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Seven Rules for Finding Happiness - 1/22/2007

Not a week goes by where at least one of my patients doesn’t say “All I want is to be happy.  Give me sone rules, something I can do that will make my life better. ”

So, I thought it might be important for me to give some thought to answering that question and to try to provide a foundation on which people could build their happiness.  Once that foundation is in place, each of you could then add to it, by introducing your own desires, values and interests that would serve as the whipped cream on top of the dessert.  

It wasn’t easy, but I finally came up with three basic rules.  You’ve probably heard them before, in my previous articles, but not in this context.  Here goes:

1. Live in the real world.  Face reality.  Be honest.  I wold go so far as to say “It’s alright to lie to the world.  But, when you deal with yourself, take your sunglasses off.  Don’t look at the world through rose colored glasses or blue lenses.  Look at yourself for who and what you are.  Don’t fool you.  As I stated, if you need to fool others, go ahead, but at least know what you’re doing and, in keeping with the theme of honesty, try to understand why you’re doing it.  Why who you are, what you are, what you do, has to be modified, changed, altered, augmented or hidden from others.  Because, if it does, it says that you’re not entirely pleased or proud, or even approving of you.

2. Take responsibility for your actions, your feelings and, most of all, your fears.  Don’t excuse, intellectualize, rationalize, or justify any of them.  Try to understand the reasons underlying why you behave the way you do.  Search out Know the source of the feelings you react to or harbor within you and acknowledge your fears and your weaknesses.  They’re all part of you and unless you accept them, you are more likely to go through the world being dishonest with yourself.  Not deliberately, but at least unconsciously.  

I would have you go a step further.  I would have you own your actions, feelings, fears and insecurities.  Don’t excuse or be glib about them.  That means don’t fool yourself with your own words or emotional manipulations.  For example, three of the most common statements I hear in therapy and, in the course of interacting with others in the world, are “I know I’m insecure, but isn’t everybody?”,  “Sure, I’m scared.  Who isn’t?” and “I know I may have a few hangups, but everybody does.”  If you listen closely to the words, you realize that you’re not owning whatever it is you’re verbally acknowledging.  It doesn’t matter if everyone else has it or does it, or if it’s a common phenomenon.  What matters is that it’s part of you.  And you have to own your fears, feelings or insecurities.  You also need to recognize the degree to which they’re detrimental to you and injurious to your state of happiness.

3. Avoid second-guessing.  If there is one useless, non-constructive, perhaps even destructive, behavior that human beings indulge in, it’s lamenting, second-guessing and punishing ourselves for what we should have done, could have done, might have done, if only (I had the money, someone had supported me, you hadn’t dissuaded me, my parents were different, I was breast-fed longer, or had a happier childhood).  Instead, honestly look at your behavior.  Take responsibility for it and learn from it.  If, in retrospect, it was a mistake, don’t repeat it in the future.  If it was good, do it again.  Repeat the process, because it worked and it was beneficial to you.  Recognize that it wasn’t a chance occurrence, or just good luck.  It may have included some of those factors, but part of owning your actions includes taking credit for them. You may be frightened to try it again, concerned that you might not perform as well the second time, and that may well be the case.  But it doesn’t matter.  You must take as much credit for your accomplishments as for your errors.  

Having said this, I thought to myself “It sounds pretty good.  But what would you add to it?  What more could a person do?”  The more thought I gave it, the rules I came up with weren’t what you needed to add to your behavioral repertoire, but perhaps what you need to eliminate.  So here are the next three rules.

4. Eliminate fear from your life.  I doubt that that’s truly possible, because, on a constant basis, we are confronted with a world that creates fear.  Fear of failure, fear of success, fear of being inadequate, fear of not being appreciated.  So I’d modify that rule to say, since you can’t go through the world without fear, you must minimize the degree to which you react out of it or because of it.  How?  By knowing that you’re fearful, owning it, and behaving in spite of it.  Run through it, put it behind you, rather than have it face you throughout the rest of your life.  Fear can paralyze you, erode your confidence and deplete your self respect.  Therefore, you cannot let it control you.  

5. Eliminate regret from your life.  How many times have you said “I wish I had taken that job, bought that house, dated that guy, gone to school, attended that party, taken that class”?  You could have, but you didn’t.  Learn from that experience.  The next time an opportunity is afforded you, no matter what it is, do it.  For example: it may be a party you’re frightened to attend because you don’t know anyone, you feel uncomfortable and fearful that you’ll feel out of place or awkward.  You can rationalize “I won’t go because I’m tired, worked hard today, or the weather is inclement and I don’t want to get wet or cold.”  Or, you could go.   Because any opportunity missed can’t be relived.  Also, if you go and find that you’re uncomfortable, or that it isn’t a place you want to be, you can always leave early.  You can always stop an activity, but you can’t always go back and recreate it.  

So avoid regret.  Take chances and let your hopes and desires govern your behavior, rather than your fears.   

6. Avoid resentment, because it’s an emotion that eats up the lining of its container.  It tears you up, consumes you to the point that you’re emotions, your thoughts, your energies, are all preoccupied with past anger or hurt that you felt.  As a result, you miss all the joy, all the opportunities, all the positive challenges that you might encounter.  You’re blind to them because you’re focused on old hurts and old behaviors, or lack of them.

I’m not suggesting that you don’t have a right to be angry or resentful toward individuals who have hurt, rejected or undermined you.  But I am saying that when those resentments block out the light and cause you to live in darkness, then you’re not getting even, you’re hurting yourself.  Instead, there is one adage you need to live by -  “The best revenge is living well”.   So take your energies, thoughts and feelings and direct them toward growth, goals, positive interaction and success.  Because that’s when the saying “Revenge is sweet” truly has veracity.

7. The six preceding rules can be encompassed in this one suggestion.  It was the basis of a paper I wrote some time ago, “Living From the Inside Out versus Living From the Outside In”.  What it said was living from the outside-in is to live your life governed by the influences, opinions, dictates, feelings and the desires of others.  In contrast, living from the inside-out involves behaving in accordance with what you want, what you like, what will make you feel good about yourself 24 hours from now, as opposed to immediately.  It supports your acting on the basis of your own desires, values and dreams.  It’s the way to live life so that every action, thought and feeling gives you a sense of self pride, joy and confidence.  

So, in the future, be honest, live in reality.  Face you.  Take responsibility for who and what you are and do.  Don’t second-guess yourself, beat yourself up, or punish yourself out of guilt.  Acknowledge your mistakes and learn from them.  Avoid acting out of your fears.  Run toward what you fear.  Be pro-active in your life and eliminate regret.  Don’t fill your heart with resentment.  Instead, use your energy and efforts to enhance your own life.  Most importantly, live from the inside-out.  Make the world a place you want it to be, wish it could be, a place you can take pleasure living in.  

Those are the rules I would give you for finding happiness.  You needn’t follow them completely.  You probably can’t.  None of us can.  We’re not perfect.  We’re only human.  But, if you can use them as guidelines for living your life, the rewards will be endless.

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