Happiness can feel like it’s outside our control – but you have more influence than you realise

The four noble truths of the Buddha are simple to express: suffering is part of life, but happiness is possible and we make choices in every moment that lead us to happiness / suffering. The reason its revolutionary is that it paints a picture where our happiness isn’t an external factor that's outside of our control, it’s something that’s within our reach with some practice, some patience and some persistence.

Which is not to say that you should beat yourself up for not being happy – its as important to practice non-judgement for yourself as for others, because every person you see if doing the best they can given their circumstances, including you.

So how do we train ourselves to be happy? The first step is to focus on the positive. This might not be where our minds go automatically – humans have a natural negativity bias, a leftover from our our evolution where we’re more focused on where there might be wolves than where there’s flowers. This is completely understandable as it kept us alive for thousands of years but its something we need to be aware of when living our modern lives. Social media is very focused on the negative because that’s what grabs our attention. Research shows that consuming any kind of media that is mostly negative affects our mental health. So we need to be careful what we consume.

We can also make a choice in every moment to focus on the good things we have and be grateful for them rather than seeing what we don’t have or what’s wrong. This takes time and patience as we might be very used to focusing on the negative. I live in Britain and we love to have a moan, especially about the weather but it’s within our gift to appreciate the great things that are all around and regularly meditate on them or capture them in a gratitude journal. On the flip side can notice our judgmental thoughts arise, listen to them without getting involved or judging and watch them pass without acting on them. This is how we train ourselves to focus on the positive.

The second step is smiling to your difficulties. This sounds absolutely crazy – why would you want to smile when things are difficult? There's two reasons – the first is neurological. When you smile, even if you don’;t feel like smiling, your brain releases chemicals which reduce stress and lift your mood – so its a very easy way to change how you’re feeling. That's why we gently smile while we meditate.

The other way smiling helps is that it reduces the power those difficulties have over you in your mind. When we see anger, anxiety and sadness as our enemies that rob us of our peace then (naturally) we’re afraid of them – we try and block out the thoughts and we run to consumption to help us out, which of course never works in the long term. When we smile to our difficulties, our difficult emotions and say, “there you are, my old friend”, we accept what we’re feeling without judgement, we reduce our suffering.

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