Cultivating Happiness - Creativity & Flow

photo credit: dean hochman

photo credit: dean hochman

I’m currently thinking about happiness: what leads to it? Is it the goal in life? Why is it easier for some to achieve than others?  What makes a happy life? 

It turns out that money certainly isn’t the answer.  Once people have enough to get by comfortably, money doesn’t add much to happiness. 

I’m really intrigued by the idea of flow.  Flow is a state that you achieve when your challenges and your abilities are both high: when you lose yourself in your work because you are so engaged in it.

For many people this happens when in the process of creating something new; I’ve realized that for me this happens when creating art, or cooking.  This is the reason that adult coloring books are becoming so popular; it’s a kind of meditation.  You don’t have enough attention left over to focus on your problems, your body, or even your existence.  In a way, you disappear, lose yourself in the activity, or you merge with your work.  This state has been described as effortless, spontaneous, and ecstatic.

Experts who study flow have described it as a state where an intense focus leads to a sense of ecstasy and clarity; time disappears, and you forget yourself because you feel part of something larger.  You know that you can be successful at what you’re doing; you know exactly what to do from moment to moment, and you receive immediate feedback from your process.  This is effort for its own sake.  It’s a passion for doing your best and enjoying your work.

Given all of this, it might be worth a few minutes thought, no? 

What activities can you lose yourself in?  How often do you create opportunities to do so? 

Cultivating Happiness - Rituals

photo credit: Ana-Sofia Arizpe

photo credit: Ana-Sofia Arizpe

Our daily lives are filled with rituals, many that we're not even aware of.  They create a tempo, a pace, as we pass through our daily activities, and a space in time where we can breathe and turn inward.  Some might serve as an escape, and some might bring a moment of peace to savor.   Perhaps it's the first sip of coffee in the morning, or that moment when the kids have gotten out of the car, for many it might be that first drag of a cigarette (we can talk more about that later).

Recognizing your rituals, is a way to further come to know yourself.  What rituals are compulsive, what ones do you want to cultivate in your life?  Are your rituals solitary, or do they connect you with other people?  How long have you had them?  Are they part of your family culture, and passed down through generations?  Or are they creations of your circumstances, and forged in the moment?  Do you enjoy them?  When you think of them and scan your body sensations do you feel light and yearning, or heavy and dreading?

What rituals do you dread?  This is an excellent EMDR topic, by the way!  Can you think of any ways to eliminate them?  If not, then your work might be to try to eliminate the feeling of dread. 

What are some of the rituals you enjoy?  Try making a list of all of them and then increasing the time you spend doing them.

Cultivating Happiness - Happy Place

photo credit: Brian jeffery beggerly

photo credit: Brian jeffery beggerly

A fun exercise, and one that I do with all of my clients, is to take a moment to imagine:

What does happiness look like?  Where would you be? This could be someplace you've actually visited, someplace you've seen in a photo, or someplace you've imagined.  What's important is that calling it to mind brings up feelings of tranquility or joy.  What other feelings would you experience while there?  

Would anyone be with you?  Here, it's a good idea not to include people with whom you have a difficult relationship; if anyone is there with you it should be someone about whom the overwhelming feeling is positive, from whom you feel connection, love, and support.  

What sounds would there be: birds in the trees, waves, children laughing in the distance?  

What would the weather be like: warm, or crisp? Would there be a breeze or stillness in the air?  Maybe it would be raining?  

Would there be any scents: the ocean, perhaps, or flowers, or food cooking?  

How would your body feel: relaxed, exuberant, weightless?

It sounds simplistic, but spending the time to truly develop this "happy place" in your imagination can lead to big benefits, in that it can become an imaginal "mini vacation" that you can access easily in moments of stress.  Doing this activity by itself is relaxing; doing it in conjunction with EMDR is even more so!


photo credit: martin

photo credit: martin




A matter of life or death is worth a conversation.

There are myriad reasons why someone might feel suicidal (isolation, powerlessness, pain, hopelessness, brain chemistry, escape, illness...), and at the end of the day there is only one person who can make the decision.  My concern about suicide is that oftentimes people in those situations are feeling so desperate that they are unaware of their resources, or unable to access them, and because of this the situation might appear worse than it actually is.  I don't judge people for their feelings, but I do hope that they can reach out for help with their feelings, before any drastic action is taken.  My concern is that for many people it can be a permanent solution to what would otherwise have been a temporary problem, and that is just a loss for everyone; we are all more connected than we think.

Another reason for concern is that I have frequently heard from survivors that the suicidal attempt was regretted as soon as it was made:

In the words of one survivor, "I instantly realized that everything in my life that I'd thought was unfixable was totally fixable - except for having just jumped."  K. Baldwin

In the words of another, "What the hell did I just do?  I don't want to die."  K. Hines

"Dr. Seiden's study, "Where Are They Now?," published in 1978, followed up on five hundred and fifteen people who were prevented from attempting suicide at the bridge between 1937 and 1971.  After, on average, more than twenty-six years, ninety-four percent of the would-be suicides were either still alive or had died of natural causes.  "The findings confirm previous observations that suicidal behavior is crisis-oriented and acute in nature," Seiden concluded; if you can get a suicidal person through his crisis - Seiden put the high-risk period at ninety days - chances are extremely good that he won't kill himself later."  


Language - Mantras

Many therapies are based on the premise that our automatic thoughts, our self-referential stories have an enormous impact on our experiences of life.  This might seem obvious, but I just wanted to put it out there as a preface to talking about mantras.

We have tens of thousands of thoughts a day.  They flit through our minds so quickly that we hardly notice.  Most of these thoughts won't ever register as memories; there's no emotion or importance attached to them so they just come and go.  

We speak aloud approximately one thousand sentences per day (it's true that men speak less than women).  These thoughts are more important: we've chosen them, arranged them into sentences, and their very importance means that there is some degree of attachment or emotion tied to them, also they are now connected to the physical actions and sensations of speaking and hearing.  As you involve more senses in the creation of a memory, you're activating more areas of your brain, and building more neural connections to that memory.  The interactions of the multiple regions in our brains necessary to speak mean that these thoughts stand a better chance of becoming memories; the more connections the easier the memory retrieval.  That said, most of what we say is pretty fluffy; "hi" and "what's for dinner?" are unlikely to stick around long.

The thoughts that stick around as lasting memories are the ones that either repeat frequently, or are deeply important and therefore emotional.  There are evolutionary reasons for this, which are connected to community stability, safety, and survival.   If something is dangerous and scary, or invites the displeasure of people upon whom you are dependent, you don't want to forget and accidentally do it again.  So out of necessity, we've evolved to remember these things.

This has both negative and positive implications:  

Negative thoughts carry about three times the psychic weight as positive ones.  This is important to remember in child-rearing, or teaching, because children are especially vulnerable as they are forming their worldview, and sense of self.  A careless criticism takes a lot of repair to fix, and can have long-lasting consequences.  

The positive side of this is that we can choose to actively repeat certain thoughts, or better yet say them aloud.  We can make thoughts take up more mental real estate by repeating them, feeling them, investing in them, and we can consciously choose what we want those thoughts to be.

An interesting exercise is to take a moment to think about what you want to believe.  Keeping in mind that you can't trick your subconscious, you want your mantra to be rooted in reality.  In this exercise you want to come up with a positively phrased sentence that acknowledges the truth of the situation, but also voices the preferred thought.  Once you've created the right mantra for your situation, you then want to ritualize it to give it gravitas, and so that you'll remember to use it.  Something like "I'm nervous about riding in cars because of the car accident, but I want to be comfortable riding in cars again," said aloud every time you get into a car.  It's worth a shot at any rate; I've seen it be very useful in conjunction with therapy when working with PTSD.