Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Year in Review 4 & 5: Happiness and Bad Stuff

Well, I better finish this up, since the year is moving on.

One of my key lessons this year was realizing that happiness is a skill. I think that for so long I was trying to make certain things happen that would make me happy. I think this is pretty common -- thinking that some new material possession or some new and improved relationship or a new job or whatever will "make" us happy. But this year I really took to heart that happiness has more to do with internal circumstances than external ones.

The other major life lesson for me this year is this. Bad stuff happens to all of us all the time. Maybe we get out of bed late, or our wife/husband/other-relationship-person yells at us, or the kids don't listen, or our employees or bosses or co-workers are jerks -- it all raises a level of anxiety that we seek to escape. Most of us work very hard to try to prevent the bad thing from happening again. We say, "Hey, don't yell at me. Why did you yell at me? You're a jerk for yelling at me. Don't ever yell at me again." In effect, we react. I've come to see that there is a certain intrinsic futility to this approach -- trying to get the bad things to stop. The real key is figuring out how to respond to the bad thing with grace and dignity. You can't make it stop, but you can choose how to respond. That's the one thing you can control -- yourself (sort of). When bad things happen now, I try to stay focused on how I respond rather on trying to get to to go away.

Okay, so there is a number 6 also. Anxiety/fear triggers the reptilian brain in our heads that yells either "fight" or "flight". This happens like a million times a day -- anxiety wells up from all kinds of little things. Some of us respond to the anxiety with some form of aggression (harsh words, anger, a fist) and some respond with some form of passive escape (stay quite, leave the room, avoid the situation, etc.). We're programmed to respond to anxiety with either passiveness or aggression -- these are survival mechanisms that work for all kinds of species. But being human has to do with staying in the middle. Neither running away, nor fighting, but staying present, calm and firm. This is a tough one, but it's major cool when you can do it. Don't fight back, don't run away. Just stay with it, stay with the person or the situation that is evoking your anxiety. Be present.

It was a great year for me because of these collective insights and skills.

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