Don’t we all want to be happy? Then why aren’t we? Happiness is our true nature. It’s what remains in those precious moments when our persistent worries, self-defeating habits, and difficult emotions disappear. When we are happy, we are content, enthusiastic, and alive.

If happiness is our birthright, and at the core of our being, it is wise to ask: how can we reclaim what is so fundamentally true? True happiness takes an inner revolution, a radical change in how we view reality. When we question our assumptions about the world and no longer take our emotional reactions for granted, a new, fresh way of being takes their place. Do you want to be happy? Consider the following, and prepare for the inner revolution.

Shift #1: From Unconscious Living to Conscious Living

Several years ago, my interest in freedom ignited, and I committed to being aware of my moment to moment experience. Strange as it may sound, it was an exciting time for me. I saw the useless mental chatter as I washed the dishes; I discovered physical tension that never seemed to dissolve; and I noticed a subtle heavy feeling I had been facing every morning when I woke up. Once I became aware of these experiences, I knew they could never again have the same hold on me.

Much of our behavior happens automatically, outside of conscious awareness. We inhabit these familiar patterns that detract from our quality of life. These conditioned tendencies run deep, and if our deepest desire is to be happy, the first essential step is to become aware of them. We need to see what is actually happening in our experience when we are triggered so we know what we are dealing with – mental stories, sensations in our bodies, emotions, and the reactions of those around us. We can then ask, “Is this what I really want?”

Bringing awareness to the experience of our lives opens up the possibility for change. When we see a habit beginning to take shape, we can choose not to perpetuate it. With awareness, we are more flexible and open to responding in a life-affirming way.

When we start to become more conscious, we might not always like what we see. But what quickly becomes apparent is the opportunity to live a life that is no longer ruled by unconscious motives and habits that seem out of our control. We become totally alive to our experience as it is actually happening. No longer resisting, happiness has a welcoming space to bloom.

Shift #2: From Looking Outward to Looking Inward

For most of us, the usual way to solve problems is to try to fix something about the situation or other people. This is called the “if only” life: if only my husband would help more around the house, if only it rained less, if only my boss would acknowledge the good work I do. We look outside ourselves to change a situation that causes us trouble.

This rarely works because of the limits of our control.

People do what they do; situations occur unbidden. The only real way to deflate the areas of unhappiness in our lives is the last one we think of – looking inward to examine our own reactions. Seriously consider this for a second. Say that when your husband leaves his dirty clothes on the floor you feel irritated and begin a mental monologue loaded with critical thoughts about him. You’ve tried talking to him about it, ignoring the clothes, picking them up, but nothing has changed your internal reaction.

The key is not to try to change something you have no control over, e.g., someone else’s behavior, but to examine your own reactions to understand the nature of the trigger by asking:

  • what exactly is triggering you,
  • what does the trigger consist of (thoughts, emotions, physical sensations, urges),
  • what do you really need.

This investigation, done in a kind and friendly way, brings a tremendous amount of compassion and understanding to yourself right when you need it. As these reactions are investigated repeatedly, they tend to lose their power and drop away.

It takes courage to honestly look at ourselves, to see how we are making ourselves unhappy by our reactions. It is a move from insanity to sanity, from relying on the external world to make us happy to discovering that we can be happy no matter what happens. When we lovingly tend to our reactions, anything can occur, and happiness remains undisturbed.

Shift #3: From Living in the Future or the Past to Being Present

When you take an honest look at your thoughts about the past and the future, you will see that most of them are based on fear or lack, not on happiness. We worry, analyze, doubt ourselves, judge, and obsessively plan. We think about what we need that we don’t have and how a situation other than what is happening would be so much better. And we run these thoughts in our minds over and over with very little useful function. Does any of this sound familiar?

When the mind becomes quiet, even if just for a moment, a pervasive sense of peace becomes apparent. Joy may bubble up for no reason. We feel happy and connected. The experience of being present is always available to us; it is a sense of coming home to a place we never actually left. It may be veiled by the active thinking mind, but when we refrain from feeding thoughts with our attention, we see that reality is always here, completely reliable, never disturbed.

Life is so incredibly rich. There are sounds, sensations in the body, emotions, sights, great intimacy with all things. And when we allow solutions to appear from this peaceful space rather than figuring them out in the mind, a great clarity emerges. Moving from the past and future of the mind to the present is the beginning of being truly alive.

Shift #4: From Criticism and Judgment to Appreciation and Gratitude

When the intention arose in me to become very aware of my inner experience, much to my chagrin, I noticed that my thoughts were often critical and filled with judgment – not just of people around me, but of myself as well. As I delved into the experience of these thoughts, I found negativity, disconnection, and shame. And once I started ignoring them, the critical thoughts subsided. Effortlessly, they were replaced with a natural openness to people around me.

I imagine I’m not alone in realizing the degree to which criticism and judgment were taking up my mental space. When we begin to live in appreciation and gratitude, we notice unlimited opportunities to be kind. We generously offer compliments and express our thanks. We let go of grudges, finally. We stop the inner violence toward ourselves. We feel joyful and at ease.

So how to experience happiness? It takes an inner revolution. Make a commitment to be conscious in your life. Look inward to become aware of the patterns you play out that disturb your well being. Live in the present; be awake to life as it is actually unfolding. Let go of the critical mind, and allow your heart to sing. Happiness is right here, right now, in this very moment.

Please feel free to comment with your reactions, insights, etc. I’d love to hear from you!

Photo by dotbenjamin

Gail Brenner

Gail Brenner, Ph.D. is a psychologist and author who joyfully shares insights about discovering that suffering is optional. Find more from Gail at her blog, GailBrenner.com and on Twitter. Her work offers a bridge between psychology and spiritual understanding and brings clear seeing and compassion to everyday human challenges. She is the author of the forthcoming book, "The Way of Yes: Finding Peace and Happiness Right at the Heart of Your Messy, Scary, Brilliant Life."

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