I’ve spent the last five years studying happiness. My goal has been to translate psychology and philosophy into exercises for happiness. Through this process, I discovered that happiness means connecting well with existence and that there are five ways (or muscles) that help you do it:
Before you start doing anything to increase your happiness, it makes sense that you also stop doing anything that decreases it. Dishonesty decreases happiness.
So, start paying attention to the specific vocabulary you are using — often unconsciously — in everyday conversation. There are certain words that instantly turn what you are saying into a lie. The two biggest culprits are always and never. I call this “always neverland.” Phrases like this come up a lot in relationships:
“You never listen” — lie.
“You always forget to take the trash out” — lie.
More often than not, these are exaggerations, and exaggerations are lies, plain and simple — unintentional though they may be. Lies demoralize (think “de-moral-lies”). The more specific you can be, the more truthful you can be, the less demoralizing your language is, and the better your connection to existence will be.
That’s a nice little warm-up.
Reach out and touch somebody. Human warmth and touch increases the amount of hemoglobin and oxytocin in your body so you get more oxygen and feel-good hormones and less inflammation as cortisol gets reduced. But don’t worry: If there’s not someone around to hug, you can give a mental cuddle with some empathy:
Think of someone who is in a situation that either sucks or is amazing: a situation that has given them a really palpable emotion. What is that emotion? Hate, anger, despair, loneliness, sadness, excitement, delight, joy, disappointment?
You may not have been in that exact same situation, but you can relate to your own experience of that universal human emotion. Imagine what that emotion would feel like in your own experience, and now imagine the other person feeling that emotion. You just exercised some empathy.
In my book, The Happiness Animal, I call this muscle “tolerance.” Curiosity is one manifestation of tolerance. You may notice a physical reaction when you see an inked-up fellow if you don’t like tattoos. That reaction may be repulsion because of what you associate with tattoos (common misconceptions include violence, dirtiness, crime, drug use, and unemployment).
Now, try asking a question about the tattoo. What do the words in the tattoo mean? What is the dolphin for? More often than not, I’ve found people come to life when you ask them about their tattoos, and any repulsion based on your own snap judgments dissipates.
If you are already tattooed or down with people who are, you can try this with any other type of taboo or marginalized group: drug addicts, religious groups, communists, socialists, Republicans, Democrats, even Donald Trump.
These are abstract labels that come with a distinctive handful of mental associations that depends on your own beliefs and upbringing. But who are the people behind the labels? What’s unique about each of them? What’s their story?
Curiosity is a much happier experience than judgment. So repeat this mantra from Just Like Me by Harry Palmer anytime you feel the twang and tension of judgment as you react to a label, tattoo, or anything that instinctively repulses you:
Just like me, this person is seeking happiness in his/her life.
Just like me, this person is trying to avoid suffering in his/her life.
Just like me, this person has known sadness, loneliness, and despair.
Just like me, this person is seeking to fill his/her needs.
Just like me, this person is learning about life.
Look at the person. Notice their movements. Start at their feet and check each body part. Notice any movements in different parts of their body. What are they doing with their hands? Their fingers? Their shoulders? What internal feelings do you think those bodily movements relate to? Do you notice any movements in them that you recognize in yourself?
OK , let’s move on.
I want you to think of two sentences:
Start your first sentence with the words “I imagine.” End this sentence with any thought/experience you are having right now that didn’t originate in one of your five senses.
e.g., I imagine I need to get back to work. I imagine I am going to have to work late tonight.
Start your second sentence with the words “I notice.” Finish that sentence with something tangible you can actually validate with at least one of your five senses.
e.g., I notice pressure under my right foot. I notice traffic noise coming from outside.
The purpose of this exercise is to increase your awareness that most “thoughts” are entirely imagined. Distinguish reality from imagination to stay connected to existence.
The first step to becoming more courageous is to accept your fears.
Think of a fear you have. Notice the sensations in your body when you think of that fear. What is the root of that fear? Here’s an example:
I fear not having a job.
The sensations I feel when I consider this fear include a hollow feeling in my stomach and reflux in my throat.
The root of this fear is the fear of not being able to survive without money.
The root of that fear is the fear of dying.
The capital fear (the head of all fears) is the fear of dying. I haven’t met a fear I haven’t been able to trace back to a parent fear of death. Do this quick exercise anytime you notice a fear. Keep noticing those feelings and stay with them. The longer you stick with the sensations, noticing the specific manifestations in your body, the more those bodily sensations will get processed by your body and slowly decrease.
Don’t try to diminish or avoid them. Accept them, experience them, and be aware of them, and they will disappear. It won’t take more than a few minutes for each bodily sensation to diminish. By looking head-on at your fears, you reduce their power over you.
Originally published at www.mindbodygreen.com on May 25, 2016.