By Dr. Victor S. Sierpina
Some time ago, The Daily News ran a series of columns by a young lady whose optimism and positive thinking I found inspirational.
In a world of bad news and low expectations, it seemed she found something cheerful to write about each column. I used to think of her as Ms. Sunshine and have missed her contributions.
I ran into her and her wonderful family, now with three gorgeous kids and one on the way at the recent Galveston ArtWalk. Watching the very active boys, I could certainly understand why she didn’t have much time to write these days.
Still, it seems to me that happiness is way undersupplied these days and there ought be a remedy.
As a physician, I have the opportunity to see plenty of unhappiness, much of it for good reason — abuse, trauma, stress, horrific family stories, mental and physical pain and disease. These problems are challenging, and sometimes nearly impossible to solve.
I regularly find myself admiring the courage of my patients who endure and even thrive through things the average person would find incomprehensible or flat-out discouraging.
However, certain kinds of unhappiness result from self-inflicted wounds. In many cases, our unhappiness results from unrealistic demands, expectations, beliefs and exaggerations that influence our emotions negatively.
False, unproveable beliefs can lead us to make poor choices of relationships, abuse substances, do less than our best at our work and home and generally create chaos in our lives.
What we believe, we become. As one philosopher said, “A man becomes what he thinks about most of the time.”
A tool that might be helpful to you is something I came across called “A Guide to Shameless Happiness.” This little booklet, available on Kindle for only $2.99, takes about 45 minutes to read, but a lifetime to practice.
Written by Will Ross, it is based on a psychological approach developed in the 1950s by Albert Ellis called Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT).
They both note that much of our misery is rooted in our own beliefs, beliefs we can change to become more happy for the rest of our lives.
The approach is very simple in both theory and practice. It is based on the process of clearing out unhelpful beliefs that lead to unhappiness, such as our demands that life be a certain way, our exaggerated and inappropriate responses and emotions to life’s ups and downs. This is done through a process of self-questioning, answering, reflecting and accepting.
Let me give you an example: Someone says something that offends you. If your belief is that he or she, like a lot of people, is an inconsiderate slob, you are likely to get angry and irritated.
If you believe on the other hand that most people are basically good, you are likely to react more calmly, realizing anyone can make a mistake and perhaps he or she didn’t mean to come across that way. You forgive and go on.
The key element here isn’t the action that happened but the belief that stood between the event and your emotional reaction to it. Which makes you more happy?
The ABCDE formula of Finding Shameless Happiness therefore goes like this:
A. Something unpleasant happens;
B. You form an exaggerated and demanding opinion of the situation;
C. Your beliefs cause an unhealthy negative emotion and/or self-defeating behavior;
D. You ask “Where is the proof?”; and
E. You answer the questions.
Steps D and E help us move back a bit from the emotion and inquire if our expectations and beliefs are provable. If not, we can then elect to change our beliefs.
This creates a state of active acceptance, not just passivity, which allows us to change our mind and thus change our emotions and the world around us. Instead of awful-izing events, we learn to accept and cope with them with more equanimity.
In a wild and woolly world where the news from all over streams unhappy and bad events constantly, usually about things we cannot control, the one thing we can truly affect is our own thoughts. The thoughts we choose can lead to a life of happiness or of misery. It’s your choice.
Get a copy of this little gem of a booklet and see if it can help you to improve the amount of happiness you experience. You don’t have to live your future in the shadow of your old beliefs, especially if they no longer serve you and are making you unhappy.
Dr. Victor S. Sierpina is the WD and Laura Nell Nicholson Family Professor of Integrative Medicine and Professor of Family Medicine at UTMB.