Sunday, January 15, 2017
Yes, you can learn to be happy: And here’s how
The good news is that it is entirely within your power to find happiness in 2017
We can, with a bit of discomfort, change ourselves. People do it all the time
It’s that time of year: we’re giving up things, being bombarded with detoxing tips, planning on getting thinner or fitter. But will it make us happy?
Imagine if we could buy a pill for happiness, the ultimate antidepressant. Studies show happiness can ward off infection, enhance memory, reduce pain and prevent heart disease, with no side effects except mild jaw soreness (from all that smiling).
There is no magic pill, of course, so where can we find more happiness? We’re going to have to manufacture it.
The good news is that we are programmed with the ability to make ourselves happy – it’s just that many of us have forgotten how and, thanks to our life experiences, we’re living in a haze of day-to-day misery.
So how can we change our attitude and make life happier? GP and author Dr Harry Barry believes too many of us are living with unhelpful beliefs and unnecessary behaviours, labelling ourselves as anxious and unhappy and staying in a miserable state. But some, simple reprogramming of our brains could have a profound effect on our lives.
In Barry’s most recent book, Flagging Anxiety and Panic, he explains how our brains can be changed: “We call it neuroplasticity – the ability of the brain to change. We know from brain scanning we can physically change the pathways in our brain and alter the messages it sends. You are not doomed to act in a certain way for the rest of your life.”
For most of us, change only happens when the damaging behaviour or belief starts interfering with our everyday lives, he suggests.
“We only challenge ourselves to make a change when our loss gets too high. If you are struggling to make that change, take a look at what discomfort you are avoiding that’s stopping you. We need to have different conversations around this. It’s time to face the fact that we do have power over our feelings and our lives. We are not helpless in this.”
It’s a message that only a few of us want to hear. We can, with a bit of discomfort, change ourselves. “We can change and people do it all the time,” says Barry. “The big problem that needs to be discussed is what I call ‘low frustration tolerance’, a major problem I see every day.”
Low frustration tolerance is where we are close to moving on and changing, but we don’t like the discomfort we are feeling and slip back into our old ways, says Barry.
“We need to take control. At the moment, we cannot tolerate even a little bit of discomfort or anxiety, so you will hear people say, ‘I do want the situation to change, but I don’t want the discomfort of bringing it about.’ If you are frustrated in your job, fuming and want your boss to change, you need to think about changing your thinking. Nothing will happen waiting for someone else to change.”
Moria Geary, former nurse and author of Wake Up and Change Your Life, agrees that we have all the tools we need for change but sometimes need help to achieve it. During the recession, finding herself under severe financial pressures after her husband lost his job, she fell into a depressed and anxious state herself and tried several treatments to end the pain she was feeling. She found several techniques that brought her relief and she now helps people to ‘reprogramme’ themselves, make changes and live a happy life.
“The first thing I want to say to people who are struggling is that it is not their fault. It is so important to know that it is the fault of your programming,” she says. “There is no point in berating yourself about your past life or behaviour – choose to accept and learn from the experience instead.”
She too strikes a cautionary note: “Change is 100 per cent possible, but there is a bit of work involved. If you want to change, you need to get out of your own way and get started.”
Back to basics
Where to start? Barry suggests going back to basics. “Get out a sheet of paper and write out the five main things bothering you – whether it’s being unhappy in your job, unfit, crippled with anxiety, overeating, or whatever. All behaviour has a purpose, so ask yourself what is the underlying reason for keeping on this particular path?”
Break it down into simple steps, he suggests, pick one issue that causes the greatest distress and look at what simple changes you can make. Don’t tackle it all at once and, if you are struggling on your own, get some help.
Both agree that age doesn’t matter. You are never too young or too old to feel stuck – or to become unstuck.
Geary suggests looking inside yourself for the answers. If you spend your time blaming the economy, the weather or anything else, your focus is in the wrong place. “By allowing people to affect the way you feel you are handing them your power. Life throws curve balls all the time, but we all have the ability to look for solutions, to be motivated, to be proactive, to learn – and everything else we might need to improve any situation. However, when the going gets tough we often rely on blame, violence, anger, cynicism and all the other negative traits that will disempower us and create a miserable life for us.”
When you’ve got the list of things that are causing you pain, Geary suggests asking this question: is it serving me? If not, then you will need to put yourself in a little bit of discomfort to start the change.
Geary says what is important is letting people know that the tools exist to make a change. “It’s amazing to see the change in attitude about mental health and dealing with deep unhappiness in life. What is really important is acknowledging that people are hurting and their life is not what they wished for, but that they have the power to change that and there is a way out. You do not have to feel like this forever.”
She suggests adopting a set of guidelines (see panel), her “golden rules”, which can take a lot of pain out of everyday life. “The solution is never in your problem. You need to look up and out and find out what you can do to make yourself live a happier life. There is absolutely no reason to stay miserable when you have all the power to make a change.”
Dr Barry is a fan of mindfulness, which can help reshape our brain pathways, and recommends the three-minute breathing space, a mindfulness technique that can stem anxious feelings.
He describes how to do it in this extract from the book: “One wonderful mindfulness exercise of great value in anxiety is the three-minute breathing space. It can be done at any time of the day, particularly when we are under a lot of stress. It involves finding a quiet space to waste three minutes of our valuable time. Here’s how it works. Finding a comfortable posture, close your eyes and engage with the following:
Focus your mind on inner experiences, such as your thoughts, emotions and physical sensations. Do not try to change or challenge them. Just become aware of them.
Focus on the simple physical sensation of breathing and particularly on your abdomen rising and falling with each breath again. Do not try to control it. This helps us to centre ourselves. This part is critical for anxiety.
Increase your focus or awareness on your body as a whole, including your posture, facial expression and sensations. Accept it all completely and without judgment.
If performed two or three times a day, the benefits are enormous.”
Extract from Flagging Anxiety and Panic: How to Reshape Your Anxious Mind and Brain by Dr Harry Barry, published by Liberties Press.
Moira Geary has developed five “golden rules” that can help you transform your attitude to life.
“I am not really a fan of the word ‘rules’ as it gives a connotation of having to stick within limits, but I make an exception here. I know if you live by these, they will literally transform your life for the better.
Rule 1: Respect how others see the world.
Each person has his or her own unique representation of the world. Two people can go through the same experience but have two completely different representations of what actually happened.
You do not have to like or agree with any behaviour, just respect that it is a person’s representation of the world. This is where you will find freedom.
Rule 2: Practise non-judgment of others.
Practise being non-judgmental in terms of not being critical or pass-remarkable and, more importantly, not sharing your criticisms with others.
The people we are most judgmental of are those closest to us. The first person is ourselves. Next on the list are those whom we love most. We judge them because we want them to be their best. We can also judge them because we have a need to control, but, whatever it is, don’t beat yourself up about it. Just start to practise non-judgment in all areas.
Rule 3: Change your perception of your reality instead of trying to change the circumstances.
I often see unhappy people who believe that if only people or situations around them would change they would be happy. People do not want to change their behaviours to make you happy – they are too busy trying to make themselves happy. The best way to be happy is to change your how you see your reality.
Rule 4: Understand that there is a positive intention behind all behaviour.
Everyone’s behaviour is driven by our subconscious mind in a bid to make us happy – it has a positive intention. Past experiences will again be responsible for the sometimes difficult and destructive behaviour that people engage in. Accepting this means it is much easier not to get caught up in the drama, the story and the negativity.
Rule 5: Acknowledge that every resource you need to create change is already in you.
When you look around and notice the challenges and goals people have overcome and achieved in the history of the world, it is nothing short of incredible.
To overcome challenges and achieve goals we need a set of resources, and we were all born with these resources. Sometimes it is easier to blame others for our situation rather than empower ourselves and make an effort. You have a choice, and now that you are informed you have a responsibility to yourself to create the good life you deserve.
Extract from Wake Up and Change Your Life by Moira Geary, available with an online course from www.wakeupandchangeyourlife.com