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THE ROUTE TO HAPPINESS
Happiness appears to depend on good health, having enough to eat, good relationships and a positive attitude toward life. Since life regularly throws obstacles in the path of the smoothest operators, it is also clear that it isn’t so much problems which make us unhappy as the attitude we bring to bear on them. There are thousands of people who have endured terrible hardship but who manage to enjoy life in spite of it. Millions of children grow up in appalling conditions but because they have loving parents and good friends, remain happy.
The pursuit of happiness has become a contemporary journey, with some people considering we have a right to it. But do we? Is it possible to be happy all of the time? Or even desirable? Happiness itself is a positive emotion which is described variously by different people. To some happiness is a kind of ecstasy experienced, for example, when falling in love. It is however difficult to sustain this kind of happiness indefinitely. To others happiness is contentment, an even feeling, where life continues to be enjoyable in quiet ways and relationships offer a mild joy. Philosophers incline toward this latter as the most practical emotional state to work towards. But happiness is a moveable feast – it is literally different for everyone.
Pain, or unhappiness, may also have its role in the tempo of life. If there were never any pain, we would have no concept of health. If there were never misery, how could we know and fathom joy? There is a spiritual and practical element to the tough side of life and one which, if we understand our particular nature or personality, can be used very specifically to improve our appreciation of being.
For the sake of this book, happiness is perceived as operating on a sliding scale. Like virtually any emotion, there are degrees to it. It may be that some people can only feel alive if they reach the heights – but, by this yardstick, they must accept that part of the deal is they will have to experience the depths too. It may be that some of us struggle to attain well-being, plunging in and out of the high seas of happiness and unhappiness. And some of us, probably a very few, possess an equanimity which allows them to float over choppy seas like a cork and come up smiling wherever they land.
It is these last, that is the ideal. How do they manage it? What is the secret of riding out the tempest to emerge smiling? Is it even possible for the majority? What are the ingredients of happiness?
THE KEYS TO EMOTIONAL HAPPINESS
Well-being probably starts with the body. Eating healthy food but not over-eating, taking enough exercise but not exhausting yourself, having someone to cuddle who cuddles you in return – all of these ingredients influence well-being and act as a platform for emotional happiness. Think of a baby, newly brought into the world and probably wishing it was back inside its mother’s nice cosy body. What are the baby’s priorities? Exactly those just outlined. So happiness starts here.
The baby grows. It begins to observe and interpret the world. And it draws its own conclusions about emotional well-being. For one infant well-being is a sense of achievement as it climbs upstairs on its own. For another it is the rush of adventure experienced when exploring the shrubbery at the back of the garden. As time goes by, layer is placed upon layer, forming a combination unique to that individual.
A key part of the process lies in the way in which we regard challenges. The child who sees a tree as an exciting object to be explored and conquered possesses a positive attitude. The child who sees a tree as dangerous and to be avoided is more debatable. Self-preservation may be appropriate but, if it is not, the child has already developed a negative attitude towards a challenge.
Dealing with life positively, always seeing the best side of the coin, does not come naturally to everyone. And yet most psychologists believe it necessary for emotional good health. The good news is that it can be learned. Indeed it is by turning problems around to see them as vehicles for ‘growth’ that we begin the process of change. The individual who regards life positively is the one with the greatest likelihood of gaining happiness
QUIZ – HOW HAPPY ARE YOU?
When you think about your present partner, do you feel
a) passionate and fulfilled?
b) warm and affectionate?
c) sad or depressed?
a) tackle projects with eagerness and enjoyment?
b) pace yourself methodically and feel you have done your best?
c) feel depressed about difficulties with colleagues?
Do you rate yourself as
a) gregarious, enjoying many fun friendships
b) capable of a few but close friendships
c) a loner, feeling safer on your own
If you have scored mostly ‘a’
You are energetic, passionate, capable of reaching great heights in the life tasks of love, work and friendship. However when things go wrong your pain is intense, your shame sometimes overwhelming and despite your friends, you may feel intensely alone. Your style of happiness therefore is a ‘volatile’ one. The great benefit is that you may achieve ecstasy; the flaw is that your pain can sometimes be unbearable. Your remedial moves are to avoid putting people on pedestals and to accept that you are responsible for yourself
If you have scored mostly ‘b’
You are thorough, you know what you want and you are stoic. This means that you often feel content and find relationships satisfying. Your style of happiness is a sensible if cautious one. The great benefit is that you are a loving and loved partner who takes responsibility for him/herself . The flaw is that your distinct preferences can make you seem selfish. Your remedial moves are to open up more to other people’s suggestions and to tolerate constructive criticism.
If you have scored mostly ‘c’
You are happy in your own company and have learned one of the great lessons in life which is to be content with yourself. However the moments of happiness tend to be fleeting because you are prone to depression. Your remedial moves are to find enough courage to take whatever action is needed for change and to accept that although you may not be able to change others, you can change your attitude towards people and events.
BOOST YOUR CONFIDENCE
Recent research has shown that while some individuals are born with an optimistic upbeat temperament, just as many are born shyer and more timid. However research also shows that timid children can be helped grow confident provided their parents teach them how to deal with life appropriately. A third of timid children were found to have shed their timidity by the time they reached kindergarten. On examination it was discovered that their mothers had been particularly clear and direct with their commands and had allowed the children to explore on their own and take some risks. In contrast the mothers of the children who had not overcome their timidity were discovered to be highly protective and less firm.
This is important information because it tells us that the brain can learn coping methods which enable a person to overcome a natural and instinctive fearfulness. Perhaps the nearest equivalent of this training for grown ups is assertion training which operates on similar lines. It allows us to see we are not just victims of biology.
Assertion training teaches not only the way in which to overcome problems but incidentally creates confidence in the users, just like the directive mothers manage with the timid children. By discovering we can function well within the world we start to feel good about ourselves.
Analysis of assertion training shows that it consists of:
- a simple action plan
- positive encouragement from trainer or mentor
- action taken by ourselves on a simple level
This is the combination that nurtures confidence. When we feel we have achieved, we feel better about ourselves. Thanks to words of encouragement we grow strong. By tackling progressively harder tasks at our own pace, we learn we are capable of progress. Even, (hardest of all,) by encountering set-backs we learn to retrace our steps, alter the approach and try again.
BOX – ASSERTION ACTION
1. Make a list of the 10 tasks you want to tackle
2. Sort these out in order of difficulty, rating the hardest task as 10 and the simplest as 1.
3. Starting with the simplest, and using quiet insistence (not anger), try to tackle No 1. If someone attempts to brush you off just repeat the request quietly. Don’t let yourself get side-tracked, don’t fall for ‘red herrings’. Just continue quietly with your firm request.
4. After you have succeeded with the first one, try tackling No 2. And so on, right up to No 10. Success breeds confidence. You might like to rehearse this method first with a friend.
THINK POSITIVE – NOT NEGATIVE
We all need change because without the feeling of ‘growth’ lies the danger of ‘emotional stagnancy’ and if we endure that for too long, we begin to juggle with depression. The Law of Emotional Survival is that we need to ‘grow’. Boredom is the challenge.
The fuel of ‘emotional stagnancy’ resides within anxiety and depression. These are the mind-killers. They are certainly what stand in the way of self-motivation and action taking. If anxiety or depression are what is holding you up, tackling them should be your starting points (see pages 00 for information on depression). But there are several approaches to upgrading the spirits and becoming more cheerful:
BOX – CONFIDENCE BOOSTERS
- Eat regularly and well.
- Force yourself to take breaks or small holidays.
- Work with a partner on giving each other good strokes.
- Plan something to look forward to.
- Take some action, however small. It doesn’t matter what it is.
- Tell yourself, at regular intervals, I can do it, provided I am allowed to pace myself.
- Be encouraging to others – encouragement is catching and with luck, your friends and colleagues should return the compliment.
Encouragement is a key word here. People who have been routinely criticised or offered empty praise learn to believe part of their being is sub-standard. We are only just learning that continuous verbal abuse is a form of conditioning that results in severely depleted self-confidence and inability to take positive action. But it is not just this extreme that can create damage. Simple things like praising a person instead of their action can seem hollow. Present advice on acting positively suggests that we are wiser to say to our friends and colleagues “I like the way you construct a sentence when you write a letter’ which dwells on a particular skill, rather than “you’re a good chap” which dwells on the person. Talk about this principle with those around you. Try to help them do the same.
THE POSITIVE SIDE OF DILEMMA
The ability to see the positive side of a dilemma rather than the negative is a leap forward. This is a skill which can be learned. Deliberately tell yourself that:
- having an illness may be a set back but the benefit it gives is an opportunity for rest which allows you to appreciate the stimulation of work
- having a creative idea thrown back in your face is tough but it affords the opportunity to test your own limits by seeing how quickly you are able to overcome the disappointment
- making a slight mistake when setting up a meeting may be useful because it allows you more contact with your opposite number while you set things straight.
Each setback is an opportunity to reframe your view of the difficulty and find out more about your strength.
Useful mantras when experiencing anxiety are:
- “It is pointless using up energy on feeling anxious. It will not change the situation.”
- “I am responsible for myself and (with only a few exceptions) I am not responsible for others.”
- “It doesn’t help anyone to feel sorry for them.”
- “I may not be able to control events but I can change my attitude toward them.”