Three things you need to know to be happy

The first thing you need to know if you want to be happy is that your happiness is largely within your power to control. This is enormously good news.

The second thing you need to know is that the type of control you have over your happiness is indirect, rather than direct. To understand the difference, imagine you’re taking a bath. Imagine that you’ve been laying in the tub relaxing for a while, with no water running. After some time, you begin to notice that the temperature has dropped off, and you want to heat it up. So you turn on the hot water tap to cause hot water to flow into the tub. But the water doesn’t heat up immediately — it takes time for the temperature of the tub to get hot again. Your action — turning the tap — will cause the tub water to get hot, but the connection is somewhat indirect. Let’s say that this is what we mean by indirect voluntary control.

To understand direct control, consider the state of mind you’re in when you want to heat up the bath, and you know that the way to accomplish this is to turn on the hot water. So your goal is to turn on the hot water. To do so, you can directly reach out your hand and turn the water on. Turning the hot water tap is something that you can simply do, and doing so immediately results in hot water flowing into the tub. Let’s say that in this case, you have direct voluntary control over whether hot water flows into the tub.

The type of control you have over your level of happiness is the indirect. You can’t simply do something which will directly cause you to be happy. But what you can do is start taking actions that will indirectly lead to a rise in your happiness level — just like slowly raising the temperature of the tub water.

This is because everything about your mental life is a habit. If you’ve been worrying a lot, you’ve been habitualizing worry, and you’ll tend to worry more. Whatever you do reinforces the habit of doing that. If you’re unhappy, chances are you’ve been reinforcing all kinds of unhappiness-inducing habits. To replace those habits with habits that lead to happiness is a matter of indirect voluntary control. You can control what you say and do, like you can control whether to turn the tap or not, but it is the cumulative effect of many such actions that changes the habits of your mind.

The third thing you need to know is the skill that lets you cause hot water to flow into the tub. To do that, you must fight a moment-to-moment battle of mindfulness versus mindlessness. You must intend to notice your negative, worrying, ruminating thoughts, and replace them with thoughts that promote the habits that make you happy. In each moment, once you’ve remembered your intention, you can directly choose where to redirect your thoughts. By repeatedly directing your thoughts in a certain direction, you are indirectly causing your thoughts to tend to flow in that direction more readily.

So try this: decide that you’re going to find beauty in anything that happens in your life.

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