The crowds and parking lot wars. The overspending and diet-busting parties. The troubling headlines. It’s easy to understand why this most wonderful time of the year isn't always so wonderful. Last year, medical problems and a work environment quaking with uncertainty upped the ante on my stress levels. The conflicting messages of the season were magnified. In the spirit of self-preservation, I decided to take my happiness more seriously. I wanted not only to step into the New Year healthy and whole but also with my spiritual house in order. That meant making sure joy had a place to stay.
I took a happiness challenge, which proved to be such an instructive exercise that I’m taking it again this holiday, even though overall I'm in a much happier space -- with a clean bill of health and a major career transition successfully behind me. But I discovered that the holidays offer the perfect platform for examining personal relationships with happiness. Afterall, this is the holy-season, which begs the question: What is true happiness anyway? The legendary psychiatrist C.G. Jung in 1960 offered a list of five basic elements that he considered essential for creating happiness in the human mind (C.G. Jung Speaking: Interviews and Encounters). His list has been widely adapted and is worth a brief review:
Jung's Five Keys to Happiness
Good physical and mental health.
Good personal and intimate relationships, such as those of marriage, the family, and friendships.
The faculty for perceiving beauty in art and nature.
Reasonable standards of living and satisfactory work.
A philosophic or religious perspective capable of coping successfully with the twists of life.
But modern psychology echoes Jung's warning that no matter how ideal our situation may be, it does not necessarily guarantee happiness. That's because for better or worse, situations change …. constantly. And if they don’t, we certainly do. This is why pinning our happiness on that new car, the big-screen TV or latest gadget is a set-up for disappointment. This is not to knock the sense of pleasure or pride derived from tangible gains or condemn the holidays or the gift exchanges. But lasting happiness, the kind capable of enduring any external circumstance is found on an inward path. Wisdom teachers, past and present, point seekers in the direction of a spiritual journey. Within this philosophy is the belief that your true, or higher, self is by nature peaceful and happy, unable to be disturbed by the ups and downs of life.
Spiritual sage, medical doctor and author of The Ultimate Happiness Prescription: 7 Keys to Joy and Enlightenment, Deepak Chopra, says unhappiness means you are not in close relationship with your true self. This idea of happiness as a matter of our connection to our true selves is simple enough to grasp, however as Dr. Chopra wisely points out it can be harder to achieve.
Taking the holiday happiness challenge is a good starting point for gaining and maintaining mental and emotional clarity as you move through the various holiday activities. The experiment doesn’t require special meditation techniques or deep spiritual understanding. Although, as Jung noted, a religious or philosophical belief system is helpful. All that is required is a commitment to pay closer attention and carve out a few moments each day to check the direction you are moving. Ask yourself how near or far am I from my happiness.?
Here are two lists of symptoms to watch for as you navigate your way on the path to happiness (adapted from Deepak Chopra):
Signs you're on the path to unhappiness:
You feel pulled in different directions by external demands
Other people push your buttons
Your family puts you in a box and expects you to stay there
There is no sense of holiness or sacredness All the activity seems pointless
You need alcohol or food to numb yourself
You feel overwhelmed and helpless
The path to true happiness:
A sense of the sacred, of grace and blessedness
Moments of peace and joy
Appreciation for existence, nature, art and beauty
Feeling a sense of belonging
Lightness of being