Hello best life seekers!
If you are looking for more peace and happiness, are you looking in the right place? We’ve all heard the adage that money can’t buy happiness. What about success? Probably not. Just read the news about the latest unexpected celebrity death. In 2018 alone, the suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain shocked millions. Others will remember celebrity drug overdoses or other tragedies. These people had unimaginable wealth, fame, beauty and success. Why weren’t they happy? Even more troubling, how can people who seemingly have everything actually be so unhappy as to commit suicide or wreck their lives with drugs, alcohol or crime?
Life is a mental game.
I say this not to belittle depression but to point out the fact that it’s all very much in our heads. Depression, after all, is a mental illness. It can’t be treated with money or we would prescribe cash as a cure. The causes of depression and how to prevent or solve this very thorny illness is not what this article is about. Instead, I only want to point out that we can’t expect fame, fortune, or other ideas of success to magically solve our problems and grant us the peace and happiness we search for.
If happiness can’t be bought with success or fame, it also can’t be secured with safety or nuzzled closer by the perfect mate. Happiness isn’t in the number of our friends on Facebook. Money, success, family, friendships and security can give added enjoyment, warmth, and meaning to our lives but in and of themselves they are not the root of happiness and peace. They are things, not states of mind.
Happiness and suffering are what we carry within us. They cannot be found outside ourselves. We can chase fame and fortune and love and money forever because these are not things we can ever truly obtain. They will forever be separate from ourselves. If we obtain them, they can always be lost. Which leaves us with just ourselves, the one thing we usually run from with all our strength.
Strip away everything and you still have yourself. From birth till death, there you are. Rich or poor, happy or miserable, famous or living in obscurity. There you are.
We cannot escape ourselves so long as we breathe.
This is very much the problem. Without a good mental game, we are our own worst enemy. Mental torture? No one can do it better than we can to ourselves. We constantly talk to ourselves. About what we think about the weather, our weight, our achievements or lack thereof, our friends and families, about politics or religion or… We’re always talking to ourselves this way but usually from a reference point that revolves around us and our desires and expectations. We judge and analyze from this point of view – whether it’s the rain, the traffic, whether that smile means someone we like does in fact like us back, whether family members or our children are acting like we think they should, whether we’re going to make it or fail or if that action would be safe or how stupid our aunt Janine is or how colleague Rob is always trying to sabotage us that big fat jerk.
Our mental game determines how happy or miserable we are and whether we thrive or wither.
As mentioned above, depression is a complex mental illness that this article isn’t trying to explain or cure. Having experienced severe depression frequently until my mid-thirties, I understand all too intimately its dark facets and will give no flip prescriptions for a cure.
I will, however, point out what took me from repeatedly falling into misery and into a continuing state of happiness, peace and serenity that’s difficult to break. The most I get now is an occasional funk but even then I’m very much aware of how I’ve let my mental game slip and gently refocus to bring it back to peace.
Zen, Mindfulness, and The Art of Not Giving a F*ck
What can we learn from celebrity suicides, drug overdoses, rehab stints and self-sabotage? Quite a lot.
Firstly, we learn that you can have everything and still feel horrible, gut-wrenching soul anguish that drives you to self-destruction.
Secondly, if you don’t have your mental health, you also don’t have much.
Thirdly, we need a good mental game if want to enjoy this life and experience lasting peace and happiness. Think of this as preventive medicine or healthy exercise for the mind. To do this, we need to train the mental game and find coaches to inspire and mentor us. Then we have to practice that game. What game experience do you want? Is the current one you’re playing up to par? Most times our game is simply a default based on a mix of nature and nurture but it’s not the only game out there.
Want to be happy? Find someone who is happy and learn from them. Want peace? Learn from those who are serene. What are they doing and importantly, what are they not doing as well? In almost every example, they will have a great mental game.
The problem with learning from these people isn’t in the people themselves. It’s in us. They have beliefs and habits that are unique to happy or peaceful people. We are not like them or we would be happy or peaceful. Therefore, to become like them, we must change. This is where the screeching usually starts and the digging in of heels and the abandonment of a cause.
We don’t really want to be happy or peaceful because that would mean changing ourselves and to change ourselves means we are flawed. We all like to mouth platitudes like “I’m not perfect. No one is.” But when it comes down to it, we really think we’re the best in the universe or we do a complete head trip on ourselves and think we’re the stupidest or worst and can’t change.
Key words: we think.
It’s all a mental game.
Happiness is a trainable habit. So is peace.
Misery is a trainable habit. So is anger or self-pity. We’re all born with certain propensities and everyone likes to train what they’re best at. It’s called the conservation of energy. But we can train the various states of mind. I remember at the lowest point of my worst depression realizing that I never wanted to feel this way again and that if I didn’t learn how to climb out of this pit, things were going to get very bleak indeed.
Somehow I went from anguished pain to happiness. The quick answer is to say I choose in every moment to be happy. When a situation occurs, old programming occasionally pops up. Maybe it’s rainy and cold and I don’t like it. This old habit energy is rare. Usually I just notice how nice the rain sounds falling on the street or trees or the way it brings out the brightness of certain colors. When a negative thought occurs, like it’s cold and miserable being in the rain, I simply acknowledge that and consider that I can either be A) miserable or B) happy. It’s more fun to be happy so I return my focus to the beautiful sounds and colors of rain.
Getting from feeling like I was dying in a pit of despair to enjoying a cold, blustery, wet winter’s day took work. It took changing my ideas and beliefs, altering habits, and learning how to watch my thoughts, emotions and physical responses. The change though was so profound that people who hadn’t seen me in a while were shocked by the transformation. “You were so unhappy and dark” or “you were so angry all the time” they will sometimes admit, eyes wide. “Now you’re so happy.” The best is now being called an optimist. (I like to think I’m a realist.)
Change can happen but it requires the ability to jettison beliefs and ideas to adopt new ones and the willingness to put in the work, aka practice for your mental game. It’s sort of like being your own doctor to heal yourself, then being a personal trainer to build yourself strong. In doing this you find that solid unshakeable core within yourself that becomes a warm refuge, offering happiness and serenity in the face of a chaotic but beautiful world.
But this requires sacrificing habits that don’t serve you, adopting habits or beliefs you might once have mocked or belittled, and finding value in points of view you thought previously were stupid.
I was a jaded, cynical and sarcastic person who thought happy-go-lucky people were self-deluded idiots. But being a jaded, cynical and sarcastic person wasn’t serving me. Instead, it debilitated me with depression and unhappiness, pushed people away, and kept me from enjoying the beauty all around me. I was never suicidal but I walked the line on what I called passive suicide – putting myself at risk in situations that weren’t healthy or were extremely unwise. So really, who was the self-deluded person, me or those happy fruit loops?
Seeing only a darkening road ahead if I kept up my then-current habits, I shifted gears to learn from those who were happy and at peace, including those who love sappy memes or laugh at the corniest jokes. Teachers like Zen buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn and writer Eckart Tolle became my mentors through their books and videos, as did a host of others. In studying happiness and peace from those who had achieved it, I learned a new mental game that changed and saved my life.
Mental Game Plans
We’re already playing our own mental game in real life. The question is whether that game serves you. No plan is perfect for every single person. Unfortunately the game plans for misery and unhappiness are the most numerous and easiest to follow and tend to be the default. That’s why the saying “most people live lives of quiet desperation” rings true.
Luckily we can adopt new plans and ways of seeing life that are helpful and conducive to happiness and peace.We can adopt and learn new habits that bring us a warm sense of spirit and contentment. We can find that inner core of strength, that warmth and happiness that does not depend on external events. At the very least we can learn how to stop causing ourselves so much grief and exporting it onto others.
In discovering enjoyment of life, it’s useful to start in a few places in order to shape up our mental houses. Sometimes this means taking stock. Two of the biggest hindrance to enjoying our lives are the following habits:
#1 – Complaining, griping or being offended
Life isn’t roses and chocolates 24/7. We all have moments when things go wrong or have experienced unpleasant things. Big events due occur – childhood trauma, deaths of loved ones, accidents, etc. However, day-to-day, life presents us with mundane matters. How we react to them is the true test. Even big events pass. If we’re still debilitated over them twenty years later, we’re only hurting ourselves at that point. Again, how are we reacting? Where are our habits of thought taking us?
A healthy mental game conducive to peace and happiness shrugs off inconveniences, avoids complaining and griping, and in general, doesn’t see everything as a hassle. These hindrances place us squarely into unhappiness mode. That’s like willingly putting your hand into a garbage disposal and flipping on the switch. Why do this to yourself and make yourself unhappy? But we do it all the time. We’re venting or getting it off our chest people like to say. Okay but for an entire lunch break most days for years? Most evenings when you come home to your spouse or roommates? Every time someone does something you don’t like? That’s a recipe for unhappiness.
#2 – Waiting for some external event to be happy
A lot of us are running after some event or person. We’ll be happy when something happens: We’ll be happy when we get our dream job, when we meet our soulmate, when we buy a house or when we have those 2.5 kids and a dog, when we make X amount of money, when we become famous, when our father approves of the person we’ve become, when we show everyone that we’re the best.
In all these cases, happiness is in the future and it’s based on an external event. Usually the goal posts keep moving so that even if you reach one goal, another one replaces it. This sets us up for unpleasantness. Firstly, what if the event never occurs? Are we really doomed to unhappiness until then? Are we worthless until then? Secondly and relatedly, how long will that take and how many more shifting goal posts? Again, are we supposed to be miserable and unfulfilled until then? Thirdly, in chasing after the external, we’re chasing a carrot on a stick rather than looking inward to where true happiness resides. If we’re not happy within ourselves, no external event or person will offer anything more than a fleeting moment of joy.
Remember those celebrity deaths or celebrity struggles with drugs and alcohol. Things do not in themselves make a person happy.
Building a Better Mental Game
None of this is to say ambition is bad or that money is useless. We all have our lives to lead and paths that will bring added meaning and enjoyment to our days. The difference in pursing a career or lifestyle that brings happiness or leaves a feeling of lack, is in perception. Again, it’s all mental. If you’re looking for the event or accomplishment to “save you” or “make you happy” it will let you down. If you enjoy the journey and the process, you’re closing in on a better mental game.
A fundamental question to ask yourself to gauge where you are is: do you like yourself? Do you find worth in who you are now? Or do you criticize yourself and your trappings as not yet good enough or not yet fulfilling your potential? These self-perceived faults or flaws can motivate us to create and do amazing things. However, even when we realize our dreams, they can still leave us empty, with a sort of “is this all there is?” feeling that can send us down a dark spiral. Without inner strength and a proper mental framework, we can go off the rails and make ourselves miserable – and everyone around us.
Why not learn how to make yourself happy instead?
Probably you have a few “yeah, buts” to throw at me.
What about initiative? Are we supposed to be zenned out passive vegetables for life? Nope, that’s not what this means. You’re missing the forest for the trees. Life is a game that must be lived and how we do that varies from individual to individual. The motivation is key. Doing things in pursuit of happiness is very different from doing things for enjoyment or self-expression. Can you see the difference? Most of us do the former, not the latter and we have horrible depression rates for proof.
Let’s go back to the mental framework. It’s simply adopting habits and beliefs that support happiness and peace rather than training and ingraining those that make us just all right or even downright miserable. It’s learning to find value in the every day, to appreciate and be grateful for what we have and who we know. It’s noticing the beauty on a cold winter’s day rather than focusing only on the coldness seeping into our bones and spinning over that for added misery. It’s appreciating your spouse’s ability to cook great dinners rather than griping them out over their propensity for kicking dirty clothes under the bed instead of putting them in the hamper. It’s learning to stop finding everything so damned annoying when you just want a hassle-free moment.
Life is a series of moments and in every second we are reacting to those moments. We dwell on memories that make us sad even though they happened twenty-five years ago. We haven’t moved on. We’re also obsessed with the future and ignore the present, usually for years – the “life will be better when…” refrain while in the meantime we ignore all the present has to offer. Or maybe we blame others for our misery, like when our loud-mouthed and overbearing colleague annoys us to the point of wanting to chuck our coffee mug at their head.
These reactions though are trainable. Reversible. Erasable.
I used to be the most anti-social, human-loathing person I knew. Everyone annoyed me every moment they were around me. Now, not so much. In fact, I’m usually having fun or enjoying myself long after my more agreeable friends have gotten fed up or upset by others. So this about-face is possible. Now and again the old habit energy of getting annoyed still surfaces but I catch it, find it mostly amusing, and know how to diffuse it before it can regain its old strength.
My mental game shifted. I play offense on happiness-inducing activities like finding the good in every moment and play defense against seeking out only the bad or negative in the moment. Not that I ignore things but in most situations, we are not in a life and death struggle for existence where focusing on the negative will be at all helpful. I can rail against politicians for hours, thereby shooting up my cortisol levels and blood pressure and making myself miserable, or I can resolve to vote and do what I can while letting go of the rage and anger. Or I can simply let that anger and rage go while deciding to do nothing. It’s a choice.
Similarly, I can be annoyed with the way my colleague or relatives think or act or I can accept that they’re different from me and let things go. Unless they’re being emotionally or physically abusive, it’s probably not important. There are times to speak up or argue but these are surprisingly rare in the day-to-day. Instead, I generally gently steer the conversation to topics of mutual appreciation so that I can continue to enjoy their presence and they mine. That or I find it interesting to see how varied opinions and beliefs really are and how ineffable it is.
Perhaps most importantly, I no longer seek outside myself for happiness. I find peace and happiness within myself rather than looking for it externally. Other than the basics, I don’t feel the need for anything external to complete me or bring me happiness. Everything – be it more money, more friends, more experiences or success is just gravy. I am all I need and when anxiety or unease hits, I sit quietly with myself, draw strength from that ineffable sense of being I carry in every moment I’m alive, come back to the present and out of the thoughts that had temporarily distracted me into useless unhappiness. Then I am once again at peace and happy.
In every circumstance, we can find the good or the bad. What we focus on lays the foundation for our emotional responses and the physical feelings that follow. We’ve trained ourselves to look at circumstances and events in certain ways, and created well-dug and entrenched pathways in our responses. Thankfully we can create new tracks rather than getting stuck in our less useful ruts.
Our Mental Games Color Our Reality
All around the world there are happy and unhappy people – in all walks of life, in all cultures, across time and circumstances. Outsized events can impact us but we live now in a time of plenty with relative safety and relative global peace. The richest kings of a hundred years past did not have the luxury we now have as a matter of course. They certainly didn’t have Nike shoes, air-conditioning, the internet, over 500+ channels on TV and an iPhone that was a veritable magic wand of awesomeness. Let alone modern medicine, grocery stores where you could buy so many wholesome foods from all over the world no matter the season, as well as a plethora of junk food so tasty you could gorge on it for a lifetime and never exhaust the varieties.
Every age has its challenges but that is life. Everyone born faces challenges and hardships. Some have an easier time than others. Some are born with a propensity toward a sunny disposition. That’s the hand we’re dealt but every good poker player knows it’s not just the cards but how you play them. It’s the mental game you play that matters most. Can you step beyond the circumstances of the hand you were dealt and learn to formulate a mental game that invites happiness or will you keep the sh*tty hand or worse, turn it into a truly losing position?
We all face this dilemma. To me, it became clear that life and happiness and serenity lay in choosing to be happy. Right now. Moment to moment. Every moment. It sounds unrealistically simplistic and daunting and sometimes impossible. But in truth, it grows easier and easier until the moment arrives when you wonder how you ever lived any other way and that it has, in fact, become habit.
What’s your mental game? Is it serving you or making you miserable? If you seek happiness and peace, search out those mental plans. Live them until they become your new habit. They will change your life.
Need some reading suggestions to get started? Check out this reading list of authors and titles I personally found helpful in my own journey.
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