Are you happy? As happy as a woman can be, who lost her brother, her mother and her job in the last six months. That is the answer, right? As happy as a person can be who – fill in the blank. So given that these things happen, how can we be happy?
Everyone has losses, heartbreaks and disappointments. That is part of being human. I wish it was easier for us humans, but it isn’t; and none of us are exempt from feeling upset when bad things happen.
I told a friend recently that sometimes I feel like I’m standing in a storm with a really good umbrella. She asked me where to get such a magical umbrella and I told her that my umbrella (and occasionally also a mythical pair of awesome yellow rubber boots) are made up of my mindfulness and self-compassion practice.
I have a list of what gives me joy. It’s a list that I have all my students write down on the first day of class. It has easy everyday items, like taking a bath, reading a good book, talking to a friend, or even watching a psychology film; as well as more grand entries like travelling to exotic locations and witnessing great theatre and music. I have my students categorise their list as I have categorised mine – by what activities you are already doing, and what activities you could reasonably do the way your life is set up right now. (So, for example, if travel to India was on your list, but you have neither the time nor the money to take such a trip, that goes in a different category than the things you can reasonably fit into your life right now, like picking up fresh flowers or listening to music).
I meditate every day. No exceptions. I don’t care if it’s a 20-minute sit on my cushion, or if it is a 3-minute body scan to help me to fall asleep at night. I’m not going to set myself up for failure by having the expectation that I’m going to set a time each day to meditate. That’s just not how my life works. If I said to myself: ‘OK, I’m going to set aside 20 minutes first thing in the morning, and 20 minutes before bed every night,’ I’d fail at least once every day.
What works for me is fitting in mindfulness on and off during the day, and fitting in a meditation of any length once a day. The mindfulness component in this should not be minimised. It’s a huge deal noticing what you are doing when you are doing it on and off during the day. Those moments, when you are not ruminating on the past or worrying about the future all add up to brain health.
The last crucial addition to this happiness recipe is “taking in the good” when you are feeling the joy of the activity that you are doing. The concept of “taking in the good” was popularised by Rick Hanson, of Hardwiring Happiness and Buddha’s Brain fame. (He is one of the most prolific teachers today, helping people to learn how to live happier lives through his Foundations of Well-being on-line course and his many books and newsletters). He explains that you need to let the good feeling fill you up, notice how it feels for a breath or two, to let it land so it can create new neural connections in your brain to re-wire your brain for more happiness and resilience.
Part of the magic of my umbrella is that it is made up of dozens of techniques so that I can use what I need in that moment to help me deal with what ever is raining down on me. Anyone can learn how to do this work. It just takes willingness and practice. This is skill building at it’s best. It’s a pleasure and an honour to be able to teach people how to craft their own magic umbrella so that they too can say: ‘May we be happy,’ and know that it is actually possible to feel moments of happiness amid the storms of life.
Julie Potiker is a trained Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC) teacher. Julie has completed over a dozen courses in this field.