“Every circumstance is a chance for you to practice being the person you truly want to be.”
~ Marianne Williamson
Mother’s Day. Prom. Graduation parties. Guess what these events have in common?
Yes, children. Yes, children in high school. And, yes, they are experiences I will not share with my own children; life circumstances being what they are.
It wouldn’t take too much effort to allow my mind to take me on a little road trip to the land of “woulda, shoulda, coulda” where my heart and brain spend time and energy focusing on my state of lack. I will never go shopping with my daughter for her prom dress or wedding dress. I will never host graduation parties for my children. I will never know the pride and joy of holding one of my grandbabies in my arms.
Can you hear the steady, booming bass as the pity-party starts to “shake that groove thang”?
And, then. The Hammer. Boom. The grown-up in me just stepped in the door and busted up the party.
In tough love circles, busting up a pity-party is called “choice.”
Choice is what it comes down to. We can choose to feel sorry for ourselves or we can practice a more empowering state of mind. I’ve come to learn that the months of May and June, in particular, are a good opportunity for me to ramp up the use of a happiness habit, a little practice called “altruistic joy”.
Altruistic Joy = Happiness Habit
Altruistic joy is a happiness habit I continue to weave even more deeply into the fabric of my being, and by extension my life. (In Buddhist philosophy this practice is known as “mudita.”) This special type of joy, at its essence, is considered an innate ability of humans, one in which we contain the boundless capacity to savor life’s blessings regardless of whether they’re showered on us or on other people. It is the pleasure that comes when we delight in other people’s well-being rather than begrudge or envy it.
At the root of altruistic joy, however, is our own ability to be content and satisfied with our own lives. It is difficult, if not impossible, to feel joy for others if we are not able to generate this feeling inside of ourselves and truly relish our own set of experiences. Satisfaction and contentment, and ultimately joy, come from actively taking time to notice we are having a good experience even if the events in our lives aren’t exactly the same ones as our friends are having. As we all know, comparison is the number-one buzz-kill for a state of joy.
And like any habit: Use it or Lose it. And, this weekend, I found myself feeling twinges of envy as I wrote a congratulations note and stuffed money into an envelope for a high school graduate – a child of good friends. So, when that little spurt of envy-lava bubbled up, I knew it was time to focus on absorbing my own happy experiences in a way that would permit me to also be in joy for the experiences of others.
Three Easy Steps to Happiness: Have, Enrich, Absorb
The trick, according to Rick Hanson, neuropsychologist, and author of Hardwiring Happiness, is to rest your mind, deliberately, on a positive experience, so it can settle in and take shape in your brain. The key is to notice you are HAVING a good experience. As Hanson points out, often we often equate a positive experience with something extraordinary, when most of our opportunities for a positive experience come from a series of small, lovely moments throughout our day: a morning coffee, a cool breeze, or the laughter of kids riding by on bikes.
The second element of absorbing our own happiness is to allow it to ENRICH us. If you are able to stay with the positive experience for five, ten, thirty seconds, or longer, it becomes part of your memory system instead of falling away like water through a sieve.
The third, and possibly most delicious, aspect is to ABSORB it. Rick Hanson suggests you play with the idea of letting the positive experience sinking into you, perhaps visualizing it as a color swirling and settling into you.
Delighting in Joy
So, Saturday morning I focused on the absolutely gorgeous day, the bright blue sky, the vigor of the plants in my garden, and the feel of earth on my hands as I transplanted flowers from one location to another. I focused my thoughts on the nourishment salad greens and squash in the veggie plot will provide to my body later this summer.
I stayed with the bird song, five, ten, thirty seconds, and stayed appreciative of the glorious fat white clouds against the blue sky.
I breathed in the glorious day knowing the golden light and the fresh, fragrant air was also contributing to the beautiful day for a graduation party – and how perfect that numerous households across Dane County were able to benefit from the beautiful day.
And, later that afternoon, while at a wedding celebration, I soaked up the love and joy in the air and sent it on wind currents to my friends who were also celebrating with love and joy in the accomplishments of their eldest children, now graduating from high school.
As the Dalai Lama has pointed out, the practice of mudita (altruistic joy), is a way to expand our capacity for happiness. If we are able to be happy for others in the world, and celebrate with them in their state of happiness – making their happiness as important as our own – then when good things happen to others, our opportunities for delight are increased six billion to one!
How will you delight in joy?
What is your antidote to envy?
Will you let yourself Have, Enrich, Absorb happiness?