Day 10: Happiness is a Practice, Not a Destination

Interpretation Style

It turns out that external circumstances have far less influence on our overall happiness and well being than we once believed.  The wisdom traditions remind us again and again that life is defined more by our perceptions or subjective interpretations rather than objective circumstances. Thousands of years later science is proving the same thing.

Research conducted by Diener & Seligman studied very happy people vs very unhappy people. One vital difference found between the two groups was interpretation style. Both groups revealed they experience sadness, set backs, disappointments, heartbreak and so on; the difference was in their perceptions. Very happy people discern these events as temporary, isolated and part of being human. Very unhappy people view these events as permanent, pervasive and personal. This is called learned helplessness and can lead to lethargy, anxiety, a sense of disempowerment and even depression.

In her book, The Art of Choosing, Sheena Iyengar writes: "Unlike captive animals, people's perceptions of control or helplessness aren't entirely dictated by outside forces. We have the ability to create choice by alerting our interpretations."

In his commentary on the Heart of Recognition, Swami Shantananda writes:  "As we look at our own lives, we may feel that we are not free. We may feel that we do not have sufficient freedom of will, that we cannot in fact determine the circumstances of our lives or even choose our own associates. This is because most of us think of freedom as the ability to have what we want. The wise sages, on the other hand, are more likely to describe freedom as the capacity to want what we have... To exercise our own will and to choose what has been willed for us. There is paradoxically tremendous freedom in such a stance. " 

Words of wisdom from my teacher, Tal Ben-Shahar: "When we choose to choose we move from passive victim to active agent-from only making excuses to being responsible."

I was a victim for much of much of my life. I spent years trying to change the people, places and things around me rather than my own outlook toward those events. Obviously there are things in life we cannot change. What we can always change or control is our perceptions.

At every moment of my life I can choose my attitude.  I am 100% happier today because of it! Today my well being is not dependent on external forces and their really is tremendous freedom in that.

An inspiring and profound example of this comes from Viktor Frankl, psychologist, concentration camp survivor and author of "Man's Search For Meaning."  In his book he writes about his observations of the way some people chose to respond in this extreme circumstance: "We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing; the last of human freedoms-to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose ones own way."

Write about a particular challenge that you're facing where you feel stuck or trapped, whether in your personal or professional life. After describing the situation take a moment to identify and elaborate on the choices you actually have. What change can you bring about if you choose to think or act differently?

Choose a happy day!