Have you noticed this gift we all have for identifying imperfection? I consider myself to be a certified expert, despite my lack of proof. Though, I suppose my graduate degree in policy analysis could support my case.
We spend oodles of time and effort to identify exactly who, and what, it is in our lives that is responsible for our unhappiness, and then we set about designing a program to change it or them: change the job, ditch the partner, get in shape, get more organized, find the right organic bug killer, try to meditate more, and on it goes.
What we often fail to realize is that this natural tendency of our brains to discriminate also causes us a great amount of misery. Don’t get me wrong, this skill is incredibly useful for picking out dangers in the wild, and for editing Powerpoint presentations, but let run wild, it can cause abject misery. It can rob us of happiness by picking apart everything, all of the time.
Mindfulness applied unskillfully can even increase the problem, as we examine ourselves like bugs under a magnifying glass and begin to see every human tendency we despise. You may be familiar with the experience of judging yourself for judging someone else, or even yourself?
This is where I think a compassionate approach plus positive psychology can help. First, we practice actively sending compassion to ourselves and others when we are suffering, rather than beating ourselves up when we don’t like what we see. For those of us with control issues (that’s pretty much everyone) who think we’ll all turn into untamed beasts without such lashings, it helps to remind ourselves that we all respond better to carrots than to sticks (and science backs this up)!
Second, we can take advantage of the wonderful work of Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology, and actively answer our human critical tendencies with practices that encourage us to appreciate imperfection, and be more aware of the perfection that’s right under our noses. This includes things such as:
- cultivating gratitude by choosing to list the things we are grateful for, and finding ways to express appreciation for abundance, when we’re feeling depressed or deficient
- searching for the good in the apparent imperfection, when we’re feeling dissatisfied or impatient
- noticing how very often things in this moment are quite fine, even without our intervention, and in fact, that they were fine up until the moment we judged them as needing alteration and started to feel unhappy
- grounding ourselves with a larger perspective or our spirituality when we’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed
- evaluating our thoughts for truth when we’re feeling pessimistic or negative
We don’t have to just sit and observe our misery endlessly. That’s not what mindfulness is for. While it is useful to be mindful of the sources of our misery (i.e. grasping at or resisting what is), we can also hold the intention to be happier, and then practice to develop the skills that promote happiness. In short, we can mindfully train ourselves to be happy. This is not an exercise in denial or sappy rose-colored glasses thinking. It’s about seeing the truth that has always been there but that our brains have learned to tune out through the evolutionary instinct for survival.
For coaching or support in developing your happiness skills, call me!