Happiness is a Skill
I’m an extremely loyal man. I’m loyal to women, to friends, to gyms, and most especially to coffee shops! So, as I always do, on my way to class this morning I stopped by my favorite coffee shop on the Portland State campus to grab a cup. I ordered my coffee and in the process said, “hi,” to the owners (a husband and wife of Asian decent) who always work in the mornings.
I’ve been going in there multiple times a week for years now. Every time, it’s all smiles – especially on my end. Apparently, they noticed something that is hardly a secret about me.
“You are always happy!” said the wife in a thick Asian accent with a smile.
“Always,” I responded authoritatively, “Happiness is a choice.”
We all laughed – me very loudly. I took my coffee and a lox bagel sandwich (with capers) and sat down. I then realized that my statement was only partly accurate. I do believe that happiness is a choice. But, it is a choice in the way that riding a bike or developing strong muscles are choices. You choose to do what it takes to make it happen.
A better way to say it is, “Happiness is a Skill.” You can learn the steps needed to acquire it, you can cultivate it, and you can get better at it. All it takes is practice and determination. It is NOT something that just “happens” to you. And it is not out of your control.
I know what you’re going to say. “What if my wife leaves me?”, “What if I get shot?”, “What if a giant asteroid starts plummeting toward the earth and we’re all going to be dead in 3 days?!” … “Happiness isn’t a choice then, is it?”
Shit happens. Some of it is horribly bad. But, for most of us (and certainly anyone actually reading this) that shit is few and far between. Most of the time, if you are unhappy, it isn’t because the thing you are unhappy about is worth you being unhappy about it.
Instead, you’re unhappy because you’ve never learned that negative emotions can (and should) be controlled most of the time – I’d say nearly all of the time.
Except in rare cases, our emotions are a function of our hormone levels. Throw those out of whack, and we get loopy! (A woman’s period is only one of the many ways humans can have their entire personalities change on a dime. It happens to both dudes and ladies, and more often than we’d like.)
Some of the ways you can help to control negative hormone fluctuations are macro in nature: exercise, proper diet, good sleep. If any of those are not adequate, you will be more … “pissy”.
Other ways of keeping yourself in check are more subtle – these are the skill components of happiness.
We’ve all heard that if you find yourself getting mad, you should count to 10. I’m sure it’s not a mystery as to why? Spending as little as ten seconds being quite before you react allows your spiked hormone levels to drop (ie. calm down), which, in turn, allows your mind to get back into “rational mode”.
But, if we all know this, why don’t we tend to do it?
Because it’s hard.
Happiness takes practice
If you put a little boy on a bike, who’s never ridden one, he’ll fall off. Should we conclude that riding a bike is impossible? Of course not. It does, however, take time to get down. Happiness is no different.
The first time you try to stop yourself from getting mad, attempting to wait out the 10 seconds, it will be impossible, and you will fail. However, the mere act of attempting to do so was a type of practice. If done enough times, you will be amazed at how much better at it you will become. In fact, over time, you will not need to wait 10 seconds.
You’re body is amazing, but your mind is even more amazing.
One of the things that competitive weightlifters learn to do (often without realizing it) is the ability to “access” or control their adrenaline. They get “amped up” for a lift so that they can thrive off of the additional power that adrenaline gives you when it is released in large doses.
There is a down side. Adrenaline will also cause you to get overly nervous, irrational, and stressed out. So, we use it sparingly in our sport. It is (quite literally) a drug.
The important point, is that good lifters learn how to both turn on, and turn off, the adrenaline as they need it. You can do the same with many other hormones that affect your levels of happiness.
Another way to get control of yourself is to meditate regularly. I don’t mean in some froo froo hippy way, I mean just sit there, shut your eyes, and start counting your breath. In and out, that’s one rep. Don’t think about anything else at all. Just counting. If you start thinking of something else, that’s OK. Adjust, and go back to where you left off. Start out by counting up to 10 every day. Once that is easy, add 10 more. Keep going till you can go all the way to 100. At this point, you can stop counting all together and just focus on the breath itself.
Doing this, at least a few times a week has a remarkable effect on how able you are to control your mental states. It is exactly like exercise. At first, you suck. Eventually, through practice, you get better. And one day, you find it just isn’t that hard anymore.
A False Duality
Many people model themselves after hero’s: their parents, presidents, comic book characters, Napoleon, Captain Kirk, etc. I model myself after those little laughing Buddha statues.
Somewhere in Western culture we tricked ourselves into believing that wisdom is correlated with a stoic seriousness (think Gandolf). We place a hard brick wall between our time for play and our time for work. Laughing and joking is what children do, not what adults do.
Buddhists learned a long time ago that that was crap. It is unwise to spend your one and only (short) life in a perpetual avoidance of laughter and smiling.
There are precious few situations that don’t call for a laugh. I’m not saying they don’t exist, but they are rare.
Practice laughing more often, and you’ll be finding more things funny. Intentionally put a smile on your face (even when you don’t see the point) and you’ll feel happier.
Let’s take my Olympic weightlifters.
Of all the people I train, they (by far) work the hardest in the weight room. Why? Because it’s their sport, and that is the only way they are going to get better at it. This involves upwards of 6 to 10 hours or more of actual lifting time per week for my top guys/girls. They lift near (or at) maximum multiple times a week, do heavy squatting sometimes every day, and otherwise do everything in their power to kick their own ass.
This is “serious” business. But, you’d never know it if you came in to watch a training session. Yes, when they grab the bar, they “click on” and lift hard. They are very meticulous about learning proper technique, drilling the finer points, and enduring the massive redundancies that are at the heart of our sport. But, through it all, between sets, they are joking around, laughing, and seemingly goofing off.
They don’t whine and cry about all the work they “have” to do. They don’t get overly down on themselves when they miss a lift. They don’t allow the externalities of the training to take over their minds. They are in control. And because of this, they keep getting better – at a rate that far outpaces the average lifter who does allow these things to get them down.
I set up this happy atmosphere on purpose. I think it is the most important part of what I do as a coach. I provide a setting, an atmosphere, in which athletes can beat the hell out of themselves and yet somehow maintain a constantly positive attitude about it. I have no tolerance for negativity in my “house”. Negativity is just as (if not more) contagious as laughter is. It is insidious. It can destroy the progress of not only the lifter that is releasing it, but the progress of everyone around them.
The idea of “getting back on the horse” is the corner stone of all success, both in sports and in life. The only way you can get back on the horse – after it’s bucked you off for the 7th time today – is if you have the right attitude.
Thankfully, as I’ve said, this happy (determined) attitude can be taught and cultivated.
Meditate, intentionally smile and laugh (even when it makes no sense), get good sleep, eat good food, workout hard (and often), and surround yourself with people who do the same. Then maybe someone will accuse you of always being happy.