3 Universal Steps to Happiness: The Mind-Body-Soul Approach to a Better Life
According to a Greek philosopher Aristotle, “Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.” But if that's true, why are so many of us feel sad, restless and discontent? Why aren't we happy?
What is Happiness?
Einstein's recipe for happiness was simple: "a table, a chair, a bowl of fruit and a violin."
Nowadays, people need much more elaborate (and expensive) reasons to be happy. And yet, all the luxurious cars, beachfront houses and exclusive resorts in the world won't make you happy if your mind is restless, your soul is wounded, and your body is depleted of nutrients.
This article explores the fundamentals of happiness found to be universal for all humans, even though the concept of happiness isn't.
1. Cleansing the Mind with Meditation
What hasn't been said about the benefits of meditation?
It's practically considered an antidote for any kind of stress-related illness, in addition to alleviating chronic pain, depression, anxiety and even some side effects of cancer treatments.
Experienced meditators also tend to be happier and more peaceful than non-meditators.
Neuroscientists studying the minds of Buddhist monks found that meditation fosters uplifting mental states such as joy, compassion and "loving kindness," as evident by an explosive electrical activity in the pre-frontal lobes of the monks' brains.
Dr. Josipovic, a leading neuroscientist studying the brain during meditation, says that
"Meditation research <...> points to an ability of the brain to change and optimise in a way we didn't know previously was possible."
But what if you have trouble meditating because you can't seem to quiet your mind? This is a a common misconception.
Meditation is not about getting rid of thoughts, it's about changing the habit of grasping on to them.
When you grasp on to thoughts, you experience strong emotions, usually of the negative kind. It happens because you get caught up in your thoughts, and the mind becomes preoccupied with judging what's right or wrong, acceptable or forbidden, black or white. That creates tension, anxiety and what people in the western world know as "stress."
The practice of meditation creates greater awareness of the mind's tendency to cling to distressing thoughts, which enables us to actually label thoughts, and to let go of them easier. In the words of Alan Watts,
"when we no longer 'cling' to these passing thoughts which are always influencing our emotions, something else completely different arises, that which is called the great silence, which is just like living in a walking meditation."
So give meditation another chance. You'll be happy you did.
The Happiest Man Alive Talks About Happiness and Meditation
2. Cleansing the Soul: Resolving Past Traumas
“The wound is the place where the Light enters you.” - Rumi
Unresolved traumas from the past have a way of manifesting in the present as sadness, frustration, anger and other undesirable emotional experiences.
Consequently, a memory of trauma keeps the focus on the past, reliving it over and over, even though the original trauma circumstances no longer exist. An individual feels trapped, frozen, unable to move forward in life. In those severe cases an intensive trauma therapy is recommended.
Although you may not have had extreme traumatic experiences associated with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), most people have some kind of unresolved issue from the past that creates unhappiness in the present.
Suppose you had a hard time making friends as a child. You felt rejected by your peers and this (perceived) rejection planted the seeds of the inferiority complex and the social anxiety you experience as an adult, even though you've made many good friends and other social connections in your life.
Childhood experiences have the most profound influence on a person's life, often creating extremely rigid defense mechanisms that prevent one from recognizing the issues. Clinical psychologists are very familiar with the phenomenon of psychological resistance, but that is not to say that it can't be overcome. In fact, resistance gives the most valuable clues about one's subconscious.
Unquestionably, identifying and resolving past traumas can go a long way in creating lasting happiness and well-being.
3. Nurturing the Body: Food and Brain Chemistry
There are 4 brain chemicals (neurotransmitters) that are responsible for how you feel:
When these chemicals are depleted, it leads to the so-called "pseudo emotions," such as depression, anxiety, irritability, anger etc. These "fake" emotions nonetheless feel real to the people experiencing them, and can be as debilitating as the effects of trauma, loss, neglect, abuse etc.
Although some chemical deficiencies are inherited, anyone exposed to prolonged stress can deplete their natural feel-good sedatives, stimulants and pain-relievers.
Eventually the brain can't keep up with the demand, you experience more and more of those unpleasant pseudo emotions and you start substituting the lack of natural pleasure chemicals with chemicals from drugs, alcohol and comfort foods. This is the genesis of addiction.
Chemicals from these substitutes actually plug into your neuron receptors the way natural neurotransmitters do, sending the brain signals to reduce or stop the production of pleasure chemicals altogether.
Now every time your brain needs a "fix", you reach for ice cream or a drink. But every high must be followed by a low, so you get caught up in a vicious cycle of cravings, binges and relapses.
So what can you do to get your brain back on track?
- Eat more protein. Most diets avoid foods that are high in protein (such as eggs, fish, meat, nuts, seeds, cheese) with a purpose of losing weight, but protein is essential for building amino acids that make up the "happy" brain chemicals.
- Reduce or eliminate the consumption of refined sweets and alcohol. Sugar and alcohol are very similar on a biological level in that they're both simple carbohydrates that are easily absorbed. Both raise blood sugar levels and the levels of at least two mood-enhancing chemicals, so when we use food or alcohol to self-medicate, we disable our brains' natural capacity to self-heal and self-regulate.
- Stop using any kind of artificial sweetener. Five FDA-approved sweeteners are Aspartame, Sucralose, Neotame, Acesulfame and Saccharin. They are marketed as health-beneficial weight loss substances but are in fact very dangerous to our nervous systems. Aside from being highly addictive (in a 2007 study rats preferred saccharin to cocaine), the use of artificial sweeteners has been linked to a variety of neurological and mood disorders, migraines, Multiple Sclerosis (MS) and even fetal brain damage. If you're looking for a healthier alternative to refined sugar, use brown (cane) sugar or Stevia - a derivative of a South American plant that's been used as a natural sweetener for centuries.
12 Simple Things That Nurture Happiness
© 2013 Lana Adler