In my private therapy practice
, clients often ask me, “What’s the key component of happiness?” My answer is both easy and very complicated, and I’ll explain why in this post.
First, let’s explore what causes suffering. There was a woman I once worked with who struggled with her weight. Felicia felt fat and unattractive, and she was very self-critical. During one of our sessions, she shared about a time 10 years ago, when she and her husband, Dave, were on a dinner date. As they sat together, Dave made an unkind remark about her weight. He immediately felt guilty for his comment and apologized. But as much as she tried, Felicia couldn’t forgive him. She told me how much his words hurt, and how they added to a long list of self-critical thoughts that constantly swirled in her head. Although Dave’s transgression took place only once, a decade later, his words continued to consume her thoughts.
What we worked on together wasn’t so much fixing what had happened—her husband had expressed regret for what he said 10 years earlier and had not repeated the same mistake since. Rather, what I helped her discover was that her suffering was coming from her own thoughts. When she focused on negative thoughts, she suffered. We worked on ways to get her to stop thinking negative things and just enjoy life. As a result, her suffering dramatically decreased.
Now you may be thinking, “Hmm, I don’t know about this. I need some more proof.” Perhaps the best evidence I can provide comes from my additional experiences as a clinical psychologist in private practice.
Clients see me because they're struggling, and I help them lead beautiful lives. I’ve been in private practice for about 25 years, and while I do other things like speaking, writing books, and appearing in the media, this is my primary job.
You can probably imagine that with over 25 years of experience, I’ve worked with clients that have had very challenging lives or are experiencing extremely adverse circumstances. Some of my clients have needed my help right away. Like many psychologists, I sometimes get those calls where clients tell me that they want to die. So what do I do? I’ll start by sharing what I don’t do. I don’t spend half an hour or an hour on the phone with them, and I don’t arrange a last-minute meeting where they drive down to my office and see me right away.
Instead, for a quarter-century, I've had them follow a simple three-step formula. First, I listen to them in order to evaluate what’s going on. Second, I ask them to take a half-hour walk—or even better, an hour—in order to spend time being outdoors. Third, if, after they return from their stroll, they still feel upset, I tell them to give me call. I have yet to ever receive a second call.
So how does spending time in nature for thirty minutes pull a person back from the brink of doing something drastic? It’s because all of our suffering comes from our mind. Yes, we have painful experiences, but there’s a difference between suffering and pain.
Pain is a physical or emotional sensation that you feel immediately and then it passes. Meanwhile, suffering is the subsequent story that accompanies said pain. Thoughts you play in your mind such as “This is terrible,” “This hurts,” and “How long will this last?” are examples of suffering. The mental stories that you create, whether you call yourself fat—as in the case of Felicia—or you tell yourself that you want to die—as in the case of my clients on the brink—all come from within. Which means that you're in control of diminishing these self-destructive thoughts as well.
When you stop the mental commentary and you simply remain in the present, then all is well—it’s that simple. All of your suffering is from the mental stories that you create. No doubt that you'll experience hard times. But, in most instances, they’re manageable. In fact, you can handle nearly anything as long as you learn not to create a story with what’s going on.
I’ve known people who are in prison, dying from cancer, severely deformed, and experiencing tremendous chronic pain. And among this hardy lot, I’ve met individuals who’ve been happy because they don’t create a story about what they are going through. While they’re doing everything in their power to improve their circumstances, they’re not allowing the external world to keep them from loving life.
The Two-Part Happiness Formula
First, as I previously pointed out, suffering is primarily an inside job, which means that ending it comes from within as well. When your mind is still, all is well. Once you stop creating stories, suffering stops. In other words, suffering resides in your mind, so when you quiet your mind the suffering ceases.
Second, you must remain present. When you reside in “what is,” there is always something beautiful to witness. You can be locked in prison in solitary confinement, yet you can find beauty in the sliver of sunshine that enters your cell. A dying person’s heartbeat can be a soothing sound in the final moments of his or her life. Yes, these may seem like extreme examples, but an axiom I follow is that as long as one person on the planet is able to experience happiness under severe circumstances, the possibility is there for you and me as well. When you are present and still, happiness—instead of being something elusive and something that comes and goes—will be your natural state. Eventually, with time and practice, you’ll see that life goes well. If you’re still not convinced, I encourage you to try the following:
Find an outdoor space that is quiet, such as a park, a meadow, or a beach. Then, choose an object from nature such as a bird, a tree, a flower, or anything you can be 100 percent present with. Take a minute, or ten if you can, and watch it, listen to it, and just be with it. When a thought comes up, just let it pass, and redirect your focus on the object. Once you're done, reflect on what took place. Were you sad, or were you depressed? If you’re truly present with something, what you’ll find is that you are happy and at peace. All is well. Yes, it may have only been for a short period of time but for some people that’s enough to get a taste of “Wow, I can do this!”
Keeping your mind still and present is a skill. It’s actually something that you had as a child. In fact, young children are able to maintain this state all day. But as we've developed, we've forgetten how to do this. But if we relearn this skill and go back to what I would call “our natural state,” then we are happy. The good news is that the state of being happy comes from within and is accessible to each and every one of us.