Excerpt: 'Be Happy: The Power of Happiness in You'

Read an excerpt from Robert Holden's new book, "Be Happy."

ByABC News via logo
May 28, 2009, 2:48 PM

June 1, 2009 — -- You can train yourself to be happy, according to Robert Holden's newest book "Be Happy: The Power of Happiness in You."

He shares the key steps to take in the follow-up to his previous bestseller.

According to the book, one key is to put your past behind you and focus on being happy now. Another is to stop blocking happiness from taking root in your life. As you put the principles into practice, you can help others become happier, too.

Read an excerpt of the book below and head to the "GMA" Library for more good reads.

Choosing Happiness

The real reason why happiness means so much to you is that happiness is your true nature. Happiness is who you are, and it is what you experience when you accept yourself, when you relax, and when you stop neurosing about being a "size zero," about "why he hasn't called", and about "what I should be doing with my life." Happiness isn't "out there." And, when you really think about it, the blocks to happiness aren't "out there" either. Why? Because there is no "out there" out there.

The happiness course shows you how your psychology creates the world you experience and how it can either enhance or block your awareness of true happiness. Happiness is not a state of mind; it is your true nature. That said, certain states of mind can either help or hinder your experience of happiness. In other words, happiness is your original nature, but you may well be suffering from psychology. Your psychology (that is, your perceptions, your beliefs, and your self-talk) is what stands between you and happiness now, success now, and love now.

Over the years, my work on happiness has been independently tested by psychologists and neuro-scientists who are able to record the wonderful results that happen when people change their psychology. A new belief, a new perception, can undo your mind and open up a whole new world of possibility. Scientists have shown that when students in my course change their thinking they literally alter the chemistry of their brains, which shifts their experience of the world and also increases their happiness, peacefulness, and well-being.

I begin the exploration of the psychology of happiness by asking my students to answer the following question with a "Yes" or "No." The question is: "Could you be even happier—even if nothing in the world around you changed?" I give my students a full five minutes to choose their answers so that they can really think the question through. That said, most students tell me that they only need about five seconds. The answer is almost always an emphatic "Yes." Over the years, I would estimate a percentage split of 90 percent for "Yes" and 10 percent for "No." In the most recent course, the score was 100 percent for "Yes."

These very high scores appear to confirm the "negligible role" that life circumstances play in happiness. To be truly happy, you have to get your head around the idea that circumstances don't matter as much as you think they do. Leading happiness researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky says, "The general conclusion from almost a century of research on the determinants of well-being is that objective circumstances, demographic variables, and life events are correlated with happiness less strongly than intuition and everyday experience tell us they ought to be."1

Happiness research studies reveal that most people who score consistently higher levels of happiness than you do not experience markedly better life circumstances. Nor are they happier because they haven't experienced any difficult life circumstances. So, what's happening? One answer is, they know how to enjoy their life better than you. On the other hand, people with lower happiness scores than you do not necessarily experience markedly worse life circumstances. In fact, they may be much better off than you, in financial terms, for instance. It would appear, therefore, that these people are unhappy not because they are suffering from bad circumstances, but because they are suffering from psychology.

Happiness scientists, philosophers, physicists, and Indian swamis all agree that your state of mind literally creates the world you experience. For example, the 19th-century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote, "The world of those who are happy is different from the world of those who are not." This idea is supported by Sonja Lyubomirsky's research into why some people are happier than others. She concludes: "A common thread running through the research is that happy and unhappy individuals appear to experience—indeed, to reside in—different subjective worlds."2

When my students respond "Yes" or "No" to the question "Could you be even happier—even if nothing in the world around you changed?" I also ask them to write down the reasons for their answers. I have compiled hundreds of responses over the years, and all of the reasons for "Yes" fall into five broad categories, each of which testifies to the power of making positive choices. The first positive choice is "choosing to accept myself more." For example, "I can choose to be less critical of myself and accept myself more, and that way I will be happier regardless of what happens in my life."

The second positive choice is "choosing to see things differently." For example, "I can change my perception of things that I think are 'wrong' or 'bad' or 'not good enough' and look for the gift in everything." The third is "choosing to be more grateful." For example, "I can be happier by appreciating all of the gifts that are in my life rather than longing for what I don't have." The fourth is "making better choices." For example, "I can choose to slow down, be more present, reprioritize, connect more, and attend even more to what really matters." And fifth is "choosing to be happy." For example, "I can choose to be happy, to be loving, to be kind, to have fun, and to appreciate my life. It's my mind, and I can choose how I work it!"

Imagine a happiness scale from 0 to 10. Zero represents "no pulse;" below 5 represents degrees of "unhappiness;" 5 is "not unhappy;" 6 is "quite happy;" 7 is "happy;" 8 is "very happy;" 9 is "almost completely happy;" and 10 is "totally happy". According to this happiness scale, how happy are you normally? What would you say is your average score for happiness? Think carefully on this, as the score you give could well be what scientists call your "set point," or what I call your "familiar point."

The happiness set point is a theory used by scientists to explain a phenomenon known as "hedonic adaptation."3 It is a similar idea to a person's body-weight set point. The theory is that you have a set point or set range that you return to (for example, between 6.5 and 7.5 out of 10) regardless of what your life circumstances are like. This return to the "set point" has been observed by happiness researchers who have found that most people adapt rapidly to their circumstances, both pleasant and unpleasant. Thus, your levels of happiness are hardly ever permanently affected by life circumstances.

The great hope is that buying a new pair of shoes will help you to live happily ever after. Multiple purchases of products with brand names like Manolo Blahnik, Mouton Rothschild, Mont Blanc, and Mercedes should guarantee you everlasting happiness. What really happens, though, is that you visit "happily ever after" for a short vacation, and then you use a return ticket to catch a ride back to your original set point. There is, however, an upside. For instance, if you scuff your Manolos, or your Mouton Rothschild wine is corked, you may visit the depths of despair, but only for a short spell, because you will eventually make your way home to your set point again.

Hedonic adaptation—the return to your set point—has been observed in the most extreme life circumstances. The most famously cited research is by Philip Brickman and his colleagues, who compared the happiness levels of 22 lottery winners with a control group of 22 people who lived in the same areas.4 As you would expect, the lottery winners did experience an increase in happiness levels in the short term. However, this increase lasted only for a few months, and after about a year they reverted to their original set points. In other words, they were no happier.

Brickman and his colleagues also studied the effect of the set point on people who suffered severe physical injuries that left them paraplegic. Most people who have not experienced paraplegia cannot imagine how anyone in that position could ever feel genuinely good again about life. Indeed, for the first few months, the subjects' happiness levels were a lot lower than the average. However, within a year or so, their happiness levels had risen and were only slightly lower than the happiness levels of the millionaire lottery winners. In fact, 8 out of 10 described their lives as being better than average. All hail to the set point!

So, what is the set point really? Well, firstly, it is helpful to remember that the set point is not a physical thing that is "real" as such. It is merely a description of your average happiness score over time. It is the score or range that you are most familiar with, and that is one reason why I call it your "familiar point" or "familiar range." But there is also another very significant reason why I like to call it your familiar point and not your set point, and that has to do with what actually determines the "point" in the first place.

Most happiness scientists will tell you that your set point is determined in large part by your genes. They differ as to exactly how much—some say as much as 80 percent, but most say 50 percent.5 The next question, then, must surely be, "What are your genes made of?" or "What determines your genes?" Here there are two schools of thought: One school describes your genes as being made of "physical stuff," permanent and unchanging, that programs your psychology and behavior. If this is true, genes are a physical miracle—they are the only physical things in the universe that do not change and evolve.

The other school describes your genes as "bits of code" that are being turned on and off by your perceptions, your beliefs, and your self-talk. Thus, your genes change in much the same way the chemistry of your brain changes whenever you change your psychology. This school suggests, therefore, that your genes determine your thinking and are also influenced by your thinking. In other words, the thoughts you think most often, that are most familiar to you, and that you most identify with are what make your genes determine your happiness "familiar point."6

My theory is that your happiness familiar point is set by your sense of identity (that is, your self-image), which, in turn, determines your psychology. From watching people for many years now, I believe that most people think like the people they perceive themselves to be. For example, if you relate to yourself as "a victim," you will think like a victim. Your sense of identity is what is encoded in your genes, and this is what programs your psychology. Therefore, you can only experience a lasting increase in happiness if you can identify with it and not let your old self-image sabotage it.

The reason that you place yourself at 7 out of 10, for instance, on the happiness scale is because this score is familiar to you and your self-image can identify with it. Your familiar point can probably extend to a familiar range, up to 8 out of 10, for instance. But if you were to experience 9 out of 10 on the happiness scale, and not return quickly to your familiar point, you would have to be willing to let go of your old self-image and its psychology and intentionally embrace more of your Unconditioned Self.

When I ask my students to stand at 9 out of 10 on the happiness scale, or even 10 out of 10, the first question I ask them is, "Can you picture yourself here?" I want to know if they can visualize being "here" or not. Many times, they will say, "I like the idea of it, but it's just not me." This much happiness is too unfamiliar and uncomfortable for their self-image. It is not compatible with the story they are currently telling about themselves. So, now you have to choose between the learned stories of your self-image and the original joy of your Unconditioned Self.

When you change your mind about yourself, you change your brain chemistry, you change your psychology, you change your genes, you change your future, and you change your relationship to happiness. The more you truly accept yourself, the more you will automatically let go of an old self-image that is made up of thoughts of lack, unworthiness, and fear. The old guilt and struggle that were once so familiar to the old Learned Self no longer fit, and now your happiness levels increase as you once again identify with your Unconditioned Self, which is literally made up of happiness.

How much of your life is determined by personal choice and how much by external circumstances? For example, would you say 40 percent personal choice and 60 percent external circumstances? Take a moment to think about what percentage split accurately reflects your attitude toward life.

When I give this question to my students I tell them I am not after one right answer, which is just as well, because I always get a wide range of answers. On one end, I get scores as low as 20 percent personal choice, 80 percent external circumstances. These scores suggest a philosophy of determinism: for example, my choices are determined by my DNA, by my childhood, by my school grades, by the current economic climate, by my partner's mood, by the sports scores, and by whether or not my children have cleaned their rooms.

At the other end, I get scores of 80 percent personal choice, 20 percent external circumstances. This reflects a philosophy of adaptation: for example, just because my four-year-old daughter has tried to flush a papaya down the toilet doesn't mean she is trying to ruin my life. Life happens, but I can choose how to respond to life. Some people even score 100 percent personal choice. This reflects a philosophy of creation: for example, I create my life because I choose my circumstances. This philosophy sees that everything is ultimately a choice, including your future.

When we study the psychology of happiness, I give my students a question to consider that throws a whole new light on how we choose happiness. The question is, "On a scale of 0 to10, how good will you let this happiness course be?" A similar question for you might be, "On a scale of 0 to 10, how much will you let this book change your life for the better?" The really interesting thing about questions like these is that everyone has an answer. But where does the answer come from? Is the answer just made up, on the spot? Or is the answer premade? If this is the case, you may well have decided your future already.

Amazingly, you have already decided how happy you are going to be in this lifetime. At least, that is my hypothesis. What do you think? As you read these words, see if you can find the place in your mind where you have already decided how happy you will be today and how much you are going to enjoy yourself today. Also, see if you can find the place in your mind where you have already decided how happy you are going to be this week, and for the rest of your life.

The scientific research into "preconscious choice" challenges us to rethink how we create our reality. Baroness Susan Greenfield is a professor of synaptic pharmacology at Lincoln College, Oxford. We have met on many occasions over the years, and I always keep up with her research into the brain and consciousness. With regard to preconscious choice, she concludes, "The actions and decisions we take everyday which feel like instant conscious choices are actually the result of slowly emerging sub-conscious processes in the brain."7

My hypothesis is that somewhere in your mind you have already decided how much happiness is possible and how much is too good to be true. You have already decided, for instance, if the people you are yet to meet in your life can be trusted or not. Furthermore, you have decided already if you will find love or not, how much success you will enjoy, and how abundant your life will be. You have made these choices already, and they are programmed into your genes by your thoughts—and right now you are playing out your choices in the world.

One of the first times I became aware of preconscious choice was in a course when I was in dialogue with Elaine. Elaine described herself as being divorced, middle-aged, and "stuck in unhappiness." Her divorce had been finalized the week before she started the course. She described the divorce as being entirely her fault. For 20 minutes, I listened to her speak. "Elaine, I agree with your diagnosis: You are stuck in unhappiness," I said. I did not give up on Elaine, however, because one thing I have learned about the "psychology of stuck" is that being "stuck" is, on some level, a choice.

Next, I decided to examine Elaine's prognosis for her "stuckness." "Elaine, how long do you think you will be stuck in unhappiness?" I asked. "Six and a half years," she replied, without any hesitation. Elaine was clearly taken aback by the power of her answer. "Wow," she said, "I have no idea where that answer came from." We talked a bit more, and then I asked her, "How long were you married?" Elaine replied, "Four and a half years, plus two years of being engaged." A total of six and a half years. Was this number just a coincidence, or, a preconscious choice?

When I ask people the question "Can you choose your thoughts?" I normally get three different answers. The first is, "No," which is rare. The second is, "Yes," which is common. The third is, "No and yes," which is intriguing. When you watch your mind, say for five minutes, it does seem that thoughts arise and subside without any conscious choice. That said, once the thoughts arise, you can choose consciously whether or not to identify with them and whether or not to give them your energy and your power.

"I believe I can choose my thoughts 100 percent, but I am only able to do it 70 percent of the time," said Claire, one of my students. I can identify with that. Can you? I encourage everyone who takes the course to practice some form of meditation or self-reflection so as to be more conscious and aware of thinking. The goal is to become the observer of your thoughts. This is so helpful because the more you watch your thoughts, the less reactive you become, and the more easily you can discern between the daily nonsense of the ego and the real thoughts of your Unconditioned Self.

Happiness is always possible—the only thing that really holds you back is your mind. You have probably already noticed that the happiest times in your life are when you are not thinking. It's a wonderful thing to stand outside your ego, to surrender to the flow, and to participate fully in a hobby, in nature, in meditation, in prayer, in art, in dance, in sport, and in the moment. For the rest of the time, your mind is a madding crowd of judgments, fears, guilt, and anxiety. I know of no one who would feel entirely comfortable at the prospect of having a transcript of his or her daily thoughts made public. And yet happiness is only ever one thought away at most.

You choose your thoughts, and you choose your future. Right now, in this moment, you can choose to think differently, and you can choose to create a different future. The choices you make here and now are what shape your fate and destiny. One new perception, one new belief, one new affirmation is all it takes to begin to experience your world differently.

You can choose again, and it is never too

late to choose to enjoy this moment

and to choose a better future.

When I teach about the mental blocks to happiness, I use a model called the "Unholy Trinity" of the ego. The Unholy Trinity is made up of 1) Beliefs: the learned beliefs you identify with, such as "happiness has to be deserved" and "happiness must be earned." I will explore these beliefs in depth in the next chapter, "The Happiness Contract." 2) Fears: the learned fears that attract unhappiness and repel happiness. I will explore these fears more in Chapter 11, "Fear of Happiness." 3) Lack: the illusion that "something is missing" and the ego's blindness to what is already here. More on this in Chapter 12, "One Hundred Gratitudes."

The most important thing to remember about true happiness is that happiness exists regardless of your life circumstances and regardless of your state of mind. Some states of mind, like gratitude, forgiveness, and humor, make it easy for you to experience the happiness of your original nature. Other states of mind, like resentment, jealousy, and cynicism, make it more difficult—but they cannot wipe out your true nature. And that is why when you change your mind, you can rediscover the joy that has been with you all the while.

The intention to be happy is what changes everything. When you decide with all your heart to be happy, you are calling upon the grace and the power of your original nature to help you out. In truth, happiness is a choiceless choice. Why? Because your Unconditioned Self has already decided to be happy. It wants to be what it is. So, when you choose to be happy, you are not trying to create something that does not exist yet; rather, you are choosing to be yourself again. Happiness is a journey home from the ego-mind to the heart of your Unconditioned Self.

Happiness is

a journey without a distance,

a journey that takes no time,

a journey that has already

been made.

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