“H” is for Happiness

Before I start in on happiness as a wellness strategy, I want to let you know that I have been out of pocket for the entire month of April. During that time, I moved not one, but two of my personal goal posts. The first one is about blogging. My goal is to write on my ABC’s for Living Well blog twice each month for one year (approximately timed with the new and full moon each month). In April, that did not happen! In my last blog post, “G” is for Goals, I stated a goal to run a 5K by May 1st. While I did start running wind sprints with Olivia, I am certainly not ready to run that 5K! And yet, even though I did not meet my goals, April was a happy month overall. Thus, we segue into “H” is for Happiness.

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama

In the book, The Art of Happiness – A Handbook for Living by H.H. Dalai Lama and Howard C. Cutler, the Dalai Lama states “I believe that the very purpose of our life is to seek happiness. That is clear, whether one believes in religion or not, whether one believes in this religion or that religion, we all are seeking something better in life. So, I think, the very motion of our life is towards happiness…” The Dalai Lama sees happiness as an objective: people setting goals and working to achieve them thus creating happiness in oneself. In addition, it is important to have a strong sense of self-worth and to find contentment without obtaining material things that may bring pleasure but fall short of fulfilling true happiness. After exploring happiness with His Holiness, psychiatrist Howard C. Cutler determined that unhappy people are more self-focused, withdrawn, and brooding. Happy people are more social, flexible, and creative. Happiness can help with meeting life’s daily frustrations in an easier way.

The Dalai Lama’s teachings have always been an inspiration to me. I had the privilege of being in his presence twice. Each time, I came away in awe of his compassion and grace, his childlike giggle and astonishing wisdom. He teaches that one must train the mind and the heart, the intellect, and the feeling self toward a state of happiness. Importantly, happiness is more an internal state, rather than something that relies on external events, material gain, or preferred circumstances. According to Dalai Lama we can achieve happiness through a disciplined practice of kindness and compassion no matter what the circumstance; no matter whether the object of our desire is fulfilled or elusive.  

As a goal-oriented human, I feel happiest when I am actively giving energy to my goal of the hour (or the week or the year). May 11th will mark 14 months since our household coronavirus lockdown began. It was March 11, 2020 that Robert’s company sent employees to work at home, and I enjoyed my last restaurant lunch with a friend. The goals Robert and I had set in February 2020 were placed on hold. The situation was disorienting, then frightening, then confounding. It felt like we were walking around our house in a fog. Happiness was not something I felt often in those early days of the pandemic. Progressing to summer, and alongside the pandemic issue there were new allergies, shopping stresses, yellow jacket stings, devasting social injustices taking place, unyielding heat, cancelled career, retirement, and travel plans, and the general inability to go for our goals.

Thankfully, positive action and creativity kicked in. Robert got to work building decks and furniture and we bought a tent to protect me from the yellow jackets and to allow for safe outdoor time. Socially distanced neighborhood coffee dates and happy hours were a wonderful balm for my soul; not sure how I would have made it through without Lisa and Laura’s fun-loving companionship last summer. I adjusted my work life and learned how to serve others via Zoom, started writing again, and we embraced our denial to start sorting through the loft mess. These were helpful external activities, but I knew I needed to do something else for training my mind toward happiness.

I turned to a simple daily metta practice. Also called a “loving kindness practice” this is a Buddhist meditation that invokes loving kindness for self and others. It clears the mind and opens the way for happiness, peace, and contentment to come in. It is short enough to memorize and can be done while taking a walk, sitting in stillness, or at the beginning or end of your yoga practice. If you have a hard time with memorizing, it is fine to read it silently or out loud. Ideally, you let the words of the practice sink into your heart, your feeling center. Here are the words:

  • May I be filled with wisdom, compassion, and loving kindness. May I be safe from all inner and outer harm. May I be healthy in body, mind, and emotions. May I be happy and truly find peace and contentment.
  • May all beings be filled with wisdom, compassion, and loving kindness. May all beings be safe from all inner and outer harm. May all beings be healthy in body, mind, and emotions. May all beings be happy and truly find peace and contentment.

Winding back to April’s moved goal posts, the reason for my being out of touch is that we were in Colorado at the little vacation rental property we bought right before lockdown-2020. This is our retirement investment. It is managed locally, but as new owners, we needed to tend to several projects that were an entire year overdue. The views in the area are breathtaking and the hot springs nearby are excellent. This, however, was not a vacation trip. We traveled safely, followed CDC recommendations for domestic car travel, and due to COVID-19, we did not visit the hot springs, have guests, dine out, or visit with anyone while we were there. We handled repairs, restocking, inventory, and restoration projects. It was hard work at a constant pace; we both hurt our backs and necks. We learned about local zoning laws that may change our retirement plans.

I imagine you will agree that the state of happiness becomes more difficult when things do not go as planned. When times are tough or our biology fails to keep up with the demands of our projects, training mind and heart via a dedicated practice will support stress reduction at the very least and inspire a gentle return to happiness at best. While the externals of my recent experience in Colorado were stressful in many ways, my internal state was mostly happily content. During daily morning walks I practiced the metta, feeling so grateful for the beauty of spring snow, so thankful that despite my back injury, I could take a walk; humbled for life itself. “Humbled,” another great “H” word! The challenge for me is to hold that happy, humble, contentment going forward, no matter what the circumstance, no matter what the loss or gain. I will take the challenge.

In keeping with Further Shore’s mission, here are two special messages about happiness as a wellness practice. First, if you are facing a health challenge, live with chronic pain, or are in a palliative care or hospice situation, the metta practice can be useful. It is a way to give loving kindness to yourself and extend that to others. That compassionate action brings immediate calm to the mind and contentment to the heart, even in dire circumstances and even in final days.

The next message is for caregivers; you know who you are! And you likely know that caregiving can be exhausting, demanding and all-encompassing, especially if you are caring for someone in decline. While there can be happy, poignant moments, sadness is often part of your day. If you are an empathic person, you may feel the sadness of those you are caring for. It is also possible that the ongoing stress of caregiving can lead to pain syndromes or clinical depression. Please develop strategies and take proactive measures for self-care. Be aware of the symptoms of depression that may require medical attention or counseling support. Try to find a daily practice to calm your mind and bring contentment to your heart. If you have a happiness practice that works for you, please feel free to share it below. Wishing you happiness today and always.  

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