What is the key, essential component of happiness?
First, let's explore what causes suffering. Some time ago, there was a woman with whom I worked who really struggled with life. She felt as though she was too heavy and thus unattractive, and she was very self-critical of this fact. She once related to me an episode that had occurred 10 years prior to the time that I worked with her. Her husband made a comment about her weight which wasn't kind. He immediately took it back, apologizing profusely for what he had said, but in her head she kept hearing the hurtful remark again and again. His words stayed in her mind and unfortunately, she added to this barrage of negativity by commenting upon her own weight over and over in very damaging ways. What we worked on together wasn't so much fixing what had happened, because her husband truly was sorry for what he had said and the hurtful event had occurred 10 years prior. Instead, what I helped her to discover was that her suffering was coming from her own thoughts. When she was thinking negative thoughts or making negative comments about herself, she suffered. When I persuaded her to stop thinking these negative thoughts and making these negative comments about herself and to just enjoy life, her suffering dissipated.
The Fresh Air Cure
I have been a practicing clinical psychologist for over 25 years. On occasion, I work with clients who are struggling to deal with very challenging situations. From time to time, I get calls from people who feel like they are going to die and want my help. So what do I do? Simple: I do the same thing I have always done. After listening to the individual, I ask them to go for a walk outside, just spending time outdoors in the fresh air. If at the end of their walk, the person still feels upset, I tell them to give me a call again. In my 25 years, I have never gotten that second call.
Pain and Suffering: Fraternal Twins
This works because all of our suffering comes from our mind. Yes, we have painful experiences, but there's a difference between suffering and real pain. Pain is a physical or emotional sensation that we feel immediately, and then it passes. Suffering is the negative inner monologue that accompanies the pain, the thoughts we play over and over again. All of our suffering stems from the harmful mental stories that we create. When we stop the negative thoughts and just "be," then all is well. Yes, we experience hard times, but there is no situation we can't handle as long as we learn not to react by creating a deleterious inner commentary.
Be Still, Be Present, Be Happy
There are two, interrelated key ingredients to achieving happiness. The first is mental stillness. We don't suffer when we're not creating negative mental stories. When we quiet our minds, all of our suffering ends. The second key is being present. When we are present, we can always find beauty in something. One can be imprisoned in solitary confinement, and yet be mindful of the magnificent rays of the morning sun as they illuminate everything they touch. This experience can still be beautiful. Yes, this example may be the exception, but as long as one person on the planet is able to find happiness in such a thing, it means it is also a possibility for you and me. Be present and be still, for only then will happiness, instead of being something elusive, something that comes only fleetingly, be our natural state.
I want you to take a challenge. Go somewhere outside where you can find absolute quiet and allow yourself to be totally quiet and free from thought for a few minutes. Choose a bird, a tree, a flower, or anything else you can be 100% attentive to and watch. Don't analyze this object; instead, just listen to it, watch it, and just be with it. Your mind is still and you are being present with the thing you have chosen. After the exercise is over, I want you to reflect upon this time. Were you sad or depressed? If you truly were present with your chosen object, what you will find is that you felt happy and at peace. This feeling may have only lasted for a short period of time, but for many people it's enough to get a sense of "Wow, I can do this!" and trust me, you can! The key components of happiness are keeping our mind still and being present. When we learn these things, we enter the world of happiness. Any among us can do it, it just takes effort.