Sunday, October 11, 2015

Steps to Happiness

I have been deeply studying happiness. I am beginning to understand it on a more profound level. As part of this study, I am making myself a "happiness plan" based on my current understanding of happiness.

These steps are to be used any time I find myself feeling "off" or in despair. "Desperation" is a strong word, but I think we are all familiar with that feeling of being stuck in drudgery and staying really busy, or distracting ourselves with something mindless,  as if we could get ourselves unstuck by our efforts.

Here is my plan for when I find myself in that situation:

Step 1) Start right were I am.
Instead of continuing forward in quiet desperation. I can stop and take note of where I am, accept that I am here and that God knew I would be here. I can remember that He has prepared a way, through His son, for me to return to His peaceful Way whenever I choose - regardless of where I am at the present moment. A friend at church today said, "'We are saved by grace after all we can do', but all we can do is to go to Christ with a broken heart and a contrite Spirit." What a beautiful truth to remember.
Taken from

Step 2). Recognize my triggers and the lies behind each one.

I am aware of several things that put me in a "stuck," selfish, or unhappy mindset and they are each connected to a lie: inability to forgive myself, a belief that I am stuck, a desire to control, and whacky hormone levels.

Plutarch once counseled a friend to be aware of true principles to guide his actions and "to rehearse them before the passions arise to have them in stock for greater effectiveness". This list should help me do that.
"Mastiffs bristle at every voice and are quieted only by the one they are used to; similarly passions of the soul are not easily laid when they go restive unless there are familiar and firmly held arguments to check their rioting" -Plutarch On Contentment* 
Inability to forgive myself:
One of my triggers to selfishness is my inability to forgive myself. I find myself feeling "off" because I am wishing I had done something differently in my choices that day or that week or in the distant past. I find myself thinking "I should have just..." or "If only I had..." I have a testimony of the atonement's cleansing power and I know God doesn't like me to dwell on "if only." So from now on, when I find myself thinking these negative thoughts after I have repented, I plan to cast them out and tell myself, "I am grateful for the lesson I learned from that wrong choice, God knew I would make that choice, I am a wiser person because of it. I will now start from where I am and move forward." What a gift it is to be able to choose, at any moment,  to accept my past choices, learn from them, and move forward with a greater ability to make better choices. What a precious gift is the atonement of God and the process of repentance!
False belief: Things would be better if only...
Solution: Gratitude for atonement and repentance

Feeling "stuck":
Another things that puts me in the wrong mind-frame is the false belief that I am stuck. It is enlightening to realize that I am choosing to do whatever it is I am doing at this moment. If I am doing something mundane it is because I am choosing to. It ceases to be mundane once I remember why I chose it. And if I can't find any reason for why I'm doing it, I can always choose to stop and do something else.  I am so, so grateful for the gift of agency. I know the path of happiness starts with a simple choice.

False belief: I am stuck
Solution: Gratitude for agency and an acceptance of responsibility

Random picture to show off my cute kids. Spice was off dissecting a squid :)
Attempting to control:
I also find myself in an unhappy place when I am trying to control things I cannot control - other people, unplanned interruptions, pretty much all of life outside myself.  It can bother me when things don't go according to plan. This is silly. Things always pop up that are not in my plans - how sad to only be happy during those rare times when nothing pops up to surprise me.  I need to recall the knowledge that I cannot control what others do or what unexpected challenges come my way. It is tempting to try to control things through my emotions and manipulation, but this is a false control. If I want lasting change, I must have a heart filled with love. Love inspires change. That is my only job towards others - to love them. Anything else is only an appendage to that love - the teaching, the serving, the correcting. So when I find myself getting upset by things, I plan to remember that the one thing I do have control over is how I react to those people or surprises. I do have the power to choose my thoughts and actions towards anything that comes my way. I can always choose love. I have seen this over and over in my life. I know it is a true and empowering principle.
False belief: I can control others.
Solution: Don't try to control - focus on filling my heart with love.
"Sensible people behave like bees; bees get honey from thyme, which is very tart and dry, and sensible people often get something appropriate and useful to themselves from the most untoward situation" -Plutarch
Whacky hormone levels:
The last pattern I have seen in my life that contributes to a selfish mindset has to do with what is going on in my body. Hormones affect my mood and so many things affect hormones: what I eat, how much sleep I get, heredity, exercise, cycles, and the thoughts I have. Dr. Maurice Harker has a whole program about how the adversary is using "chemical warfare" by flashing a thought into our minds that causes a "chemical spill" (hormone changes) which changes our mood, then our thoughts start seeking for what caused that mood change and we start recalling everything we can think of that we may have done wrong, which causes more negative feelings until we find ourselves in negative thought pattern loops that can weaken our defenses. My experience tells me there is truth to what he is saying. Learning to recognize these feelings will help me cast away my negative thoughts and look forward with a brightness of hope that these feeling are temporary and are not really who I am. (Dr. Harker suggests we fight back with chemistry by blocking those hormones with the "fight or flight" response - after all, this is a real war -  and then putting our thoughts on a higher plane by remembering the "why" of our fight)

False belief: My mood is who I am
Solution: Move forward knowing that it will pass as I stay focused on God (for some, having this focus requires extra help - like getting out in nature, talking to other people, or, in extreme cases - hormone therapy - it can be really difficult to look beyond oneself to God when our body is out of whack).

Neal A Maxwell said something similar to Plutarch about fixing true principles in our minds:
"Now, since we are not always free to choose just when and how all of life’s interactions will occur, we are nevertheless free to choose our responses to these moments. Since we can’t compute beforehand all our responses, it becomes vital to set our course as immortals on the basis of immortal principles to be applied as reflexively as possible." From The Pathway of Discipleship

Step 3) Choose my next step.  This is where I ask my Heavenly Father, "What lack I yet?" and make plans to move in that direction. The reason I do this is not because I think my actions are somehow the means to earning happiness. It is because I know that happiness lies in the arms of my Heavenly Father. I feel closer to Him when I am focused on Him. He is always there, but I sometimes remove myself from feeling His love with distractions and busyness. The way to see past these things is to be willing to sacrifice them. I put these barriers between Him and me so all I need to do is take them down. I will go to Him in sincere prayer with journal in hand and ask Him what my next step is. I know from past experience that I usually need to start writing down my thoughts before they become clear. My mind is too distractible for me to sit there and not let my thoughts wander. The pen in my hand keeps me focused. I will remember that it helps to write my prayer: "Dear Heavenly Father," I'll begin. Sometimes I won't know the next step due to ignorance of true principles in that area, but I know from past experience that Heavenly Father will lead me to that book or that talk or that friend that will help me see a better way. I can then apply that principle to my life and see the fruits I was seeking. Taking this step could be called "Faith."
"Seeing that all men desire happiness, and happiness, as has been shown, is gained by a use, and a right use, of the things of life, and the right use of them, and good- fortune in the use of them, is given by knowledge,--the inference is that everybody ought by all means to try and make himself as wise as he can" - Socrates in Euthydemus by Plato

Step 4) Step through the darkness. In turning to God, I often see the vision of what things could be as I keep moving toward Him. I love this because it motivates me to take the next step. However, if I confuse this vision FOR my next step - I could feel rather overwhelmed. Each time I try to implement this vision into real life - the agency of others and my own weakness brings me to the realization of how far I am from that vision! This is where the mist of darkness usually sets in. I see that the vision is impossible despite all of my efforts. But this realization can be a great thing. It will keep me from trying to rely on my own efforts. It is that feeling of being "hopeless but hoping" that Paul talks about (See Joseph M. Spencer's For Zion chapter 2 for a great discourse on this). . I am hopeless in myself, but hopeful that God's promises are sure and that I can trust Him to lead me step by step to Him - that He will make that vision come to pass. I believe this is is the essence of "Hope."

Image from

Step 5) Share the fruit. Those of us familiar with Lehi's vision of the tree of life will recall that those who held on to the rod of iron (Word of God) and kept stepping forward in faith, past the mist of darkness and the great and spacious building, eventually made it to the tree of life and tasted of the fruit which represented God's love (the fruit which is "desirable to make one happy"). I know these steps work because I have gone through them in the past and have tasted the fruit of moving towards God. It is joyous, healing, and nourishing. Each time I taste it, I want to share it with those around me. It is why I parent the way I do, it is why I teach, it is why I write. I love the fruit of coming unto God. I know it is real. It is what fills our hearts with "Charity" - the pure love of Christ. There is nothing like it in the world. It is worth any "steps" I must take and worth any sacrifice.

I hope my happiness plan has inspired others to consider their next step on their journey through life. I know everyone's "triggers" and challenges are different, but I also know that the way to God and real happiness is simple and true for everyone. I will continue to search for other happiness principles as I strive to apply the ones I have discovered. After all, each day is FILLED with opportunities to practice.
"For to miss the joy is to miss all" - Robert Lois Stevenson in The Lantern Bearers

*(I put some quotes through this blog post from some of the things I have read in my study of happiness. I did not do this for show-off-y-ness, but because this is what I asked of the youth I mentor in creating their happiness plan and I wanted to show them what I meant through example)