Lessons from a Recovering Doormat

Happiness seems like such a simple concept, yet so many folks walk around unhappy. We often lose sight of what it actually is. When I was a DoorMat, happiness meant having a good day, not getting hurt, getting attention from someone I thought I needed, or being with a guy I liked and feeling complete for the moment. But that wasn’t real happiness! It was moments of not being unhappy.

Who’d have thunk that there would be a need for a whole course on happiness? Many of us need to be taught how to achieve it! Tal Ben-Shahar, Ph.D teaches the largest course at Harvard University on “Positive Psychology” and the third largest on “The Psychology of Leadership.”? Tal consults and lectures around the world to executives in multi-national corporations, the general public, and at-risk populations about happiness, self-esteem, resilience, goal setting, mindfulness, and leadership. His new book is called Happier. It’s an excellent course in happiness! Below is a sample.

Fifth Meditation: Imagine
Reprinted from Tal Ben-Shahar‘s new book, HAPPIER, with permission from McGraw-Hill.
By Tal Ben-Shahar, Ph.D

“Life would be infinitely happier if we could only be born at the age of eighty and gradually approach eighteen.” – Mark Twain

You are one hundred and ten years old. A time machine has just been invented, and you are selected as one of the first people to use it. The inventor, a scientist from NASA, tells you that you will be transported back to the day when, as it happens, you first read Happier. You, with the wisdom of having lived and experienced life, have fifteen minutes to spend with your younger and less experienced self. What do you say when you meet? What advice do you give yourself?

I formulated this thought experiment after reading an account by psychiatrist Irvin Yalom of terminally ill patients:

“An open confrontation with death allows many patients to move into a mode of existence that is richer than the one they experienced prior to their illness. Many patients report dramatic shifts in life perspectives. They are able to trivialize the trivial, to assume a sense of control, to stop doing things they do not wish to do, to communicate more openly with families and close friends, and to live entirely in the present rather than in the future or the past. As one’s focus turns from the trivial diversions of life, a fuller appreciation of the elemental factors in existence may emerge: the changing seasons, the falling leaves, the last spring, and especially, the loving of others. Over and over we hear our patients say, ‘Why did we have to wait until now, till we are riddled with cancer, to learn to value and appreciate life?’”

What struck me when I read accounts of terminally ill patients, whether by Yalom or others, is that following the news of their disease the patients were still the same people with the same knowledge of life’s questions and answers, with the same cognitive and emotional capacities. No one descended from Mt. Sinai presenting them with commandments on how to live; no Chinese, Indian or Greek sage revealed to them the secrets to the good life; no one gave them mind- or heart-enhancing drugs; they did not discover a new and revolutionary self-help book that changed their lives.

Yet, with the capacities they always had—which seemed to be inadequate in making them happy before—their lives changed. They gained no new knowledge but, rather, an acute awareness of what they knew all along. In other words, they had within them the knowledge of how they should live life. It was just that they ignored this knowledge or were not conscious of it.

What the time-travel thought experiment does is make us aware of life’s brevity and preciousness. Granted, a hundred-and-ten-year-old has more experience—and there are no shortcuts in terms of gaining much of the wisdom that a full life can give us—but some of what we become aware of if we are lucky enough to live to be one hundred and ten we already know when we are fifty or even twenty. It is a matter of awareness. George Bernard Shaw’s quip notwithstanding, youth does not need to be wasted on the young.

TIME-IN: Have you had experiences that made you reevaluate your priorities? Did you follow up on your new insights or understanding?

There is very little that any philosophy, psychology, or self-help book can teach us that is new about attaining the ultimate currency. The most a book or teacher can do is to help raise our awareness, to help us become more fully in touch with what we already know. Ultimately, our progress, our growth, and our happiness come from our ability to look within ourselves and ask the important questions.

Do the exercises just described. Imagine that you are one hundred and ten years old or significantly older than you are now. Take fifteen minutes to give yourself advice on how to give yourself more happiness in your life, starting at this point. Do the exercise in writing. As much as possible, ritualize the advice. If, for instance, your older self advises you to spend more time with your family, commit to an additional weekly or biweekly family outing.

Return to this exercise regularly—look at what you wrote, add to it, and ask yourself whether you have taken the advice of your inner sage.

Definitely check out this bestselling book, Happier and see why people flock to Tal Ben-Shahar to help them improve their happiness.

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