It’s like Riding a Bike – the Practice of Happiness

Happiness is a lot like riding a bicycle, if you think and concentrate too hard on each process, you are likely to start to wobble and ultimately fall. You have to be gentle and feel your way into the process, and then reduce analysis, rumination and questioning as you are gliding along – or bombing down steep mountain trails! And yet you have to practice. Some people are naturals and others struggle. This can relate to genetics, early attachments, life experiences and more. I love this topic, as I have had my own struggles with happiness over the years linked to my own mental health challenges and have observed this being a common pattern for people I have worked with. For people experiencing both anxiety and mood disorders happiness can be tricky. Working with clients with varying mental health challenges (like OCD, generalized anxiety disorder, panic, depersonalization disorder and depression) I have seen many ways that difficulties with happiness seem to play out. It may be really hard to let yourself enjoy life. We might struggle to ride our bike. We might need to start with stabilisers or a helping push.

A few examples of how these barriers to happiness might look include:

  • Depression is characterised by numbness and anhedonia or an inability to experience positive emotions. Thought processes play out like the self-attacking inner critic ‘I don’t deserve happiness’ or existential barriers like ‘this won’t last anyway, what’s the point, life is short’. For other people it’s more felt sense based: strong feeling barriers like numbness and psychological pain block the small sparks of positive emotion. Professor Richard Davidson’s work showed that depressed people do activate their brains reward system in the presence of positive experiences, it’s just that it does not stay activated and soon fades. In people without depression the reward centre lights up and burns brightly long after a positive event ends. There are brain based barriers to the reward and motivation to experience happiness. People may struggle to have the attention or cognitive capacity to concentrate on things enough to enjoy them.
  • If we take psychiatric medication (which I think has its place in recovery especially in acute phases of mental health challenges) we may find our emotional range is blunted so that we feel fewer positive feelings. Meds can take away the extreme pain of negative emotions but they can also flatten out happiness and positive emotions.  
  • In anxiety disorders people often have anxiety triggered when they start to feel anxious and experience less positive emotions as anxiety increases. If the cognitive process of worry is a stronger component (rather than felt sense anxiety) then people may worry happiness won’t last, that they don’t deserve happiness, they won’t achieve things by making time for happiness, they need to think about others and worry if they relax and enjoy something, they won’t be able to spot danger. Or it might be the sensations and felt sense of anxiety is the barrier. The gnawing feeling in the pit of your stomach or your pounding heart makes it hard to enjoy the moment. I used to experience panic attacks when sitting back to enjoy some music. I would experience nausea, beating heart, tunnel vision, depersonalization and other perceptual changes of anxiety ‘amping’ up as I tried to enjoy a new album.
  • In OCD people may have obsessive concerns about safety and threat that simply don’t allow much space for happiness. If people have obsessive existential thoughts they may ruminate and question around life, meaning, happiness, reality etc and these obsessions may block the ability to relax into pleasure and joy. OCD often targets the things we care about the most, so if we value enjoying life, intrusive thoughts or sensations may threaten to distract and ruin our happiness indefinitely.
  • In depersonalization disorder our attention may be so hijacked by feelings of unreality in ourselves or the world that it becomes difficult to engage in experiences that bring pleasure and happiness. Happiness may feel remote and distant or a concept that itself feels unreal.
  • In trauma our current reality may be so hijacked by past traumatic events that we can’t experience pleasure and may be immersed in panic, psychological or emotional flashbacks or depression. It can feel like there is no time to enjoy experiences when we are in survival mode.
  • Clearly there are other ways this could play out in other psychological disorders like manic depression where the highs, hijack pleasant states so that we may not even feel present to enjoy them, or the pain of the lows overpower the highs. We may not be able to enjoy simple and relaxed pleasure that doesn’t measure up to the euphoric states. Positive emotions are ‘too highly’ up regulated and our behaviour risks relationships or our own safety. Addictions hi-jack the reward system and dampen its effects over time, we go from enjoying our drug of choice to needing it to stop deep psychological and physical suffering. Or we might have perceptual disturbances in psychosis etc that mean it is so difficult to connect with the present moment and experience happiness.

These are just a few examples. The human brain is so complex this could play out in many other ways. It seems that an element of difficulty with happiness manifests in many, if not all, mental health challenges. Others have written about this and arguably positive psychology has attempted to work directly with this challenge. Mark Freeman talks about the most challenging exposure being to enjoy life, Shala Nicely talks about emotional compulsions that might block happiness and in Miriam Akhtar’s excellent book ‘Positive Psychology for Overcoming Depression’ she talks about how she used to question ‘but am I happy’ in the presence of pleasant experiences and this intellectual process would rob her of her happiness. My mind would create barriers to happiness in different ways. For example, I would ruminate existentially about things like happiness ‘what is it and am I feeling it’, I would feel anxiety and depersonalization activated in the presence of happiness or my depression would overshadow it with pain and numbness or throw up questions about the futility of happiness. At one point my partner joked with me that I was ‘serious about happiness’.

To work with this, I have found that standing facing into the storm has been key. Like with anxiety treatment, exposure to what we fear the most, without doing compulsions to remove the uncertainty and anxiety has been so useful. Learning to accept uncertainty and not answer questions my brain throws at me around happiness; accepting painful emotions; and focusing on pleasant experiences have all become practices and skills I have developed (and continue developing) over time. Practice being happy. Schedule positive events, make time for savouring and gratitude and when your own unique mind tries its method to control happiness, remove uncertainty, spot threats , question it etc then notice and accept this and then engage back into the present moment. If there is a tiny portion of positive emotion, gratitude or engagement then lean into and cultivate your connection with it.  Connect with other people and savour together. We learn to ride our bike with others, often more skilled than ourselves. Be kind and gentle with yourself, the practice of happiness is closely linked to self-compassion. As Rick Hanson say’s ‘take in the good’ and ‘marinate’ in a positive experience long enough for it to form lasting neural changes in your brain.

Another interesting point is that we often think we can’t experience positive mental and emotional processes in the presence of pain. But in reality, we can. Normally the pain overshadows and eclipses the positive experiences but with practice we can feel gratitude, meaning, engagement and joy in the presence of psychological or physical pain.

Just like physical fitness this takes practice. Especially if you are not one of the naturally happy folks. You might need a little longer with the stabilisers on the bike or with someone running alongside you. But we can all get better at riding our bikes and then we never really forget it even if we get a little rusty.

Why not plan three pleasant events for the next couple of days and engage deeply in them no matter what stress, depression or fear is in the background?

Take a Walk on the Grateful Side – The Gratitude Walk

As the great stoic philosopher Epictetus said:

 ‘He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has

Epictetus spent his youth as a slave in Rome. He was crippled on the journey to Rome and lay below deck on the ship for days, controlling his reaction to the pain. He lived alone for much of his life with few possessions. It’s not exactly the life you might think would give rise to an appreciation of the power of gratitude. However, Epictetus practiced a philosophy that held that all you could really control in life was your rational mind and what it focused on.

Gratitude has been demonstrated to improve the frequency of positive emotions (even amongst people with chronic illness), reduce physical health symptoms like headaches, improve sleep and even enhance interpersonal relationships (Lyubomirsky 2007). It is a practice closely related to mindfulness, in the brilliant Mindfulness Finding Peace in a Frantic world they talk about having the quality of ‘appreciative attention’. Mindfulness helps us to have the attentional skills to apply and focus on gratitude, especially when we are in difficult circumstances.

A practice for cultivating gratitude which I enjoy regularly when I walk my dog is ‘The Gratitude Walk’ (of course the walking can be replaced with any appropriate movement or it can be done sitting if movement is an issue):

  1. Begin with 2-5minutes of mindful walking. You can bring your awareness to the sensations of walking, or your breath or you can open your awareness to your sensory experience of sight, sound, feeling, smell, taste etc
  2. Start to reflect on different things in your life which you feel grateful for and (using any language that works for you) say silently in your mind ‘I’m grateful for x’
  3. Categories for gratitude could be relationships, resources, opportunities, abilities, hobbies, work, a (relatively) healthy body and mind etc. You can also express gratitude for the things you see around you like nature or the people you are with
  4. Expand this out so that you reflect on something you are grateful for and then deepen this by expressing why you are grateful for it. For example, ‘I am grateful for my dog, because he is always pleased to see me and keeps me regularly walking in nature
  5. Let your awareness ‘dance’ between the thoughts of gratitude and any pleasant feelings in your body like the feeling of gratitude, warmth, openness, relaxation, joy etc in the heart, face and whole body
  6. If your mind drifts away notice and return. If your mind resists the practice with judgement, doubt, self-attack, inner critic etc then see if you can notice this in a kind and accepting way and gently keep bringing your attention back to expressing gratitude. Let the doubt be in the background. We have the capacity to experience different emotions at the same time, we can have gratitude whilst feeling anxious, depressed, obsessing etc. Let the other thoughts and feelings be in the background of your awareness and gratitude takes centre stage
  7. Continue for 10-20 minutes or as long as feels right
  8. Try to find different things to be grateful for each time you practice, including different things that have happened through your day. This trains our attention to be searching for positive occurrences throughout the day

Our brains have evolved a negativity bias that prepares us to search for threats in our environment. It made more sense for our ancestors to spot the dangers of their environment (like Lions, Tigers and Hyena’s) than it did to continuously savour the beauty of their world. So, our baseline state can often be one when the brain defaults to searching for danger. Gratitude is a wonderful practice to offset this and to prime our minds to take in the good. People often struggle with gratitude, especially if they are experiencing low mood. When this happens, a person suffering from depression can end up denigrating themselves for ‘failing’ at another thing. This is where we gently use our mindful acceptance skills to allow these thoughts to be there whilst we place our attention on the gratitude practice. We can experience gratitude even in the midst of emotional or physical pain. So, start gently, maybe just writing down three things for which you feel grateful for or spending two minutes through the day to reflect on gratitude.

The other thing people struggle with is what gratitude means in a world full of social injustice. But it’s important to reflect that gratitude can be a complementary practice to support us in working to create a better world. We can resource ourselves to help others with gratitude and reduce the chance of burn out. Even people in very difficult situations have found benefits with gratitude. For example, Shawn Achor did research with cancer patients, African farmers that had lost their land and homeless people and found they all benefited from the practice of gratitude for their well-being.

So why not try Epictetus’s approach and experience the ‘freedom of being the master of yourself’ by cultivating an attitude of gratitude. Take a walk on the grateful side.