A few years ago my mother had to do painful exercises for several weeks following knee replacement surgery. Her husband had to do all the cooking during her recovery. It was hard for both of them, but they were good-natured about it. Mom accepted the necessity of the exercises and did her best. Her husband learned to cook simple meals and their friends brought casseroles. In the evenings they watched funny movies with happy endings to keep their spirits up. A few months later they enjoyed walking on the beach during a family vacation.
This story illustrates two perspectives on happiness that go back to the ancient Greek philosophers. One perspective says that a happy life includes mostly positive emotions and more pleasure than pain. The key to happiness, from this perspective, is to seek out what you truly enjoy and avoid the things you don’t. The other perspective says that a deeply satisfying life is based on purpose and direction. To be truly happy, you have to devote yourself to whatever gives your life a sense of meaning, even when doing so is stressful and unpleasant.
Fortunately, we don’t have to decide which of these two perspectives is correct. Research shows that both forms of happiness contribute to good mental health. Positive emotions, like interest, delight, pride, and love, have many benefits. They encourage us to explore the environment, learn and grow, be creative, and bond with others. They increase resilience to stress. But a life devoted only to positive emotions would be incomplete. We also need to contribute to things we care about: relationships with family and friends, work, a community, or other worthy causes.
This means that for a balanced approach to psychological health, we should cultivate both pleasure and purpose. Practicing mindfulness will help.
First, mindfulness cultivates positive emotions. Paying attention to whatever is happening in the present moment, with an openhearted, nonjudgmental attitude, increases enjoyment of daily life. If you’re walking on the beach on a beautiful summer morning, you’ll appreciate it more if you’re mindfully present: hearing the surf, watching the shore birds, smelling the seaweed, feeling your feet in the sand. If you’re at home doing painful exercises, you’ll find the moment more tolerable if you’re mindfully accepting the pain rather than fighting it or trying to distract yourself. In fact, a recent study suggests that you’ll do more of the exercises if you’re mindful. Then you’ll feel pleased and proud.
Second, mindfulness keeps you in touch with why you’re doing what you’re doing, even when it’s uncomfortable. If you’re learning difficult skills or doing painful exercises for the sake of something that really matter – like being a loving spouse, or regaining the ability to walk on the beach with your family – mindfulness will reveal the deeper satisfaction of acting on your true priorities. And if you discover that you’re doing unpleasant things for no good reason, mindful awareness will help you make wise choices about what to do differently.
Mindful awareness takes practice. Start with everyday activities and ordinary moments. Notice what you can see and hear. Smell the scents in the air. Feel the sensations in your body as you move around. Observe your breath. As best you can, let go of judgments and criticisms and adopt an attitude of friendly curiosity. Do fun activities and savor the pleasantness. Do important, difficult tasks and accept the unpleasantness with kindness. Over time, there’s a good chance you’ll notice increases in your level of happiness.
Some of this material was excerpted and adapted from The Practicing Happiness Workbook by Ruth Baer, New Harbinger Publications, 2014. For more info see www.ruthbaer.com.