What is the Key to Happiness?


There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.

~Hamlet, Act 2, Scene II.

he key to happiness is this revelation:

My mood is the result of my thoughts.

For two reasons, this is counter-intuitive to me!

1- It seems as if my circumstances, not my thoughts, cause my mood. For example if I am experiencing adversity, I’ll feel bad.

This is indeed how it seems, but it is not true. Unpleasant feelings are not caused by events outside of one’s consciousness, but by reactions to those events from within one’s consciousness. The world does not disturb me. I disturb myself.

2- It seems as if my mood causes my thoughts (not to mention my behaviors), not the other way around. When I’m in a bad mood I’m much more likely to think negative thoughts like “the world stinks!”

This is true but misleading. My mood does impact my thoughts and behaviors. Nevertheless, and quite importantly, my mood is itself caused by my thoughts. And my thoughts stem from how I view the world (my underlying beliefs).

Thoughts (the fancy term is cognitions) pop into the mind quickly and without my consent. David Burns calls them automatic thoughts. If one’s underlying beliefs are irrational and self-defeating, then the automatic thoughts will often be toxic. Even if one’s underlying beliefs are self-helping it’s common to have distorted thoughts randomly pop into one’s head.

There are at least four different types of negative thoughts: images that flash into the mind’s eye; day dreams and relived memories that play like movies; internally voiced commentaries, like, “I know nobody likes me, they’re just pretending they do because they pity me”; and concepts that never form into words. These thoughts race through our minds quickly – so quickly that we might forget them in just moments. But they have the power to sting us like angry bees. They disturb us, and the disturbing lingers even after the thoughts have moved along.

An emotional response to a thought is probably part of the way we process the meaning of the thought (in which case, emotions are part of an intellectual process, and cogitation involves the whole body, not just a part of the brain).

We’ve all witnessed decompensating schizophrenics on street corners, in subway cars, or on buses, engaged in violent arguments with invisible beings. Schizophrenia is the result of a brain disorder, a bona fide mental illness. Like most mental illnesses, though, schizophrenia has something to teach us about normal brains. The brain’s constant chatter, externalized in some schizophrenics, is something we all experience internally.

Stoicism and Buddhism advocate mindfulness – an awareness of one’s thoughts and one’s emotional state – and this is quite similar to CBT.  Irrational thoughts that lead to useless negative emotions take many forms, but they all have one thing in common: they are types of denial or rejection of reality (as opposed to acceptance of it).

The goal is to be aware of my moods and the thoughts that cause them, and to catch and dismiss the irrational thoughts before they have a chance to torment me, opting instead for rational acceptance. CBT offers an assortment of tried and true techniques to deal with automatic thoughts and to ferret out and correct self-defeating beliefs.

It is beyond the scope of this document to list those techniques, but this is a good opportunity to recommend a few books. There are two by David Burns that have been pivotal to me: Feeling Good (his latter book called The Feeling Good Handbook is more user-friendly) and When Panic Attacks (a bad title, because it’s not just about panic attacks but all forms of anxiety). The endearingly rambling books of Albert Ellis are also useful. The one I’ve read is Feeling Better, Getting Better, Staying Better.

Happiness is not something that happens “out there.” My happiness is not out in the world somewhere. It happens “in here,” in my consciousness, in the little sphere of space that encompasses my head and my heart.

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 Posted by on February 23, 2012
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