My last post was about ordinary happiness and the idea that happiness can become our default setting. In it I mentioned the Buddhist notion that happiness is a choice. I’ve found that idea really helpful when it comes to staying positive during my cancer treatment, but only after initially having some real difficulty in understanding it. According to this philosophy, nothing ‘makes’ you happy. This seems contrary to my own experience, which is that all kinds of things make me happy. A hug from my daughter, a kiss from my husband, a wander through the garden and a phone call from a friend are all high on my list.
Surely all of these things are sources of happiness.
It’s been helpful for me to differentiate between those things that bring me temporary happiness and how they are different from my efforts to maintain a state of contentment as my new ‘normal’.
Maintaining happiness as a default setting requires practice and discipline. I’m trying to reprogram my mind’s natural tendency to find fault, complain, identify problems and hypothesise about worst case scenarios so that I’m able, instead, to see potential, be hopeful, feel grateful and be constructive. There’s a lot of different ways to build this capability, including the gratitude journal I mentioned. I’ll no doubt blog about some of the other strategies in the future, for anyone that’s interested. This process is different to the much simpler pursuit of everyday temporary happiness.
Anything that makes me smile, or makes me laugh, or gives me that warm inner glow, is a source of temporary happiness. I like to think of a smile as my reminder to be happy.
When you’re up against a serious illness, deliberately maximising your opportunities for temporary happiness is an excellent strategy. It’s easy, doesn’t need to cost you anything and has been proven to help everything from your hormone levels to your immune system.
I’ve started a list of things that make me smile or laugh. I keep it where I can see it and refer to it often throughout the day. My treatment makes me a bit vague (notorious chemo brain!) so a list is a really helpful reminder for those times when I just feel like I’m in a mental holding pattern. Even if I don’t do anything on the list, just reading it makes me happy!
Temporary happiness often involves distraction. No visualising wellness or mentally fighting cancer here. Just a tiny brain holiday where all you do is feel happy for a while.
Anyone with a pet knows about temporary happiness. It doesn’t matter what’s going on in your life, ten minutes curled up with a purring cat or playing with an excited dog will completely transform your mood. Pets have that extraordinary ability to bring us back into the present moment, to make us forget our worries for a while and to remind us that we can easily park our troubles and just have fun. My cat can’t pay my bills or cure my cancer but he can make me forget about everything for a while just by giving me a heat butt and purring enthusiastically when I scratch his chin.
The research into smiling is now well known; even a forced smile can stimulate your body to make the same beneficial chemicals as a real smile. It’s not just a case of “I’ll smile when I find something worth smiling about” it’s also “I’ll think of something worth smiling about when I smile.” Even though I know this, I do find the whole forced smiling thing a bit…..well…forced! Sitting around with a fixed grin and waiting for my mood to shift isn’t as much fun as tweaking this technique: I’d rather do something that I know will make me smile.
A forced smile is a good way to remember things that are on my list. Go ahead and try it. Put a smile on your face and see if it makes you think of lots of things that make you smile. Make a list if it will help (but not if you’re one of those people that hates lists more than tooth decay!). Hopefully you’ll discover that putting a smile on your face helps you tap into all those memories you associate with smiling. You’ll already have a great distraction from a bad mood, just flicking through your mental album of things that have made you smile. You’ll also have a built in resource that provides you with all sorts of ideas about ways you can lift your mood. Pick something easy. Then do that instead of the whole forced smiling thing.
The best thing about this technique is that you carry it with you. Any time you’re feeling a bit blue, try smiling and see what it brings to mind. Hopefully, like me, it will remind you of some source of temporary happiness.