The Happiness of Sensory Awareness

noticeHave you ever considered what a gift our senses are?  Our abilities to see, hear, touch, taste and smell?   Just think!  Everything we experience is a grand symphony of their messages.   And what’s even better is that we are like the symphony’s conductor, choosing which passages of their music to emphasize for maximum delight.

One of my favorite happiness practices is to play different sensory games.  I choose a sense to focus on for the day and see how I can use it in a new way.  If I choose sight, for example, I might decide to look for reflections and shadows throughout the day.  Or I might pick a color—red, maybe—and see how many times I can spot it.

Sometimes I’ll pick a different color every day for four or five days in a row.   Try it and you’ll be amazed how many things you notice in familiar environments that you never paid attention to before.  This is an especially good game to play while you’re traveling a route you take daily.  It really takes the tedium out of the routine.  And looking at the world with fresh eyes is always a happiness-booster.

Let’s say you wanted to play with your sense of hearing.  One way is to see how deeply you can hear into each moment, listening for the subtlest sounds and finding as many as you can.  Or try feeling where different sounds register in your body—how you feel the high pitches in your head, the middles ranges in your chest area, the low ones deep in your belly or pelvis.  Pick out the different instruments when you’re listening to music.  Or listen for the unique qualities of sound each human voice makes.

Try it with tastes when you’re eating, noticing how every bite subtly alters the flavors you’re experiencing.  Notice the aftertaste and let it linger for a bit before your next bite.

Try playing with touch, noticing the ranges of temperature and pressure, texture and weight your skin conveys.  Feel your clothing against your skin, the movement of air across your cheeks, the motion and density of water, and of soap, as you wash your hands.

Try it with fragrances as you walk through shops and grocery stores or through a crowd of people.  Play with it in restaurants and in parks.

Regardless of which sense you decide to play with, you’ll be rewarded with an awakened appreciation for its wonderful richness, for the capabilities of the magnificent body you inhabit.  See how much more alive you feel, and how that aliveness takes your happiness to new heights.

Give it a try.  Pick a color—any color—and play.

The Happiness of Waking

waking to autumnI woke this morning to sunshine, birdsong and the first, faint scents of autumn wafting through my bedroom window.  Before I even moved, I felt the warm surge of happiness rising within me, and I lay for several long moments savoring its glow.

No two moments of happiness are alike.  It comes in as many forms as there are breaths in the day, beats of the heart.  It sounds like music: the splash of water in a sink, the whoosh of passing cars, the soft whisper of air through my nostril as I breathe.  It comes in colors and textures and fragrances and tastes, in movement and in stillness.  It’s such a sensual thing.

But these are only its wrappings, floating and dancing on its surface like colorful scarves. Beneath them, happiness stretches in silent wonder and flows without name.  It’s the breeze that buoys the bright moments, that fills the sensations with beauty and delight.  Happiness is the depth beneath the pleasures, infusing them with their power to sing to our emotions, to touch our souls and inspire our minds.

As I lay in bed, enjoying the morning, all I wanted was to gently hold the awareness that the joy I feel comes not from the sensual dance, but from that which lies beneath it, and to stay anchored in that unnamable awareness, allowing myself to sink ever more deeply into its awesome grace.

10 Easy Happiness Practices

happy1.  Smile. Not only will a smile make you feel happier, it will actually boost your health and make you appear more attractive and friendlier to others.  An added plus: it’s contagious.  Pass the goods around!

2.  Appreciate and be Grateful. When I was a child, I was taught this prayer:  “Thank you for the food we eat.  Thank you for the world so sweet.  Thank you for the birds that sing.  That you, God, for everything.”  Repeating that little chant is still a great way to begin and end the day.  Being appreciative of and grateful for life’s bounties opens and warms your heart.

3.  Take Relaxation Breaks. Stretch, breathe, take a walk, take a nap, chill with some beautiful music, practice meditation.  Even a minute or two of relaxation can revive you in the midst of a busy day, refresh your mind and restore your perspective.

4.  Indulge in a Hobby. Find something that fascinates or interests you and create an island of time to pursue it.  Engagement in an interesting activity adds satisfaction and meaning to life.

5.  Embrace new possibilities. Take time now and then to look at the dreams you have placed in the cupboard labeled “Someday,” and brainstorm ways you could begin taking baby steps in the direction of the ones that hold the greatest appeal.  What would it thrill you to achieve?

6.  Savor your accomplishments. Take time to review your achievements and successes, to revel is the satisfaction and pride they yield, to feel the expanded sense of confidence and vitality they brought you.  Go ahead, pat yourself on the back!

7.  Have fun. Go play!  Life’s too short not to spend some of it laughing.

8.  Open to Inspiration. Make time for things that lift your spirit, that put you in touch with your sense of connection with the best in you, with the Grand Largeness that sings through life, through you, through all that is.

9.  Reclaim Your Sense of Wonder. Stand and look at the sky and realize it goes on and on and on, that beyond the range of your vision whole galaxies dance.  Look at your hands and think about all they can do, so effortlessly, while nerves and muscles and cells bow to your unspoken commands.  Look at a square inch of earth and think about all that’s going on there.  Think about mountains rising from the seas, about the mysteries of weather, about the birth of a child.

10.  Let Yourself Love. Look at the people around you and open your heart to their amazing uniqueness, their one-of-a-kind being.  Love the ways they move and walk and talk and all the emotions they kindle within you in a dance of interaction.  Love the person in the mirror.  Love the strangers you pass on the street, the little child across the globe whose face you will never see, the generations who have gone before us and on whose legacies we build.  Love the Mystery that brought us into being, the Creative Source from which we somehow came.  Love with kindness, and gratitude, and appreciation.  Love with every ounce of you, with every molecule of you, and you will know the highest happiness of all.

The Happiness of Rhythmic Progress

My friend Cristina has become a big proponent of kaizen, a new movement that teaches the age-old method of moving toward your goals one tiny step at a time.  And I do mean tiny!  If you wanted to be an artist, for example, you might start by pulling out a blank canvas every day for awhile.  Then you would add the action of setting out your brushes for several days.  You might do no more for a month.  Then you would get your tubes of paint, and later, uncap one of them.

Rhythmic ProgressThe point is to move in the direction of your dreams by taking one tiny action every day—even if your action is no more than giving your dream a minute or two of focused thought.

One of the reasons it works is because you’re gently training yourself to tuck easy little bits of time into your day’s routine that are devoted to your desired objective.  In essence, you’re creating an intentional habit, a practice.  And as with any conscious practice, eventually it takes on a life of its own and begins leading you down your unique path toward realizing your goal.

But the bigger reason it works is because it tastes of happiness.  In one tiny moment every day, it compresses a whole bunch of elements that create happiness:  It allows you to feel self-directed and in control.  And while the moment may be tiny and fleeting, it’s full of meaning for you.  It yields a little flash of pride and satisfaction inside you and builds positive new pathways in your neural networks—paths with heart.

If you have a dream sitting in the back room of your mind somewhere, try adding this technique to your happiness practices.  Make it a daily dance of rhythmic progress in the direction of that dream.  The multi-layered results it yields may very well surprise you.

The Happiness of Hope

hopeAnother friend of mine lost her job today.  She’s not the first.  Three other friends have found themselves in the same predicament over the course of the past year.  They serve to make the statistics real to me.  The monthly numbers – 600 thousand one month, 700 thousand the next –  are real people.  Probably some of them are your friends and acquaintances.  Maybe one of them is you . . . or soon will be.

Even when you suspected that the loss of your job was a possibility, the reality of finding yourself unemployed always hits you as shock.   Not only has your accustomed source of income disappeared, but your whole way of life and all your plans and expectations for the future have suddenly vanished.  You shift into emergency gear and scramble to assess what assets you have and how you can best ration them to get you through.

As I have watched my friends cope with their altered circumstances, it’s become clear to me that the primary asset you can bring to bear on the situation is an attitude of hope.

Why hope?  Well, first of all, hope keeps you from feeling helpless.  It assures you that you’ll find ways to manage.  It enables you to look for the possibilities your situation provides for moving your life in a different, and potentially more meaningful and satisfying direction.  Hope makes all the difference.

Hope broadens your vision.  It lets you look within at the strengths and skills you have and the new ways you might put them to use.  It lets you see that you are bigger than the job you were in let you be.  It lets you expand your view of the outside world, too, as you consider new ways of interacting with it.  You see fields of work you never thought seriously about before, you recognize contacts you have or could make that were outside your range of vision.  Hope gets you out there, poking around for openings.

Hope can expand your sense of adventure and encourage you to dare things your previous view of yourself and the world didn’t allow.

And finally, hope helps you keep your perspective, to recognize that where you are now is simply a transition zone to a future that you can shape with your imagination and choices.  It allows you to see that regardless of how today went, tomorrow is a new day.  Hope lets you sleep in peace.  And when tomorrow dawns, with hope in your heart, you’ll make the most of it.

Remembering Happiness

Remembering HapinessThe distractions that steal our happiness are many and immense.   They poke us in the eye with their headlines and billboards.  They burrow into our ears with their insults and rages.  They shapeshift across our timescapes disguised as too-fast clocks and too-thick traffic, as loaded schedules and demands.  So loud is their din, so maddening their pulse that even the idea of happiness can seem an irrelevant dream.

But it’s exactly because of the volume of their screeching and their scramble of demands that we need happiness in our lives more than ever.  Happiness is the salve that soothes the irritation and cools the burn.  It’s a set of wings that carries you above the fray.

Happiness puts you in touch with your strengths.  It broadens your vision and offers new possibilities.  It reunites you with your spirit and reconnects you with your sense of purpose and meaning.   It revives and refreshes you and makes you human again.

When life’s pressures and demands bury your happiness, take encouragement from the fact that you can free yourself again.  Happiness is a skill you can develop, a beautiful habit that you can cultivate.  And all it takes is remembering that you want it—because it’s what makes your life worthwhile.

Begin by practicing remembering.  And each time you remember, let your face relax into a gentle smile.  Remember, and breathe.  Remember, and let your tension soften for a moment.  Begin with that.  See where it takes you.

Stopping for Happiness

Stopping for HappinessI was driving to an appointment a couple days ago and my route took me through one of those aggravating stretches where the traffic lights seems to be intentionally designed to impede your progress.   It was important for me to be on time for my meeting, and I started growing more tense and anxious with every stop I was forced to make.

But then something wonderful happened.  At the fifth or sixth stop, it occurred to me that my mood wasn’t going to change the traffic patterns, but that I could change my mood.  What if, I asked myself, I used every stop as a chance to practice happiness?  So I whipped out my favorite question, “Why am I so happy now?” and made up my mind to look for answers every time the traffic came to a halt.

I was disgruntled enough that when I first asked it, my interval voice belligerently said, “I’m not!”  But I knew how to counter that.  “I know you’re not,” I said out loud.  “But why am I so happy now?”

It works every time.  The mind can’t resist looking for answers when you pose it a question.  “Well, because you’re silly enough to be playing this game,” it said.  I actually laughed.

“Okay.  Why else am I so happy now?”  And the answers simply started pouring out.  I was happy that I was going to this appointment.  I was happy that my car was running well and that the sun was shining and that it was a beautiful day.

The light turned green and I noticed that my mood had considerably brightened.  At the next red light, more answers started coming.  And at the next one, even more.  By the time I got to my appointment—on time, no less—I was relaxed, centered and in a wonderfully positive frame of mind.

The experience was such a powerful one for me that I have now officially adopted red lights as a happiness trigger.  I use them to do mental gratitude lists, to tune into the sights and sounds around me, to adjust my posture and relax tensed muscles, to practice some rhythmic breathing.

I invite you to give it a try, and to invent some happiness triggers of your own.

I’m Engaged!

EngagedNo, not that kind.  I mean the “absorbed” kind, where something interests you so much that you forget everything except what you’re doing.  You forget about yourself, you forget about time.  All that exists is the activity you’re involved with, because you’re fully involved.

“Engagement” is a word I run across a lot as I dig into the academic research about happiness.  It turns out that it’s one of the biggies for producing satisfaction in a person’s life.  I looked the word up in the dictionary the other day and was amused to find that it means both “pledged to be married,” and  “entered into conflict with”—as in engaging the enemy.

But the more I thought about it, the more fitting the word seemed for the process that the happiness researchers are talking about.   When they use the term “engaged,” they’re not talking about a passive activity, like watching TV, or daydreaming—however pleasant those activities may sometimes be.  They’re talking about someone tackling an activity that’s both attractive and challenging, about something that requires your focused attention because doing it well requires exercising your skills.  In other words, you marry yourself to it and sometimes fight with it all at the same time. It could be anything from creating a scrapbook to running a race, or solving a math problem, or baking the perfect chocolate cake.

Usually, we become engaged in an activity when it’s in service of a goal that’s meaningful for us.  We want to do the activity well because it matters to us.  For instance, I happen to be a photography enthusiast.  I’ve looked at the world through a camera’s lens since I was a little kid.  And I take pictures for the joy it gives me.  But recently, I added a challenge to the activity.  I decided I would post one picture online every day.   Now, every day when  I’m out shooting, finding and creating a really good photo is all that matters to me. I’m wholly oblivious to anything else, and time simply seems not to exist.  Two hours can fly past without my noticing.

The key outcome of engagement is a wonderful sense of satisfaction when you complete whatever it is you were doing.  You don’t notice that you’re happy while you’re doing it, because you’re completely lost in the doing.  But afterwards, you know the doing felt grand.

Knowing about engagement has let me notice when I exercise it, and to savor more fully its joy.  And now you know about it, too.  So go out there and get engaged.

The Happiness of Letting Go

Reality or StoryThe other day I wrote about how I was stubbornly clinging to an irritation–stuck in a kind of perverted pride about how right I was in nursing  it, how deserving I was of something better.  You know the feeling.  It’s a tightness, a self-righteous clinging, a stubborn defense of your thwarted dream as the only thing in the entire world that could possibly bring you satisfaction.

But in truth, it’s clinging to those thoughts and feelings that prevents you from being satisfied by anything else.  One universal key for allowing happiness into your life is to begin with accepting what is before you.  Not to fight it, or resist it, or to cry that things weren’t otherwise, but to allow yourself to accept what is.

Sometimes we make it so difficult, this letting go of our wanting something else.  The feelings of disappointment, or resentment, or anger, or grief can be so very strong.   But only unhappiness comes from comparing what is with a mental image of something else, and telling ourselves that our story is better.

As long as we’re focused on the story, we’re blocking our vision of what exists now, of the possibilities and gifts the infinite present always holds.  By holding on to our story of how things could have been, or should be, we squeeze our perceptions down to a tiny sliver of reality, repeating to ourselves all the things that don’t match what we imagined would make us happy.

By holding a grudge against reality, we color it arid and mean.  But genuine reality is neither.  And if that’s how you see it, you haven’t quite opened your vision yet to all it has to offer.  True acceptance isn’t grudging.

Okay, you say, I can see that.  But how do you drop the story?  Despite the pain it’s causing you, how do you let it go?

First of all you have to recognize that you’re telling yourself a story (Clue: If you’re upset, it’s a story.) and then make a choice to let it go.  Here’s an image that works for me when I’m fighting to hold onto a story:  I think of my story as a shiny, glistening wasp that I’m clenching tightly in my hand.  As long as I hold it, it will sting me.  But if I open my hand, it will fly away.  It really is that easy.  You simply see the possibility of freedom from pain and choose to walk through its door.

Next you change your physical state.  You straighten your posture, let yourself breathe, take a good stretch, and tune in to what your senses are telling you.  Then get yourself into motion.  If you have been immobile, go for a walk.  Do some physical work.  Put on some upbeat music and dance.

If you were already engaged in physical action, let yourself sit quietly for a little bit, or lie down.  Then begin describing in words to yourself what your senses are telling you.  Describe what you’re seeing—the colors and textures and forms; describe what you’re hearing, and listen for the quietest, faintest sound.  Pay attention to what your skin is feeling—to the temperature and movement of the air, to the weight of your clothing.  Which muscles are tense?  What odors or fragrances you can smell?  What tastes and textures can you sense inside your mouth?

This little exercise—“Recognize, Choose and Act”—will give you immediate relief.  Even when you’re in the throes of deepest grief, it will give you a moment of respite.  And the more you practice it, the more powerful it becomes, and the more deeply it will carry you into the vastness of the eternal now—where all the genuine meaning and beauty and fun is, and the only place where your true power resides.

Sky High Happiness

Smiling SkyEvery now and then, synchronicities happen that tell you you’re on the right path.  Since I began my search for daily answers to the question, “Why am I so happy now?” they seem to pop up with increasing frequency.  But few are as blatant or wonderful as the one that happened yesterday.

After work, I was driving down a country road looking for the photo-of-the-day for my Flickr project.  I was in a wonderful frame of mind – relaxed, happy, glad to be alive.

All day I had been enjoying the panorama of playful clouds outside my window and I was looking forward to finding a good cloud shot for my photo for the day.  I opted to drive down a country road and got a couple decent photos, but an insistent feeling kept telling me that I needed just one more.

I kept my eyes opened for possibilities as I drove toward home.  Finally I spotted a place I where I could pull off the road a bit.  I parked and saw the roadside trees were hiding a cornfield lined with woods.  It would make a fine foreground for the heaps of clouds I wanted to capture.  I walked through the brush back to the corn and started shooting, loving the fragrance of the ripening corn, the beautiful blue of the sky.

I had just finished a couple shots when I noticed the sound of a propeller plane directly overhead.  And when I looked up, I could hardly believe what I was seeing.  Right, there, directly above my head, the pilot was making a drawing in the sky. Why, I hadn’t seen sky writing since I was a kid!

The little airplane was just finishing off a giant oval when I looked up.  And then, to my complete delight and amazement, he painted a smile and lines for eyes.  “Oh my gosh!  It’s a smiley face!” I gasped out loud, struck with wonder that this symbol of happiness was floating right above me.

As soon as I recovered from astonishment, I grabbed the shot—and less than a minute later, the winds had blown the drawing away and the plane was gone.

Had I not been in exactly that spot, at exactly that moment, I would have missed it.  But obviously, I was meant to be there.   This one was a present just for me.  And I embraced it with wonder and joy.