Equations for Happiness
The search for meaning and happiness is present in all cultures and in all times. “How to Build a Life”, a bi-monthly column by Harvard professor Arthur C. Brooks, is an attempt to distill the wisdom and science behind the search for happiness into practical advice. I read the inaugural essay “Three Equations for a Happy Life, Even During a Pandemic” at the start of the Covid-19 epidemic while the state of Wisconsin was under a stay-at-home order. My business was closed, my kids’ schools were shuttered, and I wondered what our future would bring. This article helped me reconnect to what was truly important, and come up with a plan for how I would get through that period of my life.
For me, the key takeaway is that our habits have an enormous impact on our happiness in life. Unlike genetics or circumstances outside our control, we can choose our habits. That means we do have some control over our lives, even when it feels like we don’t. Those habits can be summed up as “Faith + Family + Friends + Work”. Faith can mean any type of belief system, religious or secular, that helps you contemplate the big questions in life. Family and friends means making time and valuing love and connection to others. Work is what helps you find purpose in life. It might be what you do for our living, but it could also be a hobby, a volunteer position, or being a caregiver for someone. Living through the pandemic helped me restructure my life so I could focus more on those four things.
Brooks has an excellent podcast series on the following topics:
Building a Resilient Nervous System
This short cartoon from TED-Ed gives a good overview of all the many ways stress can negatively impact a person’s health. As the video points out, and as a significant body of research has confirmed, the mindset we bring to a situation impacts whether or not the stress we experience ends up being toxic for our bodies.
It’s possible to combat stress and build resiliency in your nervous system even if you’re not in a position to make significant lifestyle changes. An easy and effective place to start is with a simple breathing practice. Because our breath can be controlled both unconsciously and consciously (there are actually two different sets of nerves and muscles that can control breathing), it’s a bridge that allows our mind to influence the involuntary nervous system. That means we can use our breath to turn off the brain’s fight or flight response, and reduce the long term health impacts of stress.
My favorite breathing practice is box breathing. We’ve all been angry and taken a deep breath to try and get our emotions back under control. That’s one way to use the breath—during an emotional emergency. Practicing box breathing five minutes a day is like doing regular exercise for your nervous system. Within a week of consistent practice, you’ll find yourself less reactive, irritable or fearful, and that only deepens with time. You become less likely to feel that a small irritation is an emergency, and if it truly is an emergency, you’ll be able to react with greater calm and clarity.
The practice is very simple. Find a comfortable seat and set a five minute timer. Imagine a square floating in front of you. Inhale for a count of four as your eyes travel up the left side of the square. Now hold for a count of four, traveling across the top of the square. Exhale for four, traveling down the right side of square. Finish by holding for a count of four as your eyes travel along the bottom of the square. Repeat for 3 to five minutes. Don’t worry about how fast or slow you “should” be breathing. You don’t need to be perfect in order for this to work. Trust yourself, and keep at it.
Lean In or Write It Out
These are two easy techniques for managing challenging emotions that I’ve used at different times in my life.
The first technique is to intentionally lean into an emotion. It’s counterintuitive, since our first instinct is to try and get away from anything that is painful. Instead, if you experience a strong emotion, try and stay with it fully for as long as it lasts. Emotions change quickly, and the funny thing is that if you really stay with that particular emotion, it tends to ease off within a minute or two. Emotions aren’t as scary when we realize that they fade so quickly. I like to use a meditation poem in conjunction with this technique. On an inhale, I say to myself “Breathing in, I am aware of my emotion.” On an exhale I say, “Breathing out, I smile to my emotion and promise to take good care of it.”
A word of warning on this technique—when you do this, it’s important to remember that you are leaning into the physical sensation in your body of that particular emotion. You’re not leaning into a bunch of thoughts. For example, if you’re angry with a person and you start talking to yourself in your head about all the reasons this person makes you angry, how they’ve ruined your day, etc., try the “Write It Out” exercise instead.
Write It Out
If we think about things that upset us, we tend to go around and around in a never-ending loop. It’s very easy to get stuck, and the more times we go around that loop, the more we groove those negative thoughts into our brain. We basically end up practicing being upset about something, and “practice makes permanent.”
A more useful approach is to simply get out a piece of paper and start writing. I find writing by hand more useful than typing for this exercise. You have a few different options. If you have the time, keep writing until you’ve vented fully. Allow yourself to be as petty, mean, vindictive, frightened, or childish, as you need to be. Go ahead and have a temper tantrum on the page. Once you’ve fully vented, take a few key sentences from whatever you’ve written and rewrite them using the phrase, “It would be nice if…”
Here are a couple of examples:
“I can’t believe how selfish and tone deaf my friend was last night. It’s so typical of her to never think of anyone else’s needs. She really is a complete #$@!%”
Becomes, “It would be nice if my friend had responded with more empathy last night when I told her I was anxious about my son. I know she cares about me because she sends me funny texts to cheer me up, and last month brought me some cookies when I wasn’t feeling good. It would be nice if she had listened to me instead of giving me advice because it made me feel judged. Sometimes I also give unsolicited advice. Sometimes I even judge others. Maybe I can choose to let this go.”
“I can’t believe I asked that question during the meeting. It was totally silent afterward, and everyone looked at me. They all probably think I’m completely stupid and incompetent.”
Becomes, “It would have been nice if I hadn’t felt so awkward after I asked my question today. It’s hard to read people’s reactions over Zoom, especially since half the people on the call had their cameras off. It was a genuine question, though, and just because people were silent doesn’t mean they think I’m stupid. Maybe some of them had the same question and were afraid to ask. Or maybe everyone did know the answer except for me, but not knowing the answer to one question doesn’t make me a stupid person or incompetent.”
Many of you may be familiar with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which is a type of psychotherapy that helps people become aware of inaccurate or negative thinking. More accurate thinking helps people view challenging situations more clearly and respond to them in a more effective way. Although CBT is a treatment for anxiety and depression, it’s also a great tool for anyone who wants to learn better ways to manage stressful life situations.
I am personally indebted to a new type of CBT called TEAM-CBT, which I learned about in the book “Feeling Great”, by Dr. Davis Burns. It has helped me improve my mental and emotional health, improve my relationships, and generally lead a better life. I teach the techniques I learned in “Feeling Great” to my children, and share them with friends and family members. You can get a feel for Dr. Burns’ approach from his blog and podcasts.
Spending time working through the “Feeling Great” book is a fantastic investment in your future health and happiness. It’s straight forward, practical, and easy to use. Most of us have patterns of worries and doubts, unhelpful habits, or difficult relationships that we know we need to change. Yet all of us have a tendency to procrastinate, find excuses, break promises to ourselves, and stay stuck in the same patterns. The reason TEAM-CBT is such a useful form of self-help is that it teaches easy to use techniques that completely melt away that inner resistance to change. Once resistance is gone, change is easy and rapid. Read the book. It will change your life.