We have a guest posting today by the best selling author Tony Wilkinson, whose book the Lost Art of Being Happy has provided inspiration for thousands on finding happiness. If you enjoy this, click here to subscribe to never miss another post.
The Lost Art of Being Happy – by Tony Wilkinson – Reading time : 3 minutes and 24 seconds
It’s tempting to think that happiness is achieved by solving life’s problems. But if you wait to be happy until all your problems are solved you will never be happy, because when today’s problems are gone others will take their place. If you are going to live happily you have to live with your problems.
I worked for twenty years in the City of London, but few of the rich and powerful people I met seemed happier than poorer folk. In the course of writing my book, The Lost Art of Being Happy: Spirituality for Sceptics (Findhorn Press) I finally realised why. The book shows that living happily depends on cultivating inner peace. It’s a very old idea, of course, but I’ve worked on the practical details as they can be applied today.
Living happily depends mainly on your inner life, meaning your thoughts, emotions, desires – your entire mental and emotional scene. Happiness is about what you think and believe, how you feel, how problems affect you. This may sound obvious, but often we focus instead on our external lives, on getting and spending and “having fun” and then wonder why we are not happy. But it’s when our inner lives are serene that we are happiest – and this is inner peace.
The difficulty is that our inner lives are based on patterns and habits. You don’t choose, occasion by occasion, how you respond inside. This happens and you feel angry; that happens and you feel sad. Because of these habits, events don’t necessarily leave you with inner peace. So the key is to change the patterns and acquire new inner habits.
Deliberately learned habits are of course skills. Inner skills are very like virtues, but if you think of them as skills rather than virtues you benefit from a liberating shift. Instead of “I must become a better person” you can think: “I could live more happily if I worked on my skills”. It’s a process of training yourself, like all skill learning.
I suggest five main groups of skills, although the training system is less important than the commitment to devote time to improving your inner life skills. Practice is the key and it requires effort but the reward is what we all want most – deep happiness. Here are the five:
1 Mindfulness: The problem most of us have with thought is having too much of it – the worrying and mental “chattering” our minds are prone to. Mindfulness is awareness without the chattering. Concentrating on your breathing is one way to practise but many people achieve the same focus through sport, dance or martial arts. Mindfulness is a key inner skill because, as it gets stronger, it lets you focus on your own inner life and catch your habits in the act. Once you can see what they do the change you are seeking often happens of its own accord.
2 Benevolence: It comes as a surprise when you first hear it but benevolence or love starts off as a practical skill which counteracts negative emotions like anger and hatred, terrible wreckers of happiness. Try it the next time someone annoys you: put yourself in their place and ask yourself what they might be thinking or feeling to behave like that. It doesn’t mean they should get away with it, but if you get into the habit of thinking more tolerantly – understanding that their actions are also ruled by inner habits – you’ll find you can react with less anger. And less anger equals more happiness for you.
3 Story skills: Your beliefs, including the ones you are almost unaware of because you have never questioned them, have great power over your life. Start to think of them as stories and it is easier to accept that other things might be true as well, or even instead. Even true stories only select the little bit of reality we are focusing on at the moment: no one story is the whole truth about any situation. This is not about make–believe, it’s about ‘reframing’ situations to look at them from a different perspective and see a different truth.
4 Letting-go: This is particularly helpful when we are unhappy not getting what we want. Generally, we are encouraged to think that more will make us happier, whether it’s clothes or money or even love. But wanting is a treadmill and to be happy you either have to satisfy all your desires (which is unlikely) or let go of some of them. Sometimes what we want is revenge or retribution, which is why forgiveness is an important letting-go skill: it’s not about letting anyone else off, it’s about letting ourselves off the hook of anger about the past.
5 Enjoyment skills: This last group includes patience, humour and especially gratitude. You don’t have to be grateful to someone, it’s enough to cultivate gratitude for things. Our minds naturally scan the environment for dangers, probably once a useful mechanism but it can make us unnecessarily pessimistic – focusing on the 5% we lack rather than the 95% we have. Cultivating gratitude will help redress the balance.
The important thing is to practise your skills, preferably until they operate without you thinking about them. Practice itself can be a rewarding way of life, a path between religion and materialism. I look on it as a form of secular spirituality, spirituality without any supernatural belief, because it has so much in common with traditional religious spiritual practice. But that’s just my way of looking at it. It’s the path to living happily if you follow it.