Although most people want to be happy, being happy is not the consistent state of the human mind. In many if not most of our days we experience delight and laughter—but these aren’t the backdrop of our day. They are accents.
It’s estimated that as many as 25% of Americans take prescription anti-depressant pills. Research is difficult to find, but it is estimated that over 50% of the American public has seen a professional therapist to address their mental health and emotional issues. Medication and therapists can be very useful to people, but their extensive use shows us that happiness is a challenge for almost everyone.
If you think about it, we don’t start out automatically being happy—not even children. No one ever tells you that their six month old child kept them up all night laughing. Infants seem to be born with a sense of risk and danger even when they’re born into a safe family. And we follow through life with that sense of risk, waiting for the other shoe to fall.
And in some cases people live in real danger.
In 2006, Will Smith and his son, Jaden, did a film called The Pursuit of Happyness. It was based on Chris Gardner’s nearly one-year struggle with homelessness. The film shows the father and son struggling through homeless shelters to the father’s becoming a successful financial advisor.
Although most of us have never experienced the kind of danger that Chris Gardner experienced with his son, achieving joy, a sense of well-being and happiness is something that many never achieve.
If we achieve the resilience to come back from depression and experience happiness consistently in our lives, we must learn to manage our minds so that we feel.
Here are some things I have learned about managing the mind that might be useful to you.
1. To some it will sound irresponsible, but I can’t and won’t take responsibility for yesterday and certainly not in the distant past–I’m still in the process of growing up. I don’t take responsibility for what my immature self did before I learned to do better. I will clean up any mess and make restitution, but I’m not the same person I was yesterday. Why should I carry guilt and remorse? Some religious leaders and others believe that guilt is something you carry all of your life—and regret every day. The God I believe in wants me to do better today.
I want you to know that you are free from yesterday. We don’t blame a baby for soiling his diaper or spilling her food. That was the action of a child. Growing up is not just for children—I’m in the process of growing up every day. I was a child a year ago compared to who I am now. The reason I’m even regretting yesterday shows I’ve grown and matured. I am smarter and more capable than I was yesterday. Tomorrow I will even make better decisions with more knowledge. There is no reason to regret yesterday. It was a stepping stone for today.
2. Learning self-awareness is the key. Many of us experience life as one thing after another, coming toward us and colliding against us—we not only don’t have control of the events of our day, but even less ability to control our own reactions. When you feel agitated by what’s happening to you, mindfulness is the ability to stop, step out of your own self mentally—to look at myself as if I were a different person objectively looking back at me. I must see myself without judgment or blame. Is what is happening to me as serious as the reaction I’m having about it? The more I can see myself objectively the more I can become the person I want to be.
3. People, places and things don’t bother me—I bother me. Most of the time it’s not the events you experience that make our break your day—it’s your mind’s interpretation of events that tells you if you’re happy or not. .We spend our day telling people about the person who cut us off in traffic, the latest problem that has come up, or the partner that never gets us. Most of the time if one thing gets solved, our minds just find something else that isn’t. It’s what our minds tell us about how to react to events—not the events themselves.
4. You Don’t Choose Your Thoughts—Your Thoughts Choose You. You have a right to discard the thinking that comes into your mind that is a negative drag on what’s next in your life. It’s important to realize that most of what you think of is just suddenly there—it pops into your consciousness—“I think I’ll eat that cheesecake. No, it’s six o’clock in the morning.” “Maybe we could sell our old car and buy a sofa—yeah, my wife has been asking for one, and we don’t need the car.”
You should never feel guilty about what you think. Take inventory of what’s useful and make it part of your day and store old thoughts in old storage units where the key to the lock has been lost.
The part of your brain that we call The Executive—the conscious mind—is that wonderful adult voice in your head that is rational, collaborative, with good will towards all most of the time. This part of your thinking makes good decisions based on what’s going on around you. But most of your thoughts—fears, resentments, bright ideas, strategies and plans—come from a deeper part of your mind. Some of the thoughts your subconscious mind bubbles up are priceless—brilliant, bright ideas. Others are memories from long ago that are painful and embarrassing. You should embrace what’s useful that bubbles up and move on from what’s not useful.
The most useful skill we can learn is to manage our minds. It’s as hard as learning Hebrew or calculus, but it’s worth the years it takes to master the skill—as imperfectly as we can ever do it. That is wisdom.