“Happiness Dashboard”

It is easy to slip into the mentality that we are powerless over our feelings. If things go well for us, we feel happy. If things work out poorly, we feel unhappy.
But Happiness is not the simple result of our circumstances.
Happiness is actually more of a tool – in the same way that “pain” is a tool. Pain helps let us know the degree in which we are physically damaging the body.
Happiness helps let us know the state of our thoughts.
Think of our state of Happiness as a sophisticated monitoring system. It’s like our own personal “Google Analytics” – if we only knew how to read the tools.
We tend to think that we are happy when things are going well for us, and frustrated when the world is not going our way. But this is only partially true.
Our level of happiness does not reflect the state of our world, but the state of our thoughts.
It is like looking at the “temperature” dial on your car and believing that the needle moves depending on how hard you are driving the vehicle. In reality, it is the condition of the engine – the oil level & the efficiency of the cooling system – that plays a much more important role. Even a car standing still at a low idle will overheat if the engine is not healthy. Conversely, a well-maintained engine will keep the temperature smack in the “normal” zone, regardless of how fast you drive, and no matter how many hills you climb.
Can you avoid big hills to avoid car strain? Absolutely!
According to the metaphor, this would be the process of removing toxic elements from your life.
• Are there people in your life that are negative or judgmental? Do you feel worse about yourself or the world after spending time with them?
• Do you attend social gatherings that cause you anxiety? Do you feel drained and defeated afterwards?
• Do you consume alarmist news or entertainment? Does it leave you feeling crappy in the end?
All of these are hilltop destinations on our daily drive. They tax our engine and bring us close to overheating. It makes sense to ask, “Is the destination worth the effort?”
But removing all hills from your itinerary is not the only way to keep your temperature in check. In fact it is more of a band-aid than a real solution. Far more important is working on the engine until it is running smooth. Ideally it can handle the steep inclines without running too hot.
Plus, there are some amazing destinations on the top of pretty steep hills. So avoiding inclines altogether is not a very realistic solution. It is MUCH better to have the option to go where you please.
And you can do this with a well-maintained and healthy running engine.
In some ways our mind engine is extremely complicated. There are an infinite number of thoughts that can give it trouble. Most of these can be categorized as either fear, guilt or regret.
It is best to deal with them as they arise. Brush them away daily before they gum anything up. But this daily maintenance is a change from the way most of us have been trained.
Most people have a hospital-style attitude about the engine. They only bring it in for maintenance when the “Check Engine” light goes on. Or worse yet, when they break down on the side of the road. Most people have the same attitude about their Happiness. It is only things like prolonged depression that spur people to “look under their hood.”
But by that time the fear thoughts have settled in deep into the gears. We develop patterns and bad habits. Each one adding more friction to the engine’s workings (and building up more heat & stress.)
It is much more helpful to do minor engine maintenance every day. Check the dial each morning. Brush away any unnecessary debris.
This daily maintenance can be different for each person. Some popular tasks are exercise, meditation, gratitude lists, reading books, or listening to lectures from more experienced mental mechanics.
The key is shifting from the passive, “I’m having a bad day” to an empowered, “What am I thinking that is making me unhappy?” Until we can read the dials, it feels like our mental state is out of our hands.
But when we start to check our mental dashboard, we gain a whole new level of control over our lives.
Simply knowing you are having stressful thoughts doesn’t mean you can wave your hand and make them go away, but it is a start.
If I am feeling anxious or unhappy, it can be difficult to recognize. I can easily drive my car all day and not realize it is running hot. But as I work on my maintenance schedule, I am getting better at noticing when things are off. Often simply knowing to check the dials is the hardest part.
Once I know to check in with myself, I can usually see the fear, guilt or regret thoughts. Invariably it is because I am either: 1) Not being present or 2) Feeling separate or 3) being attached to an outcome.
Once I can pull back and see the less-than-happy thoughts that I am having, it is easy to address them.
Of course, pursuing peace of mind with those 3 diagnoses can be journeys unto themselves. Entire spiritual paths are dedicated to each and they can take lifetimes to master. This should not be discouraging – on the contrary! This can be one of the most empowering revelations an individual can have.
Going from passively “accepting” your mental state to having active control over it is a massive shift. We still need to read the maintenance manual and do the work, but until we know how to check the dials, it is impossible to know where to start.
March 2, 2010
John

3 thoughts on ““Happiness Dashboard””

  1. Enjoyed reading this– wondering if you would comment or post on “being attached to an outcome”– is it a forest for the trees kind of thing?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *