Some years ago, I had the opportunity to teach stress management to students in my role as a personal counselor at a New York City public college. While there, I established a stress management program that emphasized relaxation training, diaphragmatic breathing, hypnosis, cognitive restructuring and procrastination training. These techniques were helpful to those who took the time to be trained. But over the years, I came to see that stress management is not only about learning techniques.
This came home to me while taking a training course in group therapy. I presented one of my stress groups as my course project. I still remember the comments of the instructor: “This is all well and good, but you aren’t really dealing with the people in the group and what’s troubling them.” After a bit of anger on my part, I came to realize that I had missed an essential point in successful stress management.
Managing stress is more than learning a few breathing techniques or yoga poses or even how to think positively. These things can certainly help treat the symptoms of stress, especially in times of need and challenge. But stress management is really about discovering what makes us happy.
Martin Seligman, a positive psychology researcher, in his book Authentic Happiness, laments the scientific neglect of life’s positive dimensions:
“Relieving the states that make life miserable, it seems, has made building the states that make life worth living less of a priority.” (1)
Happiness is a center piece to any life that is meaningful, lived with purpose and fully engaged with the world. In this article, I will explore how happiness is the foundation for living a life that is whole and satisfying.
What is stress management not about?
The media is filled with information about managing stress, losing weight, getting fit, finding the right career, making money and gaining status. We hear of techniques to cure every ill. We’re told how to breathe, what to eat, which careers are the best, and what exercises to do for a flat stomach. In spite of this, many of us are still stressed out, overweight, out of shape, in jobs we hate and somehow discontent with our lives.
It’s even worse for the not so fortunate among us who are working two or three jobs just to survive and provide for their families, for the single parent looking for day care and decent employment at decent pay, or the homeless trapped in a vicious downward cycle. Deep breathing may not be up to the task of relieving this kind of stress.
There is a much broader vision involved in managing stress than we might at first imagine, such as knowing ourselves , our values and virtues, having a supporting and loving community of family and friends, and working for the good of others. These are the things that help create well-being and happiness. If it were as easy as trying a stress management technique to cure us, we would all be happily relaxed. Let’s take a closer look at the extraordinary contribution happiness can make in our lives.
What is happiness about?
The answer may be that it was never about abundance or techniques. It may be more about coming to know who we are and recognizing the importance of our relationships with others and our community.
There is a dynamic balance between inner peace and healthy loving relationships that serves us well. One might say it’s a yin and yang of inner happiness and outer happiness. For example, a loving relationship helps us feel secure and accepted. If that relationship should end or be temporarily interrupted our sense of inner worth and peace should still survive. Or if we are feeling inner distress, having a loving relationship to get us through helps immensely.
Being happy is about learning to flourish in the midst of life’s conundrums, of being resilient in the face of uncertainty, and of experiencing the great pleasure of being alive.
Let’s look into how inner peace and loving relationships intertwine to produce personal happiness.
Inner peace – “He who knows others is wise. He who knows himself is enlightened.” ― Lao Tzu
A mistake nearly all of us make is to over emphasize the importance of external objects as the source of our happiness. We come to see happiness as something added to us. If I just can just get that job, a spouse, more money, a bigger house, then I will be happy. Our sense of happiness becomes overly acquisitive. Our economic system fosters this attitude. Black Friday is the quintessential symptom of our seduction. If the world gives me what I want, I’m happy. If not, I’m angry and discontent. The Dali Lama put it this way:
I believe that the very purpose of life is to be happy. From the very core of our being, we desire contentment…it is a mistake to place all our hopes for happiness on external development alone. The key is to develop inner peace. (2)
Perhaps it’s about following the Greek Socratic exhortation to “Know Thyself.”
How do we cultivate inner peace and happiness?
First, we need to recognize that happiness heals. Happiness can influence how long we live, the diseases we contract, and how we recover from illnesses. Lissa Rankin, MD in her book Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof You Can Heal Yourself says that,
Happiness…effects life expectancy. People with higher levels of “subjective well-being” live up to ten years longer than those who don’t. Happiness also affects some health outcomes, including success rates of stem-cell transplantation, control of diabetes, rates of full-blown AIDS…and recovery from stroke, heart surgery, and hip fracture. (3)
Having a positive psychological stance in life lowers overall mortality, extends longevity, and reduces the severity of most degenerative diseases.
Second, reducing or removing the obstacles to happiness allows happiness to emerge. Similar to dieting, knowing what not to eat is as important as knowing what you should eat. Knowing what makes you unhappy and working to remove or diminish those things helps immensely. Gretchen Rubin is the author of The Happiness Project, (4) a book and a blog about her adventures learning to be happier. In a Psychology Today article she says:
Although it’s helpful to focus on the positive, to count your blessings, and to remind yourself of what makes you happy, it’s also very important to pay attention to what’s undermining your happiness. (5)
Rubin strongly suggests that you ask yourself what the obstacles are to your happiness. When you identify an obstacle be specific. What exactly is bothering you? Why is this having such an impact? And finally, what do your need to do to change your behavior?
Obstacles could include:
- Equating success with money and status
- Blaming others for your unhappiness, it’s always someone else’s fault
- Being afraid
- Staying in toxic relationships
- Not being honest with yourself and others
- Focusing your life obsessively on making good impressions
- Neglecting introspection and awareness of yourself, of your values and beliefs
- Needing to make everyone else happy
- Thinking life should always be wonderful.
Healthy, Loving Relationships – “Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage.” – Lao Tzu
One of the elements commonly overlooked in both medicine and stress management is the quality of our loving and supportive relationships. When our relationships are poor or the community in which we live is isolated and unsupportive our own level of happiness suffers. Lissa Rankin notes that:
The reality is that loneliness causes stress, while loving community relaxes you. The effects of stress and relaxation don’t just affect the mind; they affect the body and the mind. (3)
Rankin goes on to underscore how important loving relationships and supportive community are in our lives:
In fact, this factor alone may affect your body more profoundly than what you eat, how much you drink, whether or not you smoke, or how much you exercise. (3)
Research (6) demonstrates clearly that supportive relationships and community, as well as belief in a higher power extends longevity and brings deeper levels of happiness. This extends to helping the sick and the poor and unemployed. Pope Francis puts it succinctly:
When we are generous in welcoming people and sharing something with them—some food, a place in our homes, our time—not only do we no longer remain poor: we are enriched. (7)
The modern ideals of total autonomy and radical self-reliance are profoundly misplaced. It is incumbent on us to either change or move away from toxic personal and social relationships. Our happiness and health depend on it.
Remember, happiness comes from the inside and manifests itself in loving personal relationships and our connection with the world. It is of the utmost importance that we seek out people and communities that offer us love and understanding and to which we can offer the same. It is important that we work to see that all people regardless of ethnicity, race or sexual orientation have the opportunity to live without fear and enjoy the fruits of loving relationships. All of us flourish in love.
1. Seligman, Martin, Authentic Happiness. (2002). Simon and Schuster Digital Sales Inc.
2. Architects of Peace. His Holiness the Dalai Lama Reflects on Working Toward Peace. Retrieved from http://www.scu.edu/ethics/architects-of-peace/Dalai-Lama/essay.html
3. Lankin, Lissa, Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof You Can Heal Yourself. (2013). Hay House, Inc.
4. Rubin, Gretchin, The Happiness Project: Or Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun. (2009). Harper Collins e-book.
5. Rubin, Gretchin. Happiness Question: What’s an obstacle to your happiness?. Psychology Today Oct. 27, 2010. Retrieved from: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-happiness-project/201005/happiness-question-whats-obstacle-your-happiness
6. Pursuit of Happiness. Relationships. Retrieved from http://www.pursuit-of-happiness.org/science-of-happiness/communicating/
7. Visit to the Community of Varginha, (2013). Address of Pope Francis, Rio de J2neiro. Retrieved from http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/speeches/2013/july/documents/papa-francesco_20130725_gmg-comunita-varginha.html
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