Sunday, January 9, 2011

Giving Ourselves Permission

I believe that the purpose of life is to be happy. –The Dalai Lama

We all want to be happy. Realizing that at least 40% of our happiness is based on our habitual thoughts, words, and actions, we might set out to change our habits to enhance our happiness and deepen our joy. But maybe we seem to make little progress. We feel frustrated and wonder why our efforts don’t produce results.

If someone asks you if you want to be happy, you would probably say of course. But sometimes we hold shadow beliefs that block our happiness. We may not even be aware of these beliefs.

Take me, for example. I was not a very happy person for much of my life. Not that I didn’t have happy times. I did. But I did not have a foundation of deep, abiding joy. I had a foundation of anxiety and fear. I believed that I had to stay vigilant. I believed that if I relaxed my guard, terrible things would happen to the people and things I felt responsible for. I felt so weighed down by crushing responsibility, much of which I later understood was not even mine.

When I was a little girl, my mother had debilitating headaches and sometimes fainted. Often I was the only one home with her. I would have to get the smelling salts and try to revive her. I was afraid that one day I would not be able to revive her and she would die. When I would come home from school, I would come into the house and call for her, terrified that she had died when I was not there to take care of her.

Then, when I became a mother, I felt responsible for my son’s autism. (I was otherwise a fairly rational adult.) My failure to find a cure for him was a personal failure that caused more soul anguish than I have words to describe (The Book I Cannot Write).

This need to be vigilant permeated so much of my life I didn’t even see it. I didn’t really understand that I had a choice about these beliefs. I just thought that this was how the world worked. My wake up call came in the form of a health crisis which brought home to me the imperative need to change my life (Resolution or Revolution). And so I set about to do that.

As part of that process, I finally saw that much of my world view was based on beliefs that I could change, that I wanted to change. Einstein said that the most important choice we can make is to decide whether the universe is friendly or hostile. For much of my life I saw the universe as hostile. I wanted to make a different choice, but I couldn’t just snap my fingers and change my beliefs. These beliefs were the basis of deeply ingrained habits. I realized that to change these habits, I needed to address the underlying beliefs. I needed to believe that terrible things would not happen if I relaxed my vigilance. Or rather, I needed to believe that terrible things, which do in fact happen sometimes, did not happen because I relaxed my vigilance. I needed to give myself permission to be happy.

Giving ourselves permission to be happy is what Step 1 is all about. Do you have shadow beliefs? They could take many forms, as I described in Getting Our Happiness Bearings. Some people believe they don’t deserve happiness, or that it is unfair to be happy when others are not. Some people might think that being happy is frivolous or unsophisticated. When you think about joy, do you feel any subtle resistance? Any discomfort? Any anxiety? Can you identify any beliefs underlying these feelings?

If so, then consider what it would take to change these beliefs. Your shadow beliefs might not be as lifelong and deeply rooted as mine were, so perhaps being aware of them and substituting other beliefs will not be so challenging. Whatever your shadow beliefs are, what we are looking for is substitute beliefs.

For example, because my shadow beliefs involved a sense of danger, I substituted the belief “I am safe.” Whenever I would catch myself feeling anxious about relaxing my guard, I would tell myself “I am safe.” Eventually, I truly believed it, and I began to experience the universe as a friendly place.

If you can identify a shadow belief that is blocking your happiness, what would the counter belief be? If you will make an effort to consciously substitute the counter belief (even if you don’t really believe it yet), eventually the counter belief will take root and grow.

Giving ourselves permission to be happy will free us from self-sabotage of our efforts to develop joyful habits.

Related post: Fun is Good!


  1. Hi Galen,

    I believe that the universe is a hostile place. But I don't believe that terrible things happen just because we relax our vigilance. There are so many factors and events involved that we cannot shoulder all the blame.

    For many years I sought inner peace and joy. I believed that I could find these things if I found that special someone. This was a life changing journey for me but over time I realized that inner peace and joy had to come from within. I had to make my peace with the world and to accept things as they are. It also helped that I created a purpose and meaning for my life. I am not sure how I went from being emotional to being stable, but it was a gradual process for me. I just realized one day that I had greater self-control over my emotions that I lacked in the past. A lot of this involved changing my perception of things. Being aware of the world and events around me also contributes to my inner peace and joy.

    Do check out Barrie's lastest blog post on parenting. I know you have raised 5 lovely kids and have been a wonderful mother so I am very curious to hear your views on the issue. I believe that you will have valuable points to share and it would be a pity if you did not. :)

    Irving the Vizier

  2. I think I tend to be too judgmental, particularly of the in-laws. I really don't know how I would counter that.
    My husband is so very different than the rest of his family. He is thoughtful and caring of others feelings. He knows how to say please and thank you. How to send a thank you note and so on. So I think its a matter of getting around the fact they are not nor will ever been warm and thoughtful folks.

  3. I remember myself as feeling melancholic most of my childhood. I have never learned how to be happy until recently. Nor about the need to express my feelings. It took me much inner work to get to where I am today. Choosing to be happy is most certainly a powerful first step to taking charge of my life.

  4. Love this post! Great wisdom you offer again! For me: Happy is a state of mind that I use especially when going to work. I meet between co-workers and customers, more negative and blah-blah, and mostly unhappy moods....and funny thing being happy (to a nutty point) keeps the nay-sayers away and the others evenutally perk up....being happy is catchy...I know you agree...!

  5. Awesome insight about “shadow beliefs” – mine have a lot of substance for shadows. And replacing the shadow with light is what you’ve taught me today. I’m on it. Thank you.

    May God Bless and keep you and yours this day

  6. Irving--Thanks for your comment. I would like to hear more about your view of the universe as a hostile place. I did leave a comment on Barrie's blog at your suggestion.

    onemixedbag--Being judgmental is an issue for most of us. When we get to Step 6 this year, I will be especially interested in focusing on this and talking with you about your struggles (and sharing some of mine). As for shadow beliefs and counters, what occurs to me is that you might have a shadow belief that your happiness is dependent on other people's behavior, ie, your in laws. The counter might be something that claims your power and authority to choose happiness. I'm just reading between the lines a bit and offering some thoughts. Does that help at all?

    Evelyn--I wrote before that the happiness breakdown is generally thought to be 50% basic temperament, 40% habits, and 10% circumstances. Sounds like you might have a basic temperament that leans toward melancholy, but you have countered that by focusing on maximizing the 40% based on habits. Personally, I think those habits can work some magic on the temperament side, too. Thanks for commenting.

    Karen S--You've mentioned work before. I'm sure you spread happiness germs (emotional contagion) all over the place. Yes, I do agree indeed that it is catchy!

    Craig--Replacing shadow with light. I like that phrasing. Thank you!

  7. Another great post, Galen :)

    Here's my shadow belief:

    My father always said "Be happy in making others happy". I took that literally and tried to please people no matter what. I started to believe that if someone was unhappy, it probably must be something I did. I started to believe that no one would like me if I did not do things they want me to.

    This is a very deep-rooted problem, which I am struggling to get around. I guess I need to think of a counter-belief!

  8. I thought I was put on this earth to do everyone's feelings for them and then get in trouble for feeling and demonstrating them.

    I have worked very hard to put those lessons aside and to be happy and contented. Mostly I feel as though I have succeeded in reaching neutral.

    I am very hard on myself. I did a post on emotional IQ and how important emotions were to being a full person and so many folks responded that I wrote about "darkness" and depression things ????HUH! I have decided that many people are terrified of their emotions

    I am discouraged with my country and it's response today, where has self-control gone and responsibility? Did the shoot 'em up/reload rhetoric not expect some crazy to come forth and kill a congress woman?
    When the flame of fear is lit - watch where it moves and goes - it affects/effects us all

  9. My mother constantly told me I couldn't. She was wrong.

  10. Aneri--Believing that you are responsible for other people's happiness or that people won't like you if you don't do as they wish, especially when this is the message from your parents, is indeed a deep and difficult shadow belief to counter. You will find the right substitute belief for you, but I thought of "I am not responsible for other people's happiness." (I had to learn that one myself!) Or "People will like me for myself." Or "It's okay if someone doesn't like me." Let me know if any of these resonate with you, or if you come up with somethng else.

    Patricia--Like you and Aneri, I was taught to put other people's needs ahead of my own. Being considerate of others is a great quality, of course, but when we deny ourselves it can become damaging. And yes, what has happened in Arizona is finally bringing home the inciting, hateful rhetoric. So very very sad.

    JJ--Mothers don't always know best.

  11. Sure Galen,

    I have left you an email about it. :)

  12. I learned a lot from this post. I am going to put a lot of thought into this. I am fortunate that I like to feel joyful and happy and many factors in my life invite that. :)

  13. I think the belief "its ok if they don't like me" works best for me. Because mostly, its times when I have to do things that are completely against my nature that make me feel really really uncomfortable. And I suppose, its ok if someone like this doesn't like me.


  14. In a response to Evelyn, you note that the, "happiness breakdown is generally thought to be 50% basic temperament, 40% habits, and 10% circumstances." I don't know where you got those numbers, but from my experience they don't apply to vast numbers of people in the world. Yes, they might apply to people whose color, ethnicity, religion, social status, geographical location, etc. place them in a group that has and holds opportunities and power. However, for those who see and experience things that no one ever should, circumstances play a much bigger role than 10%. For example, the prospect of happiness may elude those surrounded by civil war who see some people killed ever day and others suffering the unimaginable consequences of war and oppression. Perhaps if one of these people were to escape the horrors of war that often includes gang rape, untreated injuries, malnutrition, disease, etc. and find a safe and comfortable life full of promise somewhere in the world (such as a refugees might), he or she might feel a bit happier. However, even then, the ability to suppress the memories of what one has seen and knows is not easy. Although your post has some very worthwhile insights, to me it is clearly not addressing all the people in the world. If I hear someone say that people can transcend their plights on earth, I propose that he or she go live in one of the many troubled areas of the world for a few years after finding a way to look like and be perceived by the power structure as one of the people targeted for oppression or genocide. Just having the luxury to read and respond to your post in the safety of my home may make me someone for whom your percentage breakdown works, but we must never forget that those who are cradling dying children, walking through puddles of blood, or being beaten have more than 10%-worth of circumstances contributing to their unhappiness.

  15. Mama Pike--Thank you for your comment.

    Aneri--Glad one of the suggestions works for you. I really would like to hear back at some point to see if it helps over time. You might come up with something better.

    Anonymous--I really appreciate the time you took to respond and to raise some serious issues that warrant careful consideration. I would like to take some time to think about what you said and to go back to the source of the percentage breakdown for further information. This might take me a few days, so please bear with me. I wanted to assure you that I was paying attention to what you said. I will return to this topic soon.

  16. Galen, I look forward to your response. I would further like to invite you to reflect on my reaction to the first paragraph of your post in which you state that, "Realizing that at least 40% of our happiness is based on our habitual thoughts, words, and actions, we might set out to change our habits to enhance our happiness and deepen our joy. But maybe we seem to make little progress. We feel frustrated and wonder why our efforts don’t produce results." As you go on to attribute the failure to gain happiness to shadow thoughts, there is the assumption that many of those thoughts have no merit and are basically just barriers of perspective that we have set up for ourselves and thus are ones we can remove. But what if what you describe as shadow thoughts represent real barriers? You were able to convince yourself that you were safe because in reality you were safe. What if someone really isn't safe? Your portrayal of habitual thoughts as ones that people can choose to not have assumes that people are in control of their lives. Most people in the world aren't. Furthermore, though perhaps a deterrent to happiness, negative habitual thoughts have a role to play for these people. For example, going against your advice and thinking of the world as a dangerous place reminds a mother to boil water before giving it to her children to drink or using mosquito nets to cover her babies in efforts to ward off cholera and malaria, respectively. In one respect, the opportunity to think about one's happiness is a luxury had only by those people of privilege throughout the world. Those who suffer are focused on survival.

  17. Galen,

    I really appreciate the insight you offer in this article. It's so true that our emotions come from our beliefs. We need to look deeply at our core beliefs to be able to change. Sometimes, it will seem impossible. It takes time and patience, that's for sure. I really resonate with your example of hypervigilance. I'm sorry for the suffering you experienced as a child.

  18. Anonymous--Thank you for your patience. I wanted to check a few things and consider what you said before responding.

    You raised some very good points in both your comments. The phrase that jumped out at me was "the opportunity to think about one's happiness is a luxury." That is very true. If I lived in any of the places you described, torn by war, devastated by disease, filled with daily violence, I doubt that I would have the inner vision or discipline to seek happiness when my very survival was threatened. By the standards of many places in the world, I have indeed led a sheltered and abundantly blessed life.

    The 50/40/10 percentage breakdown came from research conducted by Sonja Lyubomirsky for her doctoral thesis. I tried to find more details of where her research was conducted and who the subjects were, but I have not located that information yet. I suspect you are correct that her research may be based on people considered privileged by most of the world, but I don’t know that for sure. Here is a link to a website with some information about her.

    Regarding the negative thoughts in your second comment, you are right that it is prudent to deal with reality. To deny the danger of contaminated water, for example, would be foolish. The shadow thoughts I am speaking of are those that unnecessarily block our happiness. My anxious vigilance that I countered with assurances of safety was not based on a rational assessment of danger, but rather on fear of imagined catastrophes that I had no control over and were unlikely to occur. I wrote before about the need to wake up, grow up, and show up. Waking up means seeing the world as it really is. So I think you and I are not in disagreement here.

    When considering your observations, I thought about some people who somehow do seem to “transcend their plight on earth.” I heard a Holocaust survivor speak at my school, telling of acts of kindness and friendship in the concentration camp where all the rest of his family died. The Dalai Lama believes that the purpose of life is to be happy, in spite of fleeing Tibet for his life and watching the ongoing oppression in his homeland. Aung San Suu Kyi, Nelson Mandela, and Mother Theresa also come to mind. And Jesus, who forgave the people who nailed him on the cross.

    Closer to home, I follow the blog of a woman in debilitating chronic pain who somehow writes with joy and humor about her life. I know several women who have lost their children to illness or accidents, who even during the darkest times were sustained by love and found joy again.

    I hope you understand that I am not arguing with you or denying the validity of your observations. You are right that in dire situations, circumstances have a significant impact on our feelings of happiness. No one, even in safe circumstances, is “happy” all the time. But somewhere in the human spirit is a capacity for deep, abiding joy that does seem to exist apart from outer circumstances, even if we can’t always access it. What I want for myself and for all beings is to open that aperture as much as we can, to increase our joy as much as we can, and to help others as much as we can.

    I really appreciate the time you took to raise some thought provoking issues. We all need to be aware of our own biases and assumptions. And we need to keep our hearts open with compassion for all who suffer in this world. Thank you.


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