For years, I was very curious about what it takes to be happy.
This was a personal curiosity I acquired when I was fifteen, during the time it took for my parents to separate.
My Mother offered me this explanation of the situation: “Paul, your Dad and I just weren’t happy together anymore.”
“Not happy anymore?” I thought. “What do you mean, not happy anymore? How could that be?”
Thus arose a major passion and question to research throughout my life: “What does it take to be happy in relationship and in one’s life?” “What are the keys to being happy?”
This is a report on some of my findings – the principles and answers to this question – that I discovered along the way.
The first exciting breakthrough occurred when I came to realize, “Events themselves don’t make me feel…”
Or to use the words of the Greek philosopher Epictetus:
“People are disturbed not by what happens to them, but by their thoughts about what happens to them.”
When I looked, I could see that people could be happy in a wide variety of challenging circumstances – or not. It wasn’t the “things that happened” or the circumstances of life that troubled us. It was our thoughts about the circumstances.
It was clear to me that most people lived their lives like “the event made them feel” and that this was a principle so clear and simple in its obviousness that most people totally ignore it or pass it by.
Yet it was true. Whenever I experienced a stressful feeling – anything from mild discomfort to sadness, anger, anxiety, fear – I could see that there was a clear and specific thought that had appeared that caused my feeling reaction.
Waiting in the line-up at the bank did not make me impatient (though I thought it did). It was the things I was saying to myself about waiting in the line up that caused my experience.
My partner being late for dinner didn’t create the feelings I was experiencing. It was the thoughts I was having “about” her being late that was causing my experience.
It was the chatter going on in my head, what I was saying to myself, what I believed to be true, that caused the feelings I had.
This was a significant insight and directed me to look more closely within.
The Nature of Our Thoughts, Reactions, and Stories
What were the nature of the thoughts, reactions, and stories that so commonly appeared in my life and relationship?
Quieting myself, I could see an assortment of judgments, anxieties, desires, opinions, constantly appearing within – a constant stream of concerns.
I became more curious and still. What were these thoughts and stories driving at? What was their thrust?
My thoughts seemed to be quite automatic, to have a life of their own. What was their nature?
Clearly as I watched my inner chatter, I saw an enormous amount of self-interest and self importance – fussing, judging, knowing.
These thoughts were all about “me” – my opinions, fears, hopes, annoyances, struggles, and strategies. Always a judging of “reality,” of things that were happening in “my” world. Always a sense of “I know,” “I want,” “I don’t want,” “I like,” “I don’t like,” “that’s good,” “that’s bad.”
I saw a sense of continual efforting, of trying to prove something, of striving, of “things never being quite good enough, not yet,” of dissatisfaction, of discontent.
Secondly, as I watched this thinking, I could see that I rarely questioned the truth of my thoughts. If I thought it, I unthinkingly believed it.
This startled me. I could see my thoughts and stories gave me my experience, my world, and the quality of my life. Yet many of these thoughts were not only automatic – that is, they just seemed to “go off” – but they were rarely challenged or questioned.
So I continued to watch and I began to question. It was then that I noticed that a lot of what I was saying to myself, which on first cut I believed to be true, weren’t necessarily true at all.
Example: “I have to do everything right.” “I can’t really say no.” “I didn’t do that well.” “My wife doesn’t appreciate me.” “My son never listens.” “I can’t do that.”
I could see that, when I quietly questioned and inquired, so many of these thoughts weren’t really true at all and caused personal stress.
It was like I was living in hypnosis, a trance, a dream world.
It was at this point that I could see that it wasn’t “troubling thoughts” that were the problem. It was my “believing them.” It was the failure to first see and second question our stressful thoughts that was the problem.
(Concluded tomorrow, in Part 2.)