November Happiness Challenge: Gratitude

Every month, we’ll post a new happiness challenge for you to practice your happiness skills.

We set aside one day a year devoted to being thankful for all of the many blessings in our lives. While I love the Thanksgiving holiday, we would all be much happier if we learned to practice the skill of gratitude on a daily basis.

For the month of November, I am challenging you to do just that. By November 30th, you’ll be amazed at how much happier you are, just by recognizing all of the many wonderful things that make up your life.

Here is the three-step challenge:

Step 1. When you wake-up in the morning, start your day by thinking of one thing you are looking forward to that day. It doesn’t have to be anything special. As a matter of fact, this challenge works much better if you focus on the ordinary pleasures of your day. Spend about 30 seconds giving your complete attention to this one thing you are looking forward to experiencing. List all of the reasons in your mind. Imagine how the moment will look, feel, smell and taste (if it involves a meal).

Step 2. End your day by closing your eyes and calling to mind something that happened during the day that made you feel good. It could be a simple compliment from a co-worker or a hug from your child. The more ordinary the event, the better it is for this challenge. Bring the moment to mind and hold it in your thoughts as long as you can by going over all of the details of how it felt, what the room was like, what where the reactions of the people around you, and whatever details you can remember.

Step 3. Once a week, choose three of your best, ordinary moments and describe them in a journal entry. It can be hand-written or a computer journal. Write one paragraph about why those three moments stood out in your week. Whenever you are feeling down, read through your journal to remember all of the good things that make up your life.

Why This Practice Works

When we are feeling grateful, our minds are not able to process negative feelings like depression, anxiety or worry. This is why gratitude is like an instant happiness pill you can take anytime you are feeling down.

Researchers tell us that we tend to focus on our negative emotions and brush past the happier moments of our day. The negative is imprinted into our memories more deeply than the more pleasant events. By holding on to those happy moments and reliving them, we imprint them into our memories and expand our ability to experience happiness.

Take the challenge and experience it for yourself.

Happy Thanksgiving.

With more wellness centers offering classes in spiritual practices, meditation and mindfulness, are these programs an affordable alternative to therapy?

They are certainly convenient. You can take a weekend class and then practice on your own. The practices safe and easy to learn, and there have been many studies proving their effectiveness – more so than traditional therapy. According to Martin Seligman, Ph.D.’s insightful book, What You Can Change and What You Can’t, traditional psychotherapy can only effectively cure two mental health conditions.

Does this mean you can just skip the therapy and self-treat unhappiness with spiritual practices?

For people in a mental health crisis, such as severe depression, bipolar disorder, or substance abuse, the answer is an unqualified “no.” A therapist provides the support and expert guidance to evaluate and sort through the chaotic thoughts that can overwhelm us during a crisis. However, for people seeking to lower their stress and gain better emotional mastery, spiritual practices dramatically aid in the end of unhappiness habits.

Therapy is beneficial if the relationship with the therapist is strong and positive, and if the length of time in treatment is sufficient to solve the underlying problem. Unfortunately, therapy is an expense many people can’t afford and most insurance plans restrict the number of sessions covered to far less than what is needed to complete the treatment goals. Because medications provide quick relief of symptoms, insurance companies are shortening therapy time in favor of prescriptions, but the unhappiness problem underneath the symptoms remains. Spiritual practices can fill in that gap and support therapy goals.

Spiritual practices such as mindfulness, meditation and inner work have a profound effect on emotional healing because they acknowledge that humans are more than a personality. In every moment of our life we have the ability to choose how we are going to think. This power to decide what our thoughts and actions will be is commonly called free will. Spiritual practices help us to gain mastery of our thoughts to fully exercise the power of choice.

Learn more about how the healing power of the mind.

Traditional therapy protocols treat symptoms by teaching patients ways to modify self-destructive behaviors. More therapists are also including spiritual practices into their treatment plans because bringing the power of free will into the healing process increases the speed and depth of recovery. These practices keep your thoughts focused on the present moment avoiding unhealthy thought habits of worry, rumination, rationalization and self-recrimination.

Our thoughts govern our behavior and decisions. Unhealthy thought habits produce unhealthy behaviors. That’s how spiritual practices can help. They provide the structure for healthy, happier thought habits that result in a more fulfilling, happier life.

Learn more about mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT).

The Positive Impact of Inner Work

We hear a lot in the media about meditation and mindfulness. What is not explained is that these practices are almost impossible to master without the mental preparation step. Inner work is the practice that readies the mind for meditation and mindfulness. It’s also being explored by both researchers and therapists. Inner work practices supply the structure to examine your thoughts and learn to recognize your unhealthy thought habits.

Spiritual guides have taught for centuries that our thoughts shape our lives. In the early 1960’s, world renown researcher and psychiatrist, Aaron Beck, M.D., confirmed this when he observed the terrible things his severely depressed patients said to themselves. He noticed that when patients changed their self-talk, their behavior changed and symptoms improved dramatically. He used his observations to develop a treatment for changing self-talk known as cognitive therapy.

Inner work helps us to identify unhealthy thought habits and see how they interfere with happiness. It helps us to change the internal dialog in our minds.

Our thoughts alter the shape and function of our brains. Since the mid 1990’s, neurologists such as Andrew Newberg, M.D.  and behavioral scientists such as psychiatrist Daniel Siegel, M.D. have studied the impact of spiritual practices on the brain. By changing thoughts, you reshape the function of your brain. This research sparked an interest in how spiritual practices can be further used to treat a variety of mental health problems that were previously thought to be treatment-resistant. Trauma recovery and PTSD are examples of treatment resistant conditions that are now effectively relieved with inner work, meditation and mindfulness.

Spiritual guides have also taught that no one changes their life until they make the choice to change. Our unhappiness habits end when we choose to replace them with happier, healthier thought habits. Spiritual practices offer the solutions, but, until we make the choice to end our unhappiness, neither spiritual practices nor traditional therapy will force us to change. It always comes back to the power of choice.

Extraordinary Happiness

You’ll find more about how spiritual practices can empower you to live a happier life  in Chapter Two (and elsewhere) of “How to Create a Happier Life with the Enneagram.”

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I’ve been very happily married for 30-plus years to my best friend. My husband and I live, play and work together. But, when people tell me we are true “soul mates,” I have to disagree. The term “soul mate” implies that someone else completes me and is responsible for my happiness. There is no way to have a successful relationship with that expectation.

Happiness is the starting point, not the result of finding a compatible  life partner. Before you can find companionship that is satisfying and fulfilling, you must first complete yourself and be happy with who you are. The expectation that someone will come along and fit like a puzzle piece so you can at last be whole and happy is another example of the happiness myth that something outside of yourself will make you happy.

Companionship is essential to a happy life and my husband has given me love, support when I needed it, laughter, joy and so much more than I could list in a blog post. There are also many people who have lived rich and fulfilling lives without a “soul mate.” They find companionship from a variety of places.

The deeper truth is everyone is your soul mate in that we are all spiritual beings. The more connections we have to others, the more fulfilled we feel with our life. As satisfying as I find my marriage, it would be ridiculous to expect my husband to fill all of my needs for companionship.

Read more about the secrets to a happy marriage.

When you accept a job, you don’t go to work with the expectation that your employer will fulfill all of your dreams for the perfect career. Yet, that is often the expectation for a life partner. Friends, family and acquaintances with shared interests are all important. The more relationships you bring into your life, the happier you’ll feel.

Intimate relationships are happier when you release the fantasies and focus on the contribution you can make to a life with someone who shares your values, interests and commitments. In a happy marriage or life partnership, your attention must be on the partnership and not you.

The Enneagram shows us nine common relationship spoilers that get in the way of finding a life partner. These are the expectations – what I call the soul mate check list – are the myths we carry in our head when we look for romantic partners. Let’s look at those attitudes Ennea- point by Ennea-point.

Ennea-Point One —”When I meet my soul mate s/he will be a perfect match.” Absolutely no one will ever be in perfect agreement with you on everything. Healthy relationships involve negotiations that respect the values and preferences of both people.

Ennea-Point Two — “I’ll be everything you ever wanted.” If you are pretending to be someone’s ideal mate, you are being dishonest about part of who you are. Healthy relationships can never be built on dishonesty – even if that dishonesty is about a “few minor details”.

Ennea-Point Three —”I’m looking for that special person who can strengthen my weaknesses.” It is not the purpose of a relationship to turn you into an exceptional person. Marriage or life partnerships are about creating a shared vision for a life and then building it together. They do not survive if one of the partners demands all of the resources to meet their goals and needs.

Ennea-Point Four — “I need someone who understands me and helps me hold it together.” This romantic myth describes a therapy relationship, not marriage or life partnership. Healthy couples support each other through the tough times, but they do not assume responsibility for the emotional stability of their partner.

Ennea-Point Five — “I know what is best, so I’ll make the decisions.” You will always know what is best for you, but unless you ask your partner, you cannot assume to know what is best for him or her. What’s best for the marriage or life partnership must be decided jointly by both partners.

Ennea-Point Six — “How can I be sure you won’t hurt me?” You can’t. If you are in a marriage or life partnership, you are accepting the responsibility for the mistakes of another person. Blame, worry and suspicion do not prevent hurt; they contribute to the failure of the relationship. Healthy relationships are based on respect and negotiating differences so the feelings of both people are addressed.

Ennea-Point Seven — “As long as we’re together, everything will take care of itself.” Romantic relationships are not a cure for all of life’s troubles. Healthy relationships are a foundation for support but they are not a magic force field to repel all problems.

Ennea-Point Eight — “Don’t worry about a thing. I’ll take care of everything.” Healthy relationships are based on equal value for the contributions of both people. When one person is taking care of all of the problems and decisions then the other is being diminished. Even if that feels good for a while, eventually it will prevent both partners from growing and deepening the relationship.

Ennea-Point Nine — “My ideal partner will always feel comfortable and safe.” Healthy marriages or partnerships encourage each other to grow. They do not fear change, rather they challenge each other individually, and as a couple. A mutual agreement to “never change”, is an agreement to retreat from, and avoid the world. It’s a co-dependency and reduces a relationship to the habit of living together.

Happiness is always the starting place for a life well lived. Anything that is outside of yourself will not lead to lasting happiness, including — and especially — a person you feel you can’t live without. Healthy partnerships grow from two people who are already complete in their happiness. Relationships fail when we are looking for the perfect soul mate to come along with a magic love potion and bring happiness into their life.

The Enneagram and Relationship Spoilers

You’ll find more discussions about using the Enneagram to improve your relationships in Chapter Nine (and elsewhere) of “How to Create a Happier Life with the Enneagram.”

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