain. It doesn’t matter. It’s all pain, and pain is an unavoidable part of life. It’s how we deal with the emotional distress and negative thoughts that have long-term positive or negative effects on our mental health.

Take this pandemic as a salient example. There are so many pain points for so many people, and pretending like that pain doesn’t exist or trying to “just be positive” the pain away really isn’t helpful.

What is the solution, then? Acceptance. 

Acceptance

In psychology, acceptance is really captured by the cliche, “It is what it is” sentiment. Acceptance doesn’t mean liking it or approving of it or wanting it. Acceptance means acknowledging things as they really are and not allowing pain to dictate your actions in unhelpful ways.

Now, this is where the grammar lesson comes in. Acceptance can be hard to wrap your head around and even more difficult, yet, to embody and implement. What you can do right now to start toward a place of acceptance, though, is to insert the mental period.

The Mental Period

I was talking with colleagues from the anxiety world last night, and one shared this cartoon that so perfectly exemplifies the mental period.

 

When you experience a pain point, notice it. Acknowledge it. Then insert the mental period. This helps solve the problem of dwelling which only causes more pain. 

“It’s raining.” PERIOD.

“My head hurts.” PERIOD.

“I’m scared.” PERIOD.

“I’m feeling burned out.” PERIOD.

“I’m feeling bored.” PERIOD.

“People are losing their jobs and their loved ones.” PERIOD.

“I feel heart broken.” PERIOD. 

“And I’m grateful.” PERIOD.

See how that works? Give it a try this week and see if this is a more helpful way of dealing with pain, whatever form it takes. Try it with a family member and keep each other accountable.

This does not mean be complacent. It means developing a powerful skill that is often a part of proven therapy approaches like cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), which refocuses your mind and does so much for your acceptance of pain to mitigate intense emotional suffering. 

And if you want more tips and tools for building acceptance skills and other aspects of psychological strength, our ASCEND program is for you. There’s a whole section on acceptance and other tools for taming your mind, in addition to modules on becoming the best version of you and creating a life you love. 

 

“Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.”

 – Dalai Lama

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How A Skinned Knee Had Me Feeling Grateful

I have to share a painful/slightly hilarious story with you.

I’m currently training for my first half-marathon. Yesterday, I was a little over 7 miles into my planned 8 mile run, and I was feeling good. Really good, in fact, so I picked up the pace. I crossed 75th Street, the busiest intersection on my route, and the next thing I know, my face was plummeting toward the ground.

  • “What’s happening?”
  • “I’m falling!”
  • “This is bad!”
  • “My face is going to hit the pavement.”
  • Images of teeth shattering (one of my front teeth is already half fake because of a bike riding/pavement situation as a kid)
  • “I’m hurt!”

Those were the thoughts that blinked through my mind in a jumbled instant.

Thankfully, I was able to stop my momentum at the last second, with my face hovering an inch from the ground, teeth intact. Stunned, I pushed myself up as a red minivan pulled into the nearby parking lot to make sure I was ok (did I mention it was a busy intersection? There were SO MANY cars stopped at the light, witnessing my fall.)

I was also able to stop my mind. Paying attention to the present moment I began to look around and breathe through my emotions.

Then another thought entered my mind: “You fell. You can’t run anymore.”

Fortunately, I was able to set that thought aside before it could take hold. I quickly assessed the damage, realized I was shaken but not seriously injured, got up, and finished my run. I even beat my goal time.

I was on a path I’d traversed 100 times. I didn’t feel myself trip or stumble. I didn’t see it coming. Yet, I fell. Hard. And it sucked. Yet I called in some positive emotions. 

And I got back up and persevered.

As I finished my run then bandaged myself up at home, I reflected on what happened, and this is where the feelings of gratitude came in. 

Gratitude is more than a throwaway emotion. It’s a verb. An active, not a passive thing. Truly being grateful, meaning that we are actively feeling and showing that gratitude, is really more of an action taking place.

I was feeling grateful to my past self for all the hard work she’s done to build psychological strength. That work was the reason I was able to get up and move forward so quickly. I had my eye on the goal and a clear sense of who I am.

  • I’m the kind of person who can handle painful things.
  • I’m the kind of person who doesn’t let my mind take me off course.
  • I’m the kind of person who isn’t afraid of failure.

I can handle painful things.

I don’t like pain. I mean, who does? Yet, aspects of psychological strength help me move through painful experiences without getting crushed. 

Yesterday, it was my mindfulness and acceptance skills that allowed me to notice and assess the painful sensations throughout my body without my mind turning up the pain volume. I didn’t realize when I started cultivating these particular skills just how crucial and widely applicable they’d be.

I don’t let my mind take me off course.

Minds are masterful excuse generators. They are SO GOOD at making up reasons and giving us justifications for not doing hard or uncomfortable things. Part of the psych strength work I’ve been focusing on lately is noticing when my mind is giving me those excuses, even the really plausible, completely rational sounding ones like “You just fell. You can’t run anymore.”

The reality is, I was stunned, slightly embarrassed, and in pain, but I wasn’t really injured. I saw the Excuse Generator for what it was and quelled it before it even had a chance to really get going.

I am not afraid of failure.

This one hasn’t always been true me. As a (mostly) recovered perfectionist, I’ve had to do a lot of work to redefine my relationship with failure so that it doesn’t hold me back, and it’s an ongoing process. Even after all the work I’ve done, deep down I still don’t like being wrong, making mistakes, or failing. It’s disappointing, and it hurts, especially when you’re feeling really confident and don’t see it coming.

That said, I am getting much better at picking myself up, dusting myself off, and persevering despite bruises (to my body or my ego). I’m steadily working on becoming the kind of person who Is not afraid to falter, who can own mistakes without internal angst, and who can even find the humor in my biggest fails.

I am grateful.

So here I am, a 40 year old woman with a bandaged up skinned knee and a deep sense of gratitude. I am grateful for the work I’ve done to build my psychological strength, for the community who supports my journey, and for the opportunity to help others.

I practice what we teach at Peak Mind every day, and it’s had a real impact on my life experience. I want the same for you.

That’s why we created ASCEND, our most comprehensive endeavor to date. ASCEND includes the best of everything we know that goes into building psychological strength.

You, too, can have a strong sense of who you are and be the kind of person you want to be. You, too, can pick yourself up and move forward through painful times. You can build skills like mindfulness and acceptance, and you can learn to find the bright spots even in the darkest moments. 

You won’t regret the effort you put into building psychological strength. I know I haven’t. 

“Failures are like skinned knees, painful but superficial.”
– Ross Perot