Have you been thinking about how to be happier this year? There’s a whole industry dedicated to helping you 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 usually involves adding something to your life that you believe is missing.
Perhaps you feel the need to buy something to 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 finding the perfect partner doesn't solve all your problems either). It could even be something spiritual like spending time in nature or doing yoga. Whatever your happiness strategy is, it probably includes having, doing or being something more that you are experiencing in this moment.
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, you’ll notice that even when you get your heart’s desire, you eventually start to experience a 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. While the Western approach is: “Find out what makes you happy and then do more of it” The yogic approach is: “Find out what gets in the way of happiness and then remove those barriers”.
Instead of chasing after something we think will make us happy, we identify, and then remove, the things that make us miserable.
This doesn’t mean un-friending 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 I could experience more joy in my role as a parent. I noticed a lot of my sentences started ‘I love my kids, but…’ and I often felt 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 felt conflicted about my role as a parent. My meditation practice has taught me to notice thoughts as they arise and I realised that a lot of the stories that came up were connected to a belief that other people were judging 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 – My child crying after fighting with another kid in the park.
- Thought – "Everyone will 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 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 (‘I must act in a way that gets approval for my parenting’) helped me to break this endless cycle. Learning to witness my own thoughts taught me to become aware of when I started to act out my anxieties about being a good parent. This in turn gave me the opportunity to choose a different course of action (sometimes!) that made me feel a whole lot happier.
This approach is reflected in the way I teach yoga. I reassure my students that perfecting a particular yoga pose will not bring happiness. If the things that cause unhappiness are still firmly in place, we might find temporary relief in a yoga practice, but that isn't dealing with the underlying causes suffering. For example, if you have a pattern of comparing yourself unfavorably to others, it’s easy to bring that habit into your yoga practice without being consciously aware of it.
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 the awareness that develops along the way that brings transformation, not the physical shapes.
As we move into a new year, remind yourself that there is nothing missing from your life. You don't need to be or do anything more to make you feel complete. Add a short mindfulness meditation to your daily practice and start to notice the patterns of thought and behaviour that cause unhappiness. When you can recognise those patterns, you can take steps to change them and free yourself from the barriers to experiencing happiness.