For the past few weeks, I've been touring the country, teaching, meeting and speaking with people from different backgrounds, socioeconomic statuses, and regions. One thing that's abundantly clear: There's a lot of anxiety, tension, and suffering in America right now.
While in Cleveland, for example, I met four different people in the span of just a few hours that had lost their homes due to foreclosure. And I've met countless others who are desperately looking for work -- either they have no job or, just as common, can only find part-time work that doesn't pay well enough to support themselves or their family. This is something that I well understand: I spent two years unemployed due to a severe injury that left me bed-ridden and in chronic pain. For a long time, I wasn't sure that I would ever be able to hold a job again.
You Can Choose Happiness
Yet, despite how difficult things are for so many, as I had to learn myself, it's important to realize that we can still be perfectly happy... providing that we understand the one, true source of genuine, lasting happiness.
There's a well-known scientific study that provides some necessary insight:
Researchers looked at three groups of people: lottery winners, accident victims who tragically became paraplegic, and a control group who neither won the lottery nor suffered severe trauma. Predictably enough, the study found that in the first few months after winning, lottery recipients experienced a large upward spike in their level of happiness, while the happiness level for the recently paralyzed subjects fell dramatically.
That's not surprising, as anyone who has ever received shockingly good or bad news can attest. What's startling is what researchers discovered beginning at sixth months and becomes unmistakable at the 12-month mark: Within a year, the happiness level of those that had won the lottery had fallen all the way back to, and in some cases well-below where it had been prior to their windfall. Conversely, after about a year, the paraplegic subjects had adjusted to their new life circumstances, and their happiness levels had recovered entirely. In fact, they were generally much happier than the lottery winners!
What Does This Study Tell Us?
First, that we have the innate capacity to adjust and adapt to whatever life throws our way -- including very bad things. We are resilient beings, provided we choose to be.
Second, that what matters much more than our external circumstances are our internal resources. The more we develop our latent mental and spiritual capacities, the more successful we become at turning difficult situations into positive opportunities.
In my own personal experience, as well as those of thousands of people I've known or taught, I've consistently seen that it's our life challenges and even our sufferings that offer the fastest pathways to emotional and spiritual growth. The question is, how do we accomplish this?
Face the Positive
We begin by making the decision to orient ourselves in a positive direction. Make a commitment that you'll endeavor to find some kind of positive life-lesson, benefit, or opportunity out of your difficult economic situation. For example, perhaps a recent layoff now gives you an opportunity to pursue something that you've wanted to do or feel drawn to in some way, but your previous job kept you from it. Or maybe it's as straightforward as what the paraplegic accident victims realized in the above-mentioned study: When times are tough and we feel a great deal of stress, we can either succumb to that stress and allow it to drag us downward or we can make a concerted effort to work directly on alleviating it, not by changing our outward circumstances but by changing our internal response to the situation.
Check Your Internal Response
When I was plunged into chronic pain, had to quit my job, and spent two years mostly lying in a dark room, at a certain point I came to realize that while there was no cure for the pain I experienced, I was making that pain infinitely worse by heaping suffering on top of it. That is, what was really disturbing me emotionally and keeping me from moving forward in a healthy way were the mental responses I was having to the pain. I was constantly telling myself things like, "I'll never be able to work again. How will I support myself? My wife is going to leave me. I'll never be able to enjoy my favorite things again. My life is ruined." These kinds of thoughts -- and the attendant negative emotions of fear, anxiety, anger, and depression that accompanied them -- were what was truly keeping me paralyzed and unable to find a way forward.
Feed Your Happiness; It's Hungry
When it finally dawned on me what I was doing -- how my own distorted thoughts and feelings were keeping me down -- I made a conscious decision to change my responses. First, I learned to accept and embrace this new reality in my life instead of fighting against it. I was expending so much energy trying to deny what was happening, it was physically exhausting and mentally draining. I started seeing the positive and new opportunities in the situation, in both large and small ways.
For example, I realized that I had actually grown tired of my old job but if this injury hadn't happened, forcing me to quit, I probably would have kept at for years and years longer, even though I no longer enjoyed or believed in it at all. Now, fate had extricated me from that situation and I was free to recreate and rebuild my life in new and interesting directions. At a smaller level, I stopped telling myself things like, "I'll never snow ski again" (my favorite sport), and instead said, "I can use the time and money I would have spent skiing to find new activities that I've never before tried and experienced."
Changes in Attitude Give You Latitude
And at the deepest, spiritual levels, I realized that I was gaining new levels of insight into what's truly important in life, the very nature of pain, suffering, how our minds work, how to find enduring meaning and purpose and a host of other things -- attaining new levels of wisdom about myself and our world that previously eluded me.
This isn't just pie-in-the-sky thinking either, a multitude of studies have consistently shown that those of us who learn how to see difficult situations as opportunities or otherwise engage in positive thinking have remarkably higher levels of real-world success -- not to mention happier lives in general -- than those who do not.
Richness Begins Internally
When we make the shift from seeing our happiness as something dependent on outward circumstances to realizing that our happiness is primarily inner-directed, we find that we can be happy no matter what kind of economic or life challenges we might be experiencing. And in turn, this mindset will actually increase our chances of changing those negative external circumstances -- and even if it takes time, it won't matter as much since we now have the inner resources to better cope with whatever life throws our way.
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