There’s a whole industry dedicated to helping people be happy. From vision boards to positive affirmations, there’s one message that all the self-help techniques have in common: ‘Have, do and be MORE’. When you head off on your quest for happiness, it invariably involves adding something to your life that’s missing right now.
Perhaps you need to buy something that will bring you bliss (but us yogis know you can’t buy happiness, right?). Maybe you’re looking for happiness in your relationships (although many of us can testify that Mr/Ms Right and a family of little baby Rights don’t make for happily ever after either). It could even be something spiritual like spending time in nature or doing yoga. Whatever your happiness strategy involves, it probably includes having, doing or being something more that you are experiencing right now.
But there’s a catch. Whether it’s doing down dog on the beach or buying a new car, when your happiness is dependent on being, doing or having something more, you’ll notice that even when you get your heart’s desire, you eventually start to experience the same sense of lack again. It’s called Hedonic Adaptation, a psychological trick that makes us grow tired and dissatisfied with even the most wonderful gifts once we get used to them.
Yoga takes a fundamentally different approach to figuring out how to be happy. While Western thought tells us: “Find out what makes you happy and then do/have/be more of it!” Eastern thought suggests: “Find out what gets in the way of happiness and then remove those barriers”.
We don’t have to chase after something to make us happy. We need to identify and then reduce or remove the things that make us miserable.
This doesn’t mean un-friending all the people who get on your nerves. It means taking a look at the habitual thought patterns that create uncomfortable feelings and cause behaviours that lead to more suffering.
I’ll give you an example. When my children were very young, I often wished that I could experience more joy in my role as a parent. I noticed that a lot of my sentences started ‘I love my kids, but…’ and I spent a lot of time feeling exhausted and confused. I couldn’t (and often still can’t) figure out how to strike a balance between their needs and mine. There are all kinds of complicated reasons why I experience myself as a not-so-perfect-parent, but through my yoga and meditation practice, I’ve been able to peel away much of the internal conflict gnawing away at me.
The first step was noticing the stories that surface in my head when I feel conflicted about my role as a parent. Thanks to a regular meditation practice that taught me to notice my thoughts as they arose, I realised that a lot of those stories were connected to how I thought other people judged my parenting.
I soon noticed that these thoughts triggered my ‘good mother’ act, rather than responding authentically to my kids. Of course, that didn’t meet anybody’s needs. I found myself caught up in a vicious cycle of automatic thoughts and reactive behaviours that went something like this:
- Trigger – Child crying after altercation with second child in park.
- Thought – Guilt. They’ll think I’m a terrible mum if I don’t fix this.
- Action - Scoop up child and comfort /admonish him ostentatiously.
- Outcome – Child doesn’t get his needs met (he can tell I was being a phony). I don’t get my needs met (I just acted in a way that didn’t feel authentic). Everybody is cranky.
Being able to observe my thought patterns (‘people will think I’m a bad parent’) and then connect them with the actions they prompted (‘must act in a way that gets approval for my parenting’) helped me to break this endless cycle. It was like an internal alarm system that went off whenever I felt the urge to act out my anxieties about being a good parent. This gave me the opportunity to choose a different course of action (sometimes!) which made me feel a whole lot happier.
What I didn’t do was try to figure out how to make myself feel happier, an approach that sends us out in search of something ‘more’ or ‘better’ and runs the risk of creating deeper dissatisfaction. I simply noticed thoughts and actions that were causing my unhappiness and took steps to reduce them.
This approach is reflected in the way I teach yoga. I make it very clear to students that perfecting a particular yoga pose will not bring happiness. If the things that cause unhappiness are still firmly in place (and often completely unconscious), we might find temporary relief in our practice, but there is a risk of further entrenching the things that cause suffering. For example, if you have a pattern of comparing yourself unfavorably to others, it’s easy to bring that into your yoga practice.
The process of mindfully experiencing your thoughts and feelings as you learn the poses is far more important than perfecting the practice itself. It’s awareness that develops along the way that brings transformation, not the physical shapes.
Nikola Ellis is the founder of Adore Yoga, yoga therapist, counsellor and teacher trainer. She conducts regular trainings that help people of all ages, shapes and abilities enjoy the benefits of yoga and meditation, including Meditation Facilitator Certificate Trainings; Level 1 200hr Teacher Training and Post Graduate Yoga Teacher Training in Mental Health, Adaptive Asana and the Foundations of Yoga Therapy and a highly regarded professional 650hr Graduate Certificate of Yoga Therapy.