HAPPINESS IS A SKILL
I'm no expert. I don't know much. The more I learn, I find the less I understand. But I have completed over 10,000 consults while working in the fitness industry. I've hired and developed hundreds of fitness professionals. And I've worked with and/or seen tens of thousands of clients during their fitness journeys. So, through the course of observing and contemplating this sheer volume, I learned a couple things about the fundamental needs to set one up for success. Psychologically or emotionally (however you need to categorize it), happiness is at the center. Though we may be driven by a continual desire for improvement, a certain amount of happiness and gratitude for our current station in life wards off the fatalism and defeated-mindset which prevents progress. This happiness is a skill, not an outcome from attaining or accumulating more. Like all other skills, it must be watchfully cared for, cultivated and practiced.
Unfortunately, people think they'll obtain happiness by getting whatever they want; but the opposite is true. Wants are momentary, and so is the fleeting happiness that comes with getting what you want. Just like when people who don't manage their money well win the lottery and still end up bankrupt, if you haven't learned how to be fulfilled with what you have, you still won't be fulfilled with more. You'll just have more to weigh you down and complain about, ever-feeding the dissatisfaction and a desire to fix what ain't broke in the first place, causing harm in the process. People who seek happiness through getting high tend to only increasingly require a greater high to get them almost as happy as they were before it all.
Shawn Achor rocked the world a few years back with his TedTalk (https://www.ted.com/talks/shawn_achor_the_happy_secret_to_better_work?language=en) on how we invert the equation of happiness. Convincingly, he argued that people who've developed a positive outlook first wind up more capable of succeeding at any given task. Negativity, depression, and even neutral or "realist" outlook is on average about 30% less efficient and effective at everything.
The international poverty line is $1.25 per day or $1.90 per day, depending on which source you consult. Over 12% of the world lives at or below this line. Over 42% of people in Africa live at or below this line. If we move the number up to $3.10 per day, well over 2 billion people fall below the line. Try to take this in. If an average American had his housing paid for for the month, all groceries purchased for the week, all transportation and communication needs taken care of, he could not operate at this number. Just think of one day's utilities to keep the lights on and water flowing. Forget about heat or cooling. You are wealthy.
I frequently post news stories about people who have all odds against them. Sometimes it's an amputee who is still a badass athlete. Sometimes it's a 100 year old person who started working out 8 years ago and is fitter than most people in their 30s on up. When I first started athletic training, whenever people started griping about the woes of life (as if billions of people hadn't dealt with their identical problems and worse), I'd generally retort, "at least you weren't born in a ditch in Calcutta."
Maybe that's offensive. But it ought to be. We ought to feel shame and conviction at how well we have it, and how readily we jump in to justify our waste of talent, gifts and wealth. Include me in this. I'm not talking about cultivating blissful naivety. Become an actual realist. Don't hide behind the moniker of "realist," when it's really a strategic pity party. Upward comparisons have become the order of the day, which is totally ludicrous if you think about it, since you're contrasting your environment or lifestyle against .01% or less of the current developed world population. If you're reading this, just being a fluent English user means you are in the top 10% wealthiest people who've ever lived on the face of the earth. If you have access to clean bottled water or clean running water, you are wealthier than Medieval nobility and aristocrats. Thanks to advances in technology and science, even some of the most oppressed people in the modern world have better lives than the rich of every prior century in history.
Now don't dwell on the conviction. Don't swim in a pool of shame. Likewise, don't drown in a sewer of excuses. Just properly evaluate how good you have it. You have it good. Be grateful. Be empowered by knowing how much you really have already. This is arguably the biggest part of getting skillful at happiness. If your personal evaluation is always targeted at dissatisfaction and want, you are beginning on the wrong foot. You are developing the skill of unhappiness. And some of us are so good at unhappiness that we wear it like a badge of honor.
It's an obvious fact that children generally have far more energy than adults. Why exactly is that? I believe a big part is that they have not generated the skill of unhappiness yet. They are actually in the moment, loving it for itself and dreaming about future wonders. You know full well that days where you are excited, fulfilled and happy you can rock it out no matter how little sleep you got or how long the day is. We adults have become far too good at dwelling our mind on anything but the moment we're in; and we exhaust ourselves by imagining phony challenges when we don't even face a real challenge in our day. People in the developing world have to figure out how to not get murdered on the way to potable water every day. You are anxious and depressed because your Facebook feed has some positive updates of people you envy, or negative updates of people you disagree with. You have it really, really, really, really good.
Outside of Shawn Achor's takeaways, there isn't much to add in the way of homework to cultivate the skill of happiness. I can just as easily fall into the trap of upward comparisons, and sometimes do when interacting with some of the wealthier people I know. But I have to remind myself this is an upward comparison on a single criterion. People are people. And some of the richest people out there have severe escapism issues, cannot sleep at night and spend less time with their kids on a weekly basis than I do. You see what happened there? I put the emphasis on what I have that others don't, instead of what others have that I don't.
I have clients with whom we have made Shawn Achor takeaways or other non-fitness related behaviors part of their program. We review weekly progress, what worked, what didn't. And it may sound crazy. But I have had people who are required to turn in to me 3 or more gratitudes per day and all of a sudden they are changed. In some cases, their actual personalities transformed. Likes and dislikes alter. In some cases, people started making progress in their fitness or careers again just from their outlook changing by virtue of these practices.
It isn’t a cheesy optimism exercise. It’s an accurate perspective borne out of an effective skill. You just have to build it, practice it, become increasingly able with it, just like you would with any other skill. You would not wait around for the world to gift you with any other skill. Don’t wait for a magical change in circumstances to gift you the skill of happiness either. You know for a fact that you have to practice to cultivate prowess on an instrument, a foreign language, a new sport, or any hobby, diversion or game. Happiness is no different. Practice. Practice. Practice. Oh, and one more thing: practice.
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