An Instruction Manual for Happiness

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When I moved into my first apartment as a young adult, I bought a bookcase that required assembly. Scanning the collection of boards and screws that would eventually become the piece of furniture I saw at the store, I thought, “This looks pretty easy to assemble.”

So I forfeited the instructions and dove right into putting it together. Unfortunately, the end result didn’t look quite like the bookcase displayed in the store. Afterwards, I committed to never improvising furniture assembly again. Since then, I’ve followed directions closely.

Around this time of learning the hard way to follow furniture instructions, I was also motivated to figure out how to lead a good life. I soon realized that, unlike the bookcase, no step-by-step directions existed. This led me to learn the mindset and behaviors that would serve as a guide to leading a good life.

Through trial-and-error, I developed a plan that I steadfastly applied to my life. The results brought about positive and lasting change. Later, when I became a licensed clinical psychologist, I introduced my clients to my approach. Those who applied it to their lives saw improvement as well.

I believe in keeping my recommendations simple and straightforward. As you can attest, life can be very complicated. So I avoid adding more complexity to it and, in fact, I do the opposite: Wherever I can, I simplify my life. That’s why my plan comprises only two steps. So let’s explore this two-part guide.

Part One: Have Joy in Life

What do I mean by joy? Joy is the understanding that life is a gift to embrace. We have no way to predict how long we’ll be alive. We have no way of knowing for sure what will happen to us upon death. With so much uncertainty, an attitude of joy right now seems so much more worthwhile than one of dread and fear.

No doubt, many readers may find themselves in circumstances where life seems more like a burden than a gift. But by developing the ability to find joy throughout the day, we’ll suffer far less and recover far faster when we’re hit with the inevitable challenges life throws at us.

So how do we experience more joy in life? First, we have to identify if our past has instilled in us unskillful habits. In order to do this, we must look to the authors of the first life instruction manual we ever received. For most of us, these were our parents. To return to my bookcase example, if the instructions in the box were for a sofa, no matter how accurately I followed them, I’d never be able to build a bookcase. Similarly, if our parents instilled in us habits that did not encourage joy, we will struggle to experience it in our lives.

Let’s say that one or both of our parents were alcoholics. Drinking for them was a way to feel relief from their pain. Or, in a less extreme example, imagine that our parents habitually latched their happiness onto certain experiences. They may have grown elated when they bought something new, met someone, or reached a goal. By doing so, they taught us that happiness was linked to external circumstances: the latest acquisition or accomplishment.

If the instructions we’ve been given base joy on outside events, then we need to replace them with a new set; one that defines joy as something sourced from within. So how do we swap out our old instructional manual with an upgraded one? Like anything valuable in life, doing so will require work.

Beginning a daily meditation practice is one powerful way to introduce true joy into our lives. By spending time in silence, we become aware of any negative thought patterns we’ve had that are keeping us from experiencing true joy.

In addition, from what we read to what we eat, steeping ourselves in an environment that helps us discover the joy inside is an important way to replace any faulty life instruction manual. This steeping is different from seeking joy from external circumstances. Rather, we’re putting habits in place that allow us to uncover the joy we have inside that has been hidden beneath layers of unskillful habits.

Steeping could mean replacing TV binge watching with spending time in nature or meditating or both. It could mean eating more fresh, organic fruits and vegetables and less fast food. Steeping takes many shapes and forms. The main premise is that everything counts: What we see, breathe, and eat affects our ability to access the joy inside.

Part Two: Have Love in Life                         

Love has two parts: Inward and outward. Inward love, answers the question, “Are we being loving toward ourselves?”

In and out of my therapy practice, I’ve noticed people are often hard on themselves. When they mess up—for instance, they say or do something they regret later—they may call themselves dumb, stupid, incompetent, or far worse names. This may seem appropriate given what we did. But if we seek to avoid repeating past mistakes, then this approach will most likely do the opposite.

The self-fulfilling prophecy says that when we put ourselves down, we wind up taking on the meaning associated with the negative words. For example, imagine you called yourself stupid after messing up. The follow up question is, “What do stupid people do?” Answer: They do stupid things. And thus the cycle of messing up continues.

The main premise is that everything counts No longer criticizing ourselves is a first step. Rather than direct harsh words toward ourselves, we can ask, “What can I learn from this?” With this attitude, we realize every experience in life, including mistakes we’ve made, are growth opportunities. Treating ourselves kindly and encouraging ourselves with positive words are acts of self-love.

Outward love answers the question, “Are we being loving toward others?” This is important for one simple reason: Mean people are very unhappy. And the meaner, the less happy they are. That’s why I advise against hurting others through verbal or physical abuse, lawsuits, and threats. In my experience working with people who have taken these approaches, the result is unhappiness.

While being loving toward others is easy for those we enjoy and feel deep affection for, it is challenging when it comes to difficult people in our lives. But being loving toward others means everybody. Even those we struggle with.

Being loving toward those who hurt us or are our enemies doesn’t mean we’re a doormat. In fact, healthy boundaries are acts of love because they protect ourselves and keep others from behaving in self-destructive, harmful ways. So never be a doormat.

Joy and Love: The Two-Part Plan

Throughout the day, ask yourself, “Is what I’m doing encouraging inner or outer joy?” And then always focus on the habits and behaviors that develop inner joy, which is true joy.

Then ask, “Am I acting in ways that express love for myself and others?” And then focus on improving our lives and the lives of those around us through the love we radiate inward and outward. If we’re not experiencing them now, the good news is, joy and love are within us, all the time.

With joy and love woven throughout our entire day, I believe our lives can be beautiful. But the key is to continually focus on them. Life will distract us. The world around us will actually pull us away from tapping into our joy and love. So we must put the effort forth, everyday, to engage in healthy habits and behaviors. And when we do, over time and like a spectacular blooming flower, we’ll see joy and love naturally blossom within us.  

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