Anybody who has ever trained for sports, fitness, or general health knows that it is a lengthy process that requires discipline and consistency. Despite all wishful thinking, results do not come over night. We may run for miles and miles every day or lift weights until we can barely lift a glass of water to our mouths and sometimes it feels like we are stuck in place. But over time, those who have been able to see committed start to notice results. That 5k time is suddenly 5 minutes shorter and we find ourselves no longer heaving with exhaustion after running up the stairs. In the gym that weight which was once impossible to move has now become our warm up and when we look at ourselves in the mirror we start to see a different person. Our bodies are highly adaptable and over time the training begins to illicit the desired results.
The same is true with our mind. The brain is not a muscle, but it is every bit as malleable in the psychological sense. We have the remarkable ability to mentally adjust to new scenarios and can train ourselves to new thought patterns over time. Just as the body will respond and adapt to continued stimulation, so too will the brain adapt. As we have discussed before, happiness is a choice, not a reaction. By training our mind to intentionally become happiness, not as a result of external situations of which we have no control, but rather synthesizing it ourselves through positive thinking patterns habitually over time.
It is easy to see suffering throughout the world. Many billions of people live in states of abject misery such that one wonders if their entire existence must be consumed by suffering. Dr. Howard Cutler saw this and asked the Dalai Lama if he thought that happiness was a reasonable goal for most of us, or if it was just a fantasy. The Dalai Lama replied “Yes, I believe that happiness can be achieved through training the mind.” As we recall from the example of Viktor Frankl in yesterday’s post, it is possible to maintain some sense of inner strength and happiness even in the face of such unimaginable suffering as the holocaust.
With such an examples as Frankl’s one recognizes that external circumstances are ultimately not what lead to happiness and salvation. Recalling the research of Dr. Dan Gilbert we remember that over time both lottery winners and paraplegics exhibit similar levels of happiness. The type of suffering one endures may differ based on circumstance but suffering is inevitable and we can only experience it through the perspective of our own being. What we all have is the ability to strengthen our mind and practice the cultivation of mental discipline and happiness. As the Dr. Cutler said following his discussion with the Dalai Lama : “no matter what level of happiness we are endowed with by nature, there are steps we can take to work with the “mind factor,” to enhance our feelings of happiness. This is because our moment-to-moment happiness is largely determined by our outlook. In fact, whether we are feeling happy or unhappy at any given moment often has very little to do with our absolute conditions but, rather it is a function of how we perceive our situation, how satisfied we are with what we have.”
Taking this into account we recognize that each of us has the capacity to attain happiness regardless of our situation in life. This doesn’t happen immediately but rather takes a great deal of time, practice, and mental training. Just as your muscles wont develop from a day or even a week of rigorous training, nor will your brain suddenly be conditioned to this way of thinking. Over time, little by little, the change starts to happen, imperceptibly at first until months or even years later we realize a change. Think of the book Atomic Habits, even 1% change every day will yield dramatic results over time. Marcus Aurelius said: your mind will take the shape of what you frequently hold in thought, for the human spirit is colored by such impressions.” Several centuries before him, his predecessor Aristotle said “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then is not an act but a habit.” (there is some dispute as to whether or not Aristotle ever said this, either way, I like it) If the type of excellence you are searching for is happiness and a positive outlook on life, then the best way to attain that state is by constantly disciplining yourself and choosing to be happy each and every day.
At this point we acknowledge that happiness is a choice, and a choice that must be turned into a habit over time by constantly making the right choice. But how exactly does one DO this? For the Dalai Lama and many, it begins with meditation. His Holiness begins every day with 3-4 hours of meditation, the primary purpose of which is to train his mind for compassion and kindness. He simply sits and thinks about being nice, about recognizing the wholeness of humanity, and about his connection to others. Through hours of these intentional thoughts he develops his mind into one of the most compassionate and welcoming forces in our world. I don’t expect any of us to be able to spend veritable hours at this practice, but some form of intentional meditation and thought, usually first thing in the morning, is a great way to train the mind for happiness. For the Dalai lama the whole way to cultivate happiness is to identify and cultivate positive mental states and to identify and eliminate negative mental states. Mental states would be selfishness, fear, cruelty, isolation, and anger. By meditating on kindness and happiness he cultivates positive states of love, togetherness, community, belonging, and comfort. “By bringing about a certain inner discipline, we can undergo a transformation of our attitude, our entire outlook and approach to living,” ~ His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama.
Our happiness has nothing to do with our surroundings. None of us chooses whether we are born into an urban slum, born with a disease, or born with a silver spoon in our mout so-to-speak. These things are beyond our control. And as the stoics always remind us, what is beyond our control is exactly that, and thus not worth worrying. What we do have control over are our mind and our choices. Happiness is a choice. And it is a choice that becomes a reality when we discipline our minds through intention to eliminate negative thoughts and cultivate positivity. It doesn’t happen overnight, but it happens. I cannot sit here and tell you that I am always happy, but I can tell you that I am much happier than I used to be. In my early 20s I realized that I was choosing to be unhappy due largely to external circumstances. I made the decision to strengthen my mind and choose happiness. It didn’t happen quickly, and it was difficult, it isn’t even finished, but progress is happening. If it can work for me, it can work for you.
I will leave you a quote from the great Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu: “watch your thoughts they become words Watch your words they become actions Watch your actions they become habits Watch your habits they become character Watch your character it becomes your destiny.” Control your destiny, choose good thoughts.