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What Is the Fundamental Key to Happiness?

Pause your thoughts and watch your suffering melt away.

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Though finding the key to happiness can be one of life’s most difficult and elusive tasks, it is still possible.

First, let’s explore what causes suffering. Why do we suffer?

Some time ago, I worked with a woman who struggled with life. She was a wonderful person, but one of the biggest sources of her unhappiness was her weight. 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 years ago when she and her husband were out on a dinner date. Her husband made a comment about her weight, which wasn’t kind. He immediately took it back and apologized profusely for what he had said, but in her head, she kept hearing the hurtful remark over and over. His words stayed in her mind, and unfortunately, she added to this barrage of negativity by repeatedly commenting upon her own weight in very damaging ways. Even though her husband had made the comment only once, 10 years prior, his words kept resonating in her brain, and his remark, along with her own negative self-criticism, caused her great suffering.

We did not work on fixing what had happened because her husband truly was sorry for what he had said and the hurtful event had occurred 10 years earlier. Instead, I helped her to discover 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 just to enjoy life, her suffering was no more.

In over 25 years as a clinical psychologist assisting people whose lives are difficult, I have had clients that struggle with very challenging situations. Sometimes, a client needs my help immediately. Like many psychologists, from time to time, I get calls from people who feel as if they are going to die and want my help. So what do I do? Do I spend an hour on the phone with them? Do I drive down to my office and meet them there immediately?

No. Instead, I do the same thing I have always done. I listen to the person and the situation he or she faces, and then I ask them to go for a walk outside for half an hour to an hour, just spending time outdoors in the fresh air. If after that time, at the end of the walk, the person still feels upset, I say give me a call again. In my 25 years, I have never received that second call! I have never had to hospitalize anyone.

Now, why does going for a walk and spending time in nature work? It’s because all our suffering comes from our mind. Yes, we have painful experiences, but there’s a difference between suffering from the stories in our head and real pain.

Pain is a physical or emotional sensation that we feel immediately, and then it passes. Suffering is the story and the dialogue that accompanies the pain, the thoughts we play over and over in our mind: “This is terrible. This hurts. Is this going to last forever? Oh no, oh no, oh no!” That is suffering.

Suffering is the mental story that we create. When we stop the negative thoughts and we just "be," then all is well. Really — all is well. Yes, we experience hard times, but those hard times are manageable; challenging and difficult, yes, but manageable. There is no event or situation we can’t handle as long as we learn not to react by creating a deleterious inner commentary.

I have known people who have been incarcerated, people dying from cancer, people severely deformed, and people suffering emotionally. Contrary to what one might think, these people were all completely happy because they didn’t create a negative mental story about what they were experiencing. They were doing everything in their power to make their situations better, and just as important, they were not allowing the events in their lives to keep them from loving life.

So, the key ingredients to achieving happiness are twofold, yet they are really two faces of the same coin: mental stillness and being present.

When our minds are still, all is well. We don’t suffer when we’re not creating negative mental stories. We must remember that these harmful stories are in our minds and when we quiet our minds, all our suffering ends.

When we are present, we can always find beauty in something. We can be locked up in prison and yet be mindful of the magnificent rays of the morning sun as they illuminate everything they touch. Listening to our heart beat so gently, so rhythmically, can be beautiful for someone preparing to die and feeling his or her heart beat for the last few times. Yes, these examples may be the exception, but as long as one person on the planet is able to find happiness in such a situation, it's a possibility for anyone.

Be present, be still. Only then will happiness be our natural state, instead of being elusive and fleeting. We will achieve our natural state when our minds are still and living in the here and now without negative mental commentary.

And if you still do not believe me, I want you to take a challenge. Go outside, preferably where you can find absolute quiet, perhaps a park, a meadow, or a beach. Go to this place and allow yourself to be totally quiet and free from thought for 5 or 10 minutes. Choose something—a bird, a tree, a flower, or anything else you can be 100 percent attentive to. Listen to this object, watch it, and just be with it. This is all I want you to do for the entire time. Don’t analyze the object; just be with it. Your mind is still, and you are being present with the thing you have chosen.

After the exercise is over, reflect upon this time. Were you sad? Did you feel depressed? If you truly were present with your chosen object, you will find that you felt happy and at peace. Yes, this feeling may have lasted only for a short period, but for some people, it’s enough to get a sense of “Wow, I can do this!” And trust me, you can!

Keeping your mind still and present is a skill. This is actually a skill we possessed as young children, as kids do this all day long. However, as we grow up, we forget or suppress this skill. If we learn to employ this skill again and go back to what I call our natural state, then we are happy.

These are the key components of happiness: keeping our minds still and being present. When we learn and put these ideas into practice, we enter the world of happiness.

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