How to Be Happy (1)

In my last post, I wrote about the stories we tell ourselves and their impact on our lives. So, how does one let go of these stories that they have been living in for so long? Let us explore one way in this post.

Letting go of stories is an act of love. Self love, that is. Socrates, at his trial said “an unexamined life is not worth living.” To some this may sound elitist because, as the argument goes, most of us are trying to survive and don’t have time to examine our lives, but that doesn’t mean our lives are worthless. Of course not! What I hope Socrates meant is that if we don’t take the time to differentiate fact from interpretation and judgment, then we are depriving ourselves from being happy or happier. We are depriving ourselves from love.

One story I tell myself is that I’m old. I’m 59. This mindset clouds my interactions with people and keeps me separated from a full life. When I first moved to Chicago, I noticed that this was a vibrant city full of young people, at least in my neighborhood. The manager of the small construction project in my condo and my Pilates instructor were the same age as my daughter. The branch manager of the non-profit where I volunteer was younger than I by at least a decade. At first, it was difficult for me to establish good relationships because this number kept repeating in my mind and kept me away from these people. Gradually, I was able to realize this was my own judgment, not something they were imposing on me. They wanted to have meaningful conversations. They didn’t care that I was the same age as their parents.

One way to let go of the stories we tell ourselves is to observe our thoughts. In the hustle and bustle of daily life, this is almost impossible. Who has time to observe one’s thoughts when kids are crying, bosses are making demands, traffic noise is deafening, and the lines at the grocery store are long? This is exactly why we need to take time to breathe consciously lest we turn into robots. Establishing an intentional breathing practice is essential for bringing clarity and meaning into our lives.

With such a practice, we give ourselves the space and time to observe our thoughts. It really doesn’t take much to start such a practice, perhaps just one or two minutes of intentional breathing while observing what goes on in our minds. This can be accomplished before getting out of bed in the morning, waiting in line at the grocery store, or even during our daily commute. (I am not advocating that you go into full on meditation while you are driving, mind you.)

The important thing here is to recognize what we are telling ourselves. Are these stories helping or hurting us? Becoming aware of these thought patterns is the first step to changing them, if they are not helpful.

Once I realized that my story, the one about my age, is keeping me from forming friendships with all people, I also realized that I was giving up opportunities to learn, to laugh, to love. I was giving up the opportunity to expand my life, keeping it small and controlled, how sad! To be sure, I still catch myself thinking that I am much older than most of the people with whom I interact on a daily basis. The difference now is that I don’t let those thoughts determine my actions. As a result, I now meet and interact with amazing people with life experiences so different than my own. I open my mind and heart to them so that I can learn from them. And, it turns out they are interested in learning from me, how delightful!

Change is difficult for all of us, but it doesn’t have to be monumental or sudden to have a positive impact. By starting with one intentional breath every so often during the day, or setting aside a few minutes for intentional breathing, we start the process of change. We give ourselves time and space to recognize our thought patterns. We give ourselves the motivation and courage to change those patterns if they do not serve us. We take a giant leap in our pursuit of happiness.

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