How to be happy
A skill to be learned
by Marcus Loane BMedSc DipComp MBCS
"A happy person is not a person in a certain set of circumstances,
but rather a person with a certain set of attitudes." - Hugh Downs
What does happiness mean?
First of all, happiness is not the same as temporary hedonistic pleasure. If you indulge in pleasure seeking alone you can eventually be left feeling empty and unsatisfied. This has been the route of many famous musicians and actors. Also, in this article I am not talking about always laughing, joking and being outwardly bubbly and extrovert which is often determined by personality. I am talking about something deeper and more robust. I am taking happiness to mean contentment and satisfaction with life as a whole, and an enjoyment of and satisfaction with many small things every day. It also means experiencing very little negative emotion such as sadness, anxiety, worry, envy, regret or fear. It means regularly feeling appreciation, gratitude, love, joy, peace, optimism, energy, and curiosity for and engagement with the world around you.
If you think you could be happier and you want to get out of bed every morning looking forward to your day with joy and gratitude to be alive then read on.
I have written this after much reading on the subject of happiness. I discovered that the same principles keep cropping up again and again. I have put these principles into practice and found that they work. Much of it is based on scientific research. The fields of psychology and happiness research are becoming much more scientific and quantifiable. Even relationships have been studied in a scientific manner and valuable results have been obtained.
Most people want to be happy and this is the motivation behind most of what they do. Others may not give happiness much thought and they basically do what is expected of them. They do their duty or they may get caught up in climbing the ladder of social and financial status without asking themselves why they are doing it.
Many people make incorrect assumptions about what they think will make them happy. They assume that status, money, career success, fame, marriage or having children will automatically make them happy. If you ask those who have these things (or their therapists) they will often tell you that that is not the case. They may feel like they need something more. They put conditions on their happiness – I will be happy when, “We have another child”, “The kids leave home”, “I get a promotion” and they can never be satisfied and happy in the present. If they achieve the ambition then they will dream up new ones so they are always living for the future and do not appreciate their lives right now. They could be very successful and yet always looking for something more.
Why do we postpone happiness and put conditions on it? Why do we persist with the false belief that money, for example, will produce happiness? It is a well known adage that money does not buy happiness but why do people not believe this? Research comparing different countries has shown that once our basic needs are met, any further increase in income has negligible effect on happiness. Studies on lottery winners also show that after a period of adjustment the winners’ happiness levels return to what they had been before the win. Money can certainly help in that it gives us more options in how we live our lives and can remove the fear of hardship or financial stress if we do not overspend. However, money, career success, fame, marriage or having children can all bring their own set of problems. Something else is needed to be happy with or without these things. If you think to yourself, “I can only be happy if...” or, “I can only be happy when...” then you are postponing happiness and making it much more difficult to be happy. Even if you do get the conditions that you thought would make you happy, the same type of thinking will crop up again and you will create new “happy ifs” and “happy whens” and it is an endless cycle of thinking you will be happy at some time in the future and never reaching it.
Happiness is partly genetic, partly based on circumstances and partly based on our intentional activities. What is surprising is that studies show the breakdown as 50% genetic, 40% intentional activities and only 10% circumstances. That is a surprise to most of us as it is a common belief that it is our circumstances which dictate our happiness levels, yet the data suggests otherwise. We have the 40% of intentional activities to work with, if circumstances remain unchanged. It suggests we can adjust our happiness by adjusting our attitudes, thinking and activities. Therefore you cannot fully blame your genetics or circumstances for being unhappy. There really is scope to make yourself happy just by working on your thinking, attitudes and perspective.
Being happy is best regarded as a learned skill, just as conducting a successful happy relationship is a learned skill. Happiness is a learned skill, an on-going process, a way of being, thinking and doing, rather than some endpoint in the future. Happiness, like relationships, can be worked on and tended to and this will be more successful with a little knowledge on the subject. These are skills which should be taught in school as they are so life changing and life enhancing. To some they come naturally but human nature often works in the opposite direction leading to individuals unsatisfied with their lives. Being happy is also a choice. That may sound silly but if you focus on being happy (today, not at some time in the future) then you will start doing the things which make you happy. In other words you need to make a priority of being happy and do it daily from the moment you wake up. This is not selfish, because if you are happy then the people around you will benefit too.
Often it is almost as if we do not give ourselves permission to be happy in the present. We have this sense that there are certain things in our life which are not quite right. They need attending to or fixed or tweaked and only then can we be happy. The problem with this type of thinking is that most of the time there will always be something that is less than perfect. Part of being happy is giving yourself permission to be happy even if things are less than perfect. Why should you let a lack of perfection (an impossible ideal) spoil your happiness? Your happiness should have a higher priority than the various circumstances in your life. This is an important flip in perspective which can make a huge difference to your enjoyment of life. You can allow yourself to be happy right now and accept that there will always be things which are not exactly perfect.
get happy and
1. Cultivate gratitude
2. Maintain self esteem
3. Live in the present - “flow”
4. Accept imperfection
5. Think positively
6. Be part of something bigger
7. Work on relationships
8. Create a full, balanced, meaningful life
most important of these are gratitude and positive thinking,
or even just the elimination of negative thinking.
1. Cultivate gratitude
Human nature is such that we can easily become
blasé or overly familiar with the good things in our life and often end up
focusing on our problems instead. It is very useful to constantly remind
yourself what you have to be grateful for. This could be a roof over your head,
food to eat, friends, family or your health. It could be being lucky enough to
have been born in a rich western country, being lucky enough to have been born
at this time in history when we have access to education, foods from all over
the world and endless ways of entertaining ourselves and cheap travel. We live
lives which kings and queens from the past would envy. Compared to people
centuries ago, we have amazing powers with access to information on practically
anything on the internet.
Everyday remind yourself what you can be grateful for. We can be grateful for the people in our life, our possessions, our education (at whatever level) and our health. This also works well when things go wrong. If someone damages your car, be grateful that you have a car which can be damaged. If you are not enjoying your work, be grateful that you have work. If you lose your hearing in one ear, be grateful for the hearing in the other one. Gratitude is a type of positive thinking and seeing the glass as half full. Do not qualify your gratitude with a “but”. It will not work so well if you remind yourself that you are grateful for your house but you want a bigger one. You will be much happier if you concentrate on what you have rather than what you don’t have.
Research has shown that it is physiologically impossible to be in a state of fear at the same time as in a state of gratitude or appreciation. Therefore feeling gratitude also gives you confidence.
When you wake up, be grateful that you are alive to live another day
because life is short and every day is a precious gift.
When you wake up you can also be grateful for your warm bed, your partner next to you if you have one, the luxury of your hot shower in the morning, the food you have for breakfast. You get the idea – notice the familiar and be thankful. First thing in the morning is a great time to remind yourself to be grateful for the things you may take for granted, as this sets the tone for the whole day.
2. Maintain self esteem
A healthy self esteem is an important element
of happiness. A good self esteem is not the same as a puffed up and competitive
ego. Having a good self esteem means you are able to value and respect yourself. When you have a healthy self esteem you do not
mind very much what other people think and your well being does not depend on
other people. That does not mean you are dismissive of what other people think,
just that it does not affect you very much. You can be proud of yourself even
for simple small achievements each day. If you are proud of something you have
done it does not matter what other people think of it. You can view yourself as
a kind of on-going project where you add new skills and interests as you go
along and this leads to a satisfaction with yourself and your ability to grow
and develop. A willingness to learn new things really helps here. If you are
scratching your head at this then I would suggest you take up an evening class
doing something that either interests you or is totally new to you. Another
useful exercise might be to write down a list of your achievements so far. You
can be aware of your strengths and weaknesses and then accept them and be happy
with them and realise that everyone has strengths and weaknesses. However these
are not set in stone and you can always improve over time, yet still be happy
with yourself right now.
It is difficult to have a healthy self esteem if you adopt a victim mentality because being a victim turns you into something passive and you are at the mercy of external events. The solution to this is to take responsibility for yourself and your life and how you feel. If you feel bad then it is up to you to fix that. (Note - if you are severely depressed you should see a doctor.) With a good self esteem you feel in control of your life and you do not blame anyone else or circumstances for how you feel. A healthy self esteem allows you to receive (and accept) criticism without it affecting you badly or becoming overly defensive. You respect yourself and you respect others. It also leads to resilience so you are able to bounce back from difficult situations with ease. You will also have a combination of humility and self assurance which springs from being honest about your abilities and limitations without fear.
3. Live in the present
Do you remember times when you were completely absorbed in some activity? You forgot any worries and you were unaware of yourself, your past or your future. This condition contributes to happiness and has been described as “flow”. It is often experienced during creative processes such as writing, computer programming or making art and can be present while exercising, dancing, playing sports or becoming absorbed in household projects (known as DIY in the UK). Some city traders have described experiencing this state while they are working. If you can be in this state regularly you will have increased levels of happiness. The flow state often occurs when we are both challenged and competent. In a flow state we “forget ourselves” and we are fully absorbed in the present.
An important part of being happy is just noticing the activities that make you happy and making a conscious effort to do them. Even the mental exercise of just noticing what makes you happy in the present will increase your happiness. It could be something simple like reading, playing with your baby nephew or watching birds from your window. It could be making multimillion pound business deals or learning a new skill. I would not include activities that cause harm or lead to regret like drinking too much alcohol or over eating. Do you feel happier slumping in front of the TV or walking round the neighbourhood or park looking for things you havn’t noticed before? Often the things that make us happier and leave us with a happy satisfied feeling afterwards are those which require a little more effort than passively consuming entertainment. Lethargy may be all that is stopping you from being happier.
The present is where you can live your life and be happy.
You can still plan, anticipate and reminisce.
Make plans for the future. Then enjoy the small steps in the present which are part of your plans and do not worry about the future. Enjoying the journey to a goal whether you achieve it or not is more important for your happiness than actually achieving it. Learn from the past but do not dwell there, (although revisiting happy memories is a useful exercise). Then return to the present and make the most of it as you only ever live in the present. If you focus on being happy and doing your best in the present then your future will take care of itself. If you are happy in the present you will have more energy, optimism and confidence so your future is much more likely to be better than if you are constantly worrying about it.
Do not wish your life away.
Again this stems from the principle of living
in the present. You cannot be content and happy if you are constantly wishing
it was some time in the future. Do not be wishing it is 3 years later and your
children are all attending school. Their early years are most valuable to you,
to them and for your memories. Do not be wishing you had finished your degree
in 18 months time. Do not be wishing it was the weekend. There are people who
wish away their entire working week. That is practically writing off half of
their life. If you do this you need to adjust your attitude and find a way to
enjoy what you do in the week. Do not even wish your working day was over in 43
minutes. You will never get those 43 minutes back so how can you make the most
of them. When you realise that every waking moment is incredibly precious and
limited then you will want time to slow down, not the opposite.
You can still anticipate good things in the future without wishing time would speed up to reach them. The trick is to get enjoyment from the anticipation of an experience and stretch that out, then enjoy the experience and finally enjoy the memories of it. That way you get as much happiness from an event as you can. This is common with holidays where there is much planning and excited anticipation and discussion. The experience of the holiday itself may be short but then reminiscing on it and viewing photos extends the experience so the whole thing can be smeared out in time for maximum value to you.
4. Accept imperfection
It is very difficult to be content and happy
if you are a perfectionist. If you need perfection to be happy you are making
things very difficult for yourself because life is rarely perfect. It is much
better to accept the reality that life is messy and full of surprises and to
embrace all of it and revel in its challenges. It is not even possible to
define perfection so a perfectionist will always find flaws in even the best of
circumstances and this acts as a hindrance to a full
enjoyment of life.
It is also useful to be flexible about your future plans. If they do not work out this is not a tragedy. You can adapt and do something else. This makes the future seem more exciting and full of possibilities rather than being set on one particular predictable path. You can view your future as unknown and not have any fixed expectations of it. Then you will regard everything that you do achieve or everything that goes well as a bonus, rather than seeing it as expected. This outlook will make you feel grateful and happy instead of world weary and cynical.
Accepting yourself and other people as imperfect human beings with strengths and weaknesses, and accepting that random events occur in people’s lives for no particular reason, is a great step towards being happy. It will make you more forgiving and compassionate towards others and yourself.
This section is rather long but it is also the most important element in staying happy.
Our moods are largely caused by our thoughts about events rather than the events themselves and once this is realised it gives us power over how we feel. Many fall into a habit of negative thinking and it is just that, a habit. It is a very destructive habit which can eventually cause a downward spiral into depression and affect physical health as well. However it can be unlearned. It takes a degree of humility to recognise that your thinking may be mostly negative. Most negative thinkers or depressed people will insist that their thoughts reflect the way things really are and they are just being realistic. However happy people will view the same circumstances in a different way.
What is a negative thought?
A negative thought is any thought that leaves you feeling less contented than before you had it.
Obviously these thoughts are appropriate in certain circumstances but it is unhealthy when the majority of your thoughts are of this nature. Examples are thoughts about how bad things are, the problems you think you must solve, thoughts about how people may have disappointed you or not acted in a way you like, thinking about past hurts or grievances, feeling you are no good or people do not like you, feeling other people are no good, the world is a bad place, your life is a mess, and so on. Often when gloomy people examine their thoughts they find that about 90% of their thoughts are of this type and it is so habitual they regard it as normal. When it is brought to their attention by a therapist or through reading and self-examination they are quite surprised to learn that not everyone thinks this way.
Studies have shown that recognising negative thoughts and deliberately replacing them with more realistic positive thoughts can alleviate or cure depression. This has been given the fancy name cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). Those prone to unhappiness or mild to moderate depression can learn to recognise their automatic negative thoughts as unhelpful distortions of reality. Negative thinking has a habit of snowballing and should be regarded as harmful. The first step is to monitor your thinking throughout the day and ask if it is negative and if so, then correct this. The more you can do this the lighter your mood will become. You can learn to take your own thoughts less seriously and learn to laugh at yourself. A happy person might notice themselves having a negative thought and they will catch themselves on and think something like “oh there I was thinking negatively, silly me” and they will dismiss it. However a negative thinker will follow up on the thought and take it very seriously and start analysing it and generate more negative thoughts and their mood will get lower the more they get caught up in their negative thinking. Realising the connection between your mood and what you have been thinking about is an important step in removing negativity and low moods from your life.
Do you have thoughts such as, “I am not a happy person”? That is a negative thought and every time you think it you are reinforcing that you are unhappy and making yourself worse. Even worse would be thinking “I will never be happy”. You could correct this thought to “I am being positive from today”. Do you label or see yourself as “a loser”, unlovable or miserable? If so you are reinforcing a negative self image and need to challenge this thinking, turn it around and focus on your strengths. For example “I am successful at.... being a good listener, being a parent, earning a living” or whatever you can think of.
Here are some other types of negative thinking. The categories are from David Burns’ “Feeling good”.
ALL-OR-NOTHING THINKING: eg. If you make a mistake at work or school and your performance isn’t perfect you see yourself as a total failure.
OVERGENERALISATION: You see a single negative event as part of a continuous pattern of woe. eg. “This just proves that everything always goes wrong for me,” or “I always screw things up.”
MENTAL FILTER: You pick out a single negative detail and dwell on it exclusively. eg. A teacher gets 28 positive evaluations and 2 negative evaluations from his students and he fixates on the negative ones.
DISQUALIFYING THE POSITIVE: You reject positive experiences by insisting they “don’t count” for some reason or other. “My doing well must have been a lucky fluke.”
JUMPING TO CONCLUSIONS: You make a negative interpretation even though there are no definite facts to support your conclusion.
a. Mind Reading. You arbitrarily conclude that someone is reacting negatively to you. eg. “He doesn’t like me. He’s just pretending to.”
b. The Fortune Teller Error. You believe things will turn out badly “because they always do” – like they are somehow linked, and you feel convinced that it is a fact.
MAGNIFICATION (CATASTROPHISING) OR MINIMISATION: You exaggerate the importance of things eg. “This is a total disaster!” “My life is a complete mess!” Or you inappropriately shrink things until they appear tiny (your own qualities or achievements). This is also called the “binocular trick.”
EMOTIONAL REASONING: You assume that your negative emotions necessarily reflect the way things really are: "I feel it, therefore it must be true."
SHOULD STATEMENTS: You try to motivate yourself with shoulds, musts, oughts and shouldn’ts, as if you had to be scolded before you could be expected to do anything. The emotional consequence is guilt. When you direct should statements toward others, you feel anger, frustration, and resentment that they are not living up to the high standards you have set for them.
LABELING AND MISLABELING: Instead of thinking “I made a mistake”, you attach a negative label to yourself, “I’m a loser/idiot/failure.” When someone else’s behaviour rubs you the wrong way, you attach a negative label to him, “He’s a horrid person.” Mislabelling involves describing an event with language that is highly coloured and emotionally loaded.
PERSONALISATION: You see yourself as the cause of some negative event which in fact you were not primarily responsible for. Alternatively you blame others and don’t own up to any share of the responsibility. In other words you need to attach blame exclusively to yourself or to others and cannot see that there may be joint responsibility and multiple factors at play.
If you recognise these kinds of thoughts in yourself, or find yourself constantly worrying about the future or analysing the past in a negative way, then you will benefit by confronting the thoughts and replacing them with positive alternatives. Another approach is just to nip a negative train of thought in the bud and “change the subject” in your head. Do you really want to waste hours of your precious short life feeling bad by analysing and dwelling on things that make you feel worse? Why would you do that when all it accomplishes is making you feel worse and hence even less able to handle things? Traditional psychotherapy may be guilty of this by encouraging the digging up of old problems. You can learn to control what you think about and hence how you feel.
This is not avoiding reality. It is choosing to see it in a different way that will ultimately benefit you.
It is the trick which happy people use whether habitually by nature, or by learning how to do it through reading articles such as these. If you find this difficult at first you could try doing activities which distract you from negative ruminations. The less negative thoughts you have the better you will feel and this is something that can be started immediately and the benefits will be noticeable immediately. All you have to do is notice when you have a negative thought and stop. Make that your number one priority.
You might think, “I have really serious problems so I need to dwell on them.” There is some truth in that you may need to see if there is anything that you can do to address your problems, but sometimes what happens is you end up worrying and going round and round in circles and not coming up with a solution.
Worrying seldom achieves anything except making you feel bad.
When you feel bad you are less likely to come up with creative solutions or useful flips in perspective. It is better to stop the worrying and then when you are feeling better as a result, solutions may come to you or your problem may no longer seem like a problem anymore.
Habitual negative thinkers will start analysing their negative thought and add more to it. They will dwell on the issue and really try to get to the bottom of it. They will fret and fume for hours, building the whole thing up in their minds until they feel much worse, and then they will tell themselves they are justified in feeling this way. They might get distracted – the door bell rings. They deal with the child looking for sponsorship (and they are feeling much better now as they have forgotten their negative ruminations temporarily). They say goodbye to the visitor and what do they do? They think, “Now what was I thinking about? I must start thinking this over again,” and they make themselves feel worse again. It is a crazy form of self torture. The negative thoughts are like magnets attracting attention but they can be resisted.
When happy people have a
they do not take it seriously or follow it up,
they dismiss it and move on.
You can choose to think about your issue in a positive way. The way to do this is to try and turn it around in your head in some way so that you can see a positive side which you can believe. There are various ways to do this. You could ask yourself could it be worse. You could see it as a lesson to be learned which will make you stronger or wiser or more patient. You could ask yourself what good could come from it. Be creative here - often bad things lead to unexpected benefits. You can ask yourself is there anything I can do about it. If yes, then do it, and move on. If no, then forget about it, and move on. Alternatively you can choose to think about something else and stop dwelling on anything that makes you feel bad, and the more you try to do this, the easier it will become. Eventually it will be automatic. You will have automatic positive or neutral thoughts rather than negative ones, automatic positive reactions to events rather than negative ones.
Try to see the positive in everything, no matter how bad it may seem. When you think a positive thought do not be tempted to add a “but” to it. Just leave the positive thought untainted by negativity. Learn to see difficulties as challenges and learning experiences. With practice this becomes easier. Positive thinking is a fantastic habit and can transform lives. The reality is that every situation can be viewed through the filter of positive or negative perspective and one is not necessarily truer than the other. However if you cultivate the habit of using the positive filter then your experience of life will be so much better, so why would you not? Even difficult life events can have unforeseen benefits in the future and it is useful to try and imagine these. Perhaps you have lost your job. Well then you might find a much more fulfilling one. Positive thinking leads to optimism and imagining things going well in the future. This leads to more energy and confidence and can become self-fulfilling. Focus on what you have rather than what you want. Focus on what you like in yourself and in other people and focus on what went well rather than what went badly.
Try and see events in your life and your reactions to them as quite separate. Your thoughts about events are what change how you feel, not the events themselves. This is great news because even if you cannot control some events, you can still control your thoughts about them. This means how you feel no longer depends so much on life events. You are no longer passive, being buffeted by life’s fortunes and misfortunes. Eventually you can reach a place where you feel you can handle anything that life can throw at you and you will cope. You can imagine the worst thing possible and while knowing it would be hard, you know you will manage and find something to be positive about and something to be grateful for.
Think of your default natural state as being
and when you are not that way it is because of what you have been thinking. Whatever you have been thinking, whether it is worrying, anxious, bitter, envious, regretful or any other type of negative thoughts, has masked this contented grateful underlying state. You can access this peaceful state any time and you know it is there underneath even when your thinking has temporarily obscured it.
Your experience of life and your mood depends on what you think about and you have control over this. You can dismiss worry and negative thoughts as pointless and harmful and you can fill your mental life with good things and positivity. All it takes is a little effort until it comes naturally and what could be more worthwhile?
6. Be part of something bigger
If you feel that you are part of something bigger than yourself this will contribute to your happiness levels. This could mean being part of a community, a political cause, an organisation, a voluntary group or a religious group. If you think about your work, you could think about the whole business or organisation and how it impacts other people’s lives for the better and how your contribution is important. If you are a medical receptionist you are playing your part in an organisation which saves lives and makes people’s lives better. Another example would be a brick layer seeing himself as building homes for families to live in, rather than putting one brick on top of another for a pay cheque. You could also view yourself as playing a part in the whole rich tapestry of humankind or all life on this planet. We are not islands and everyone is connected to other people and other species. We are a part of an ecosystem and a part of a culture or cultures so we are all part of something bigger than ourselves. It is not just a fancy notion or trick of the mind. We are one of many interacting components of the system of life on earth and the strange phenomenon that is consciousness, and yet, we are still absolutely unique.
For me, being alive and conscious of my place in the universe and being able to learn something about it, feels like a terrific privilege.
7. Work on relationships
The quality of our relationships with other people will influence our happiness and this is an area where we can actively work at maintaining and improving. By being willing to work on your thinking, attitudes, perspective and behaviour you have great power to affect the quality of your relationships.
What follows is relevant to a relationship with a spouse or lover but nearly all of it can be applied to other familial relationships and friendships as well.
If you love and are loved you are more likely to be happy. A happy relationship with a significant other will greatly increase happiness. However you cannot rely on another person to make you happy. You need to be happy within yourself as well so that you are contributing positively to the relationship. It may be stating the obvious that personal happiness and satisfaction with oneself, and a happy relationship are intertwined. If one or both partners are constantly feeling negative this will eat into the relationship.
The early phase of an in love relationship is one that gives us a biological high where everything is right about the world and anything seems possible. It is well documented that this intense phase lasts only about 6-12 months. Some couples think that there is something wrong at this point simply because they are not aware of the phenomenon. However the relationship can develop into something stronger and long lasting, and this can take some effort and commitment.
Some of the key elements in being happy such as gratitude, positivity and acceptance spill over into maintaining a happy relationship. If you feel and express gratitude for your loved one (you are grateful to have them in your life and for the things they do for you) and you focus on the positive in them and accept that, like yourself, they are not perfect, then you are well on the way to keeping a happy relationship. It also helps not to have rigid ideas about what they should be or do or what their role is, and this parallels not having rigid ideas about how your life should be.
Some relationship tips
Accept your partner as they are, (unless they have some deal breaking trait such as being violent or abusive.)
Focus on the positive attributes of your partner. None of us are perfect. Do not dwell on the perceived negatives in your partner.
Do small thoughtful things for your partner.
Be grateful for your partner and let them know that you appreciate them. Thank them for the smallest things they do for you.
Do not keep score.
Be flexible. If you must have things a certain way this can be very difficult for your partner and for you.
Give your relationship priority.
Make time for dates even if in a long term married relationship.
Realise that we all live in "separate realities" and see the world in slightly different ways. Accept this. You do not have to agree on every issue. Realise that everyone has different ideas of what is "normal".
Do not try to change your partner.
Treat them with respect and consideration.
Do not criticise.
If you do take issue with some behaviour, explain that the behaviour is a problem for you, so you are addressing the behaviour and not attacking their character. Tell them how it makes you feel. This makes it seem less of an attack on them so they are less likely to get defensive.
If your partner does a chore or does something for you or gets you a gift, do not point out how it could have been done better, or how you would prefer it done, and do not be critical or ask questions which put your partner on the defensive. Being negative about kind acts is hurtful and makes your partner feel unappreciated, believed to be incompetent, or not trusted. Negative feedback is a poor motivator and makes them less likely to want to do kind things for you again. Have you ever heard the common retort, “If you’re not happy with it, do it yourself?” That is what the unappreciated, hurt partner is likely to be feeling, even if not expressed.
Never attack your partner's character and never name call.
Use lots of positive encouragement and affirmation.
Maintain your own identity and allow your partner to do the same. You are both individuals and part of a couple.
Don't turn minor irritations into issues. Don't fret over small things. In the big scheme of things do they really matter? Gain some perspective and just let them go.
Don't use words like "should", "must", "ought", "you never..", "you always". You wouldn’t want to feel you are disappointing your partner so do not make them feel the same.
Make time to tend to and nurture your relationship.
Do not try and control your loved one or get involved in power struggles. They need to feel they have some autonomy and not feel they are walking on egg shells.,
....Let them do things their own way...
there really is more than one way to chop an onion or load a dishwasher. If you are constantly correcting your partner you are sending them the message that you believe they are incompetent.
Give them space and let them flourish.
Create an environment where your loved one feels safe, secure, supported and able to relax and be loved as they are without having to change.
Teach by example.
It is easier to change your reaction to a partner’s annoying habit than to change their habit.
Put your partner first more than half of the time.
Know when to hold your tongue and let things slide. It is often better to be kind than right.
Forgive. Be quick to forgive and this applies to everyone in your life. Forgive and do not bear grudges. If you can have some compassion for everyone, you are doing yourself a great favour and making your life so much better. A grudge will eat away at you so it is in your best interest to let it go. Realise that other people do not think the same way as you. They have their reasons which you may not understand or agree with. Forgive. We are all human, trying to figure life out, trying to be happy, in our own way.
Do things which help make your partner happy, because you love them, and because life with a happy partner is so much better.
Imagine losing your loved one in some accident tomorrow. It could happen. Knowing this, would you treat them differently today? Would you be more appreciative and loving and spend more time with them?
Recall good times you have had together. Look at old photos together.
Be supportive of your partner's interests and activities.
Share your dreams.
Find activities in common - go for walks together.
Get the balance right between doing things together and pursuing your own interests.
Remember these tips are about improving yourself not your partner (but maybe they could read this too).
The four horsemen of marital apocalypse
After over 30 years of research John Gottman claims he is able to predict with 90% accuracy if a couple will divorce by observing how they interact when discussing a contentious issue. He has highlighted four behaviours which spell trouble for a marriage. These are criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling and contempt. The worst of these is contempt.
This is about attacking the person’s character and using words such as “you always” and “you never”. The gentler alternative is to say something like “I feel frustrated / disrespected / ignored when you...” Even the latter can be avoided by using other methods “why don’t we try it this way...” or “I liked / preferred it when you...” It is preferable to use positive encouragement of desired behaviour rather than criticism of undesired behaviour. We all respond much better to encouragement than criticism.
This is a natural reaction to criticism but it blocks connection and understanding. It is better to try and see some truth in a criticism and admit to that, perhaps with some sense of humour, and really understand what your partner is trying to tell you. This breaks the cycle of attack, defend and counterattack.
Stonewalling is refusing to communicate, going silent or walking out.
This is the worst of the four horsemen, does great damage and should be avoided at all costs. It manifests itself as name calling, sarcasm, eye rolling or a contemptuous facial expression. It belittles and disrespects your partner and causes hurt that is difficult to repair.
The first three behaviours will crop up occasionally in most relationships, but if they become the predominant pattern of communication, the relationship will suffer. Studies have shown that if the ratio of positive to negative interactions with a spouse is less than 5:1 then the relationship is in trouble.
8. Create a full balanced meaningful life
A life which is full and balanced is one where you have many things going on, for example, work, family life, hobbies, exercise, education or volunteering and there is not too much emphasis in one area to the detriment of another. The point of this is that if things are not going well in one area then it has less impact because things are going well in other areas. If you are having a difficult time at work but have a happy family life then it has less of an effect on you. This is also about time management so you need to organise your time and allocate time to your different activities. I think that living a full life is also a way to extract maximum value from it. I do not want to look back on my life and have a long list of things I wish I had done, or spent more time on, or spent less time on (watching TV for example). A full balanced life will have variety over time as well. If you feel you are in a rut and every day is the same then it is up to you to do something about it. What worked for you five years ago may no longer be enough to keep you stimulated and excited about life.
Make yourself complicated
You can extend this principle to how you
define yourself. If you only identify yourself with your occupation, as a
lawyer for example, and work is not going well then this impacts on your whole
identity. However if you see yourself as complicated,
as a lawyer, husband, father, tennis player, cyclist, part time writer, jazz
enthusiast, volunteer football coach and anything else that describes you then
you will be more robust. Alternatively see yourself as someone who does all
those things and has those interests at this point in time and it is all
subject to change (why limit yourself?)
A meaningful life is often one where you are working towards goals that are personal to you, not imposed on you by society or anyone else. The goals could be short term (I will get healthier and exercise for 30 minutes today, feel better afterwards and contribute to living longer) or long term (I will get a degree in a subject I am passionate about and enjoy the process). A meaningful life means living in alignment with your values (not someone else’s). Contributing back to society can add meaning to your life, whether it is through your job, personal projects or voluntary work. Self improvement is also an important part of a meaningful life, as is working on your relationships with a loved one, relatives and friends. A meaningful life is one were you are engaged in activities that you value or enjoy. If you know your strengths and you know what you are good at and are lucky enough to be able to use that in your job then it will contribute greatly to the feeling that your life is meaningful. However you can apply the same principles to activities outside of how you earn a living.
Some use the framework of a religious faith as a source of meaning and purpose in their lives. Others find the universe or nature to be wonderful enough on its own and are filled with awe to be a part of it. Some will live their lives according to a particular secular philosophy or set of principles or spiritual path. The desire to be part of something larger often features in these schemas and is a very human trait.
We are all in this together, this amazing journey from birth to death and our time is finite so stop complaining, get happy, and make the most of it starting now!
Every morning remind yourself of the intention to be happy that day (not some time in the future).
Every morning remind yourself what you are grateful for.
Eliminate negativity from your speech and from your mental life. Practise seeing the glass as 9/10 full.
If you think you could be happier I recommend Richard Carlson’s Stop thinking, start living.
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