How to Be Happier in Troubled Times

Image Credit: Deposit Photos #33846373 via @ londondeposit
Image Credit: Deposit Photos #33846373 via @ londondeposit

Step Number 1: Banish the Very Idea of Happiness

Do you know how snipers are taught to deal with fatigue? First of all, let's consider some statistics.

24 hours: the amount of time it often takes for a sniper to get into position

36 hours: the lapse of time between getting into position and shooting

Snipers are dead tired when they finally endeavor to make the kill shot.

You could give them wake-up drugs and teach them to ward off fatigue with techniques that create momentary alertness. In other words, you could attack the problem of exhaustion by trying to artificially change the sniper's inner state from fatigued to alert.

But, as it turns out this is no substitute for simply knowing how to perform in extremely adverse circumstances. In short, this is not how snipers are trained!

Instead you keep them up for three days and have them practice shooting when they are dead tired. That is, you teach snipers to deal with the negative state they are in: to function well even in the presence of fatigue. ∞ Martin E. P. Seligman, Ph.D. and the author of Flourish

Instead of focussing on the fleeting experience of an artificial wake-fullness, snipers learn the skill of accuracy within their natural state of fatigue.

Why am I telling you this?

Because we live in unhappy, stressful, dangerous, and downright traumatic times. These are exhausting, debilitating times. If you hang your hat on happiness to get you through, you are hanging it on a straw peg and robbing yourself of the chance to perform at peak even in the face of distressing circumstances.

According to Martin Seligman, happiness is about cheerful mood. It is bound up in the idea of "satisfaction." But research has shown just how flimsy this measure is.

It turns out, however, that how much life satisfaction people report is itself determined by how good we feel at the very moment we are asked the question ... Life satisfaction essentially measures cheerful mood, so it is not entitled to a central place in any theory that aims to be more than happiology. ∞ Martin E. P. Seligman, Ph.D. and the author of Flourish

Happiology is no way to live or judge a life, especially not at this moment in history. Instead, Seligman focusses his positive psychology work on a three pronged approach to flourishing that considers:

  1. Positive emotion, which he sums up as what we feel, including pleasure, rapture, ecstasy, warmth, comfort etc.;
  2. Engagement or flow, which he describes as merging with the object of our focus; and
  3. Meaning, which he connects to what you might call the Passionate Warrior's credo, namely, belonging to something you believe to be greater than yourself.

As it turns out, all three of these things can anchor you and allow you to make your mark in these troubled times when, like the sniper, you must now aim with near-perfect accuracy in the heat of your fatigue.

But aim at what?

The answer is contained in number 3 above: something you believe is greater than you are. Call it a dream, a vision, a purpose, a passion. Just be sure you also call it into being within you as a concerted challenge to these times of intense distress.

If these times have revealed anything, it is the worthlessness of an empty "feel good" culture that makes happiness a compulsion and an obligation. Oh how inadequate the untethered mandate of positivity and happiness has turned out to be in the face of real, unremitting challenges. Happiology is a failed idea that could not stand the test of truly troubling times. Give it up.

Instead, align yourself with a vision that is so much bigger than you are that it will demand things you never even imagined you could deliver. Reap the meaning this devotion of self brings as you persevere in the name of your vision.

Step Number 2: Answer Passion's Call. Activate Purpose In You.

Not just any vision will do!

You need a vision so powerfully compelling, so rooted in the ground of who you are, that once you understand the impulse, you cannot give it up.

I am going to go out on a limb and suggest one to you that belongs in your heart right alongside the contributions you dream of making at this moment in history.

But first, let me back up.

Troubled and traumatic times leave an imprint not just upon your soul, but upon your brain, your body, and your nervous system. They mark you with terror and distress and they alter you. They mask who you could have been, who you were, perhaps, meant to be. Even after the real threat has passed, the terror of its repetition remains as do all the automatic reactions and coping mechanisms. The longer the threat is sustained, the longer you are trapped in danger and fear, the more entrenched the imprint becomes; the more altered you and your life path will be.

When you picked up this article, wasn't it this reality you wanted to escape.

Didn't you want me to tell you how to arrive at an experience free from terror, distress, dread, and danger?

An experience in which positive emotions naturally arise?

Or maybe you wanted me to tell you how to replace these "negative" emotions with some kind of lighter fare? Maybe put on some mood music that would make you feel like dancing in the rain?

Either way, the vision I want to suggest to you is one of flourishing. Above all else, isn't this what the hunger for happiness is about?

You want to be well and safe (not just feel a little more joyful in terrible moments). You want a life that supports you in delivering your dreams, your precious creations and contributions into this world. You want meaning and engagement. Above all, you want to matter in some way, to belong, to have an impact and to leave a legacy.

This is the common vision we must all adopt now.

We must activate this vision in us as the call of passion.

Passion is aliveness. It calls us to blossoming.

Don't you want this flourishing, this blossoming aliveness, more than you have ever wanted anything in your entire life?

Step Number 3: Make an Ironclad Commitment

If your answer to that last question was an emphatic, or even a halting, YES, then this next step is clear and obvious: Your commitment to fulfilling this vision must be ironclad. It must stand in every circumstance, in the face of doubt, when the world or those closest to you seem utterly set against your realization. It must stand not just for your own well-being, but as the Passionate Warrior's commitment to something greater than you are.

Every single person who realizes this transition does it for themselves and for the world. They stand as a challenge to the existing order and undermine its seeming totality and unlimited power.

The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion. ∞ Albert Camus

Your, so-called, "personal" experience of living beyond the dread and danger of trauma will make you into this act of rebellion personified.

Your very presence will be the miracle and the miracle working magic that ushers in a new way of being together on this planet.

If this feels daunting because you haven't a clue how to actually realize it, I ask you to set aside your trepidation and read on.

Step Number 4: Challenge Reality

"Is it live or is it Memorex?" Remember that old commercial? The idea stands for recordings that are so good they mimic a live performance.

This is what trauma does. So, are we in troubling, even terrifying times? Certainly we are.

But how much of our current "reality" merits our unquestioning acceptance? How much of it is live and how much of it is recorded within us?

The facts of what is happening may be discernible and undisputed. But the way we respond to the facts is another matter. Further, within the space between these facts and how we respond, rests the vast playing field of our lives. On the playing field, we challenge reality by changing the way we approach it and by changing what we approach within it.

We restore spontaneity by breaking free of our habitual responses and restoring a more neutral, open focus. We are no longer compelled to respond in any particular way by habit and we are free to review a wide array of things before selecting exactly where to focus our attention and effort.

This is where the other two prongs of Dr. Seligman's three-pronged definition of flourishing comes into play.

If feelings and experiences of dread, danger, fear, etc. are the hallmark of trauma, if they imprint themselves upon our bodies, minds, and emotions, we need a way to erase the imprint. Consciously generated positive emotions are one way and Flow states are another.

We can use the first to open the door to the second.

Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi crafted the term "Flow" to describe what he call's "optimal experiences." According to his work, we may be living in times that, despite the horrors we are facing, offer us a really terrific shot at flourishing (at something deeper than fleeting feelings of satisfaction) because they raise profound challenges for us to solve. Chief among these challenges is the question of how to answer the call of our passion and to blossom right here and now regardless of the circumstances we are facing.

Isn't that ironic?

Contrary to what we usually believe, moments like these, the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times--although such experiences can also be enjoyable, if we have worked hard to attain them. The best moments usually occur when a person's body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something that we make happen ... such experiences are not necessarily pleasant at the time they occur ... Getting control of life is never easy, and sometimes it can be definitely painful. But in the long run optimal experiences add up to a sense of mastery--or perhaps better, a sense of participation in determining the content of life--that comes as close to what is usually meant by happiness as anything else we can conceivably imagine.
∞ Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the author of Flow

Of critical importance, however, is the idea that Flow, or "optimal experience," cannot happen in a state of anxiety (or boredom). Likewise, it cannot happen in states of "psychic entropy" (as Dr. Csikszentmihalyi calls it). Psychic entropy is "a disorganization of the self that impairs its effectiveness. Prolonged experiences of this kind can weaken the self to the point that it is no longer able to invest attention and pursue its goals."

Therein lies our greatest challenge. Trauma, past or present, creates this kind of psychic entropy. Another term for this is incoherence. So, ironically, the challenge of these times opens a vast playing field in which we can challenge our experience of reality and construct a new one. But it also opens up old wounds, triggers old habits, and is creating new wounds and new habits of survival. We are (or are at risk of) spiraling into this incoherence or psychic entropy. The anxiety is often too high for Flow to occur.

Therefore, in order to enter into Flow, we must find a way to deal with the incoherence and anxiety of this moment. To surmount the challenges of this era and achieve our blossoming aliveness, we need a means of overcoming the disorganization produced by the very context and genesis of our desire.

I can offer you a solution. It is simple. It is elegant. It is essential.

The HeartMath Institute, where I was certified as a HeartMath facilitator, calls the desired state "heart coherence," but really, it denotes system-wide coherence as this is what heart coherence actually creates. It is achieved by changing our orientation from fearful states to a more open and spontaneous stance using two simple steps:

  1. Take deep, centering breaths into the heart center (focussing awareness there); and
  2. Consciously generate feelings of love, gratitude, appreciation, pleasure (really any positive emotion will do).

A breath count that is three breaths in and six breaths out (or in a similar ratio) has the benefit of calming the nervous system. Even breaths help bring the nervous system out of collapse.

Essentially, psychic entropy or mental incoherence occur when we experience high beta brain wave activity, which are associated with heart incoherence. These kinds of brain waves are generated when we feel intense fear or stress (as is created by trauma). Heart coherence offers us the essential ability to move into alpha, theta, and delta brain waves, which are associated with the experience of love.

But are we simply bypassing negative emotion that needs to be resolved?

Perhaps. And if we use this technique to suppress unresolved past issues, it will be nothing more than another coping mechanism. It will be like the psychological tricks and medications that never made it into sniper training, an artificial means of feeling better that never builds the skill we really need. The desired skill is not about feeling better momentarily. It is about achieving a new steady state that exists outside of trauma and in the realm of flourishing.

In short, we must make peace with the past before this heart coherence work is of any real and lasting value. Then we must use it as a powerful opening to a future that looks radically different from the past.

Once we have made peace with ourselves and our pasts (or more effectively, in tandem with this work) we can use heart coherence freely to:

  • Restore us to balance so that we can address our circumstances from a place of coherence;
  • Open the door to Flow; and
  • Break the habits of incoherence, thereby challenging the reality to which incoherence belongs and which it perpetuates.

I say this because high beta brain waves destroy the integration of our minds and an integrated mind belongs to the world of flourishing.

The extremes are love and fear. When we are in a state of fear, our alpha bridge disappears. We may still have theta and delta, but we're cut off from the resources of our subconscious mind and its connection with the universal whole. 

Beta waves flood the fearful brain. It's in survival mode ... As our consciousness is filled with love, our brains function very differently, with large amounts of theta and delta, plus an alpha bridge that connects our consciousness with our subconscious mind.
∞ Dawson Church, the author of Mind to Matter

Ultimately, by learning to move from incoherence to coherence regardless of our circumstances, we are reclaiming an internal locus of control. Likewise, by moving out of anxiety in order to meet the challenges we face in a state of Flow, we are learning to flourish, even in these dramatic and challenging times; we are engaged in or merged with the work of flourishing.

In order to get there, we are using these times to push us past our limits and into participating in the process of determining the content of of our lives.

"There is no way out of this predicament except for an individual to take things in hand personally. If values and institutions no longer provide as supportive a framework as they once did, each person must use whatever tools are available to carve out a meaningful, enjoyable life ... To overcome the anxieties and depressions of contemporary life, individuals must become independent of the social environment to the degree they no longer respond exclusively in terms of its rewards and punishments. To achieve such autonomy, a person has to learn to provide rewards to herself. She has to develop the ability to find enjoyment and purpose regardless of external circumstances.
∞ Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the author of Flow

Once you achieve this level of personal coherence and life authorship, you then reach the point at which you are the portal. You become the doorway through which others can seize the opportunity and the invitation to change.

You become an atmosphere changer, systematically taking out the old realities of trauma-based living, first for yourself, and then for those around you. Like the sniper, you are hitting your mark despite your fatigue, in spite of your fear. You no longer require that the environment or circumstances to change in order to you to achieve a new, flourishing state. You achieve this new state right here and now, and thereby, become part of that which causes a new environment to materialize.

Step Number 5: Become an Atmosphere Changer

Once you reach this level, you begin to work with the third prong of the HeartMath coherence formula: sending out the feelings of love and appreciation to the world around you, to those who are suffering, to the incoherent.

This is not the same as trying to love the perpetrator. It is actually a broadcast of essence and energy. Your very presence and your mastery of emotion, meaning, and Flow shift the atmosphere.

You become more powerful than the circumstances you face. You also become a powerful influence and harbinger of change.

You are committed to this change as the thing that is so much grander than you alone ever could be.

Now doesn't that beat the pants off of happiology?

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About Rebecka Eggers

Rebecka Eggers, The Freedom Activator is a Meditation Improv Artist; the creator of The Passion Path® and the FLARE brand storytelling method; the author of Coming Alive!: Spirituality, Activism, & Living Passionately in the Age of Global Domination; and the creator of The Ruby Mirror Tarot. She lives in the mountainous highlands of Mexico, where she uses the tools of modern communication to make all kinds of trouble for every last stagnant, soul killing enemy of your potential. Rebecka challenges you to bring your dreams to life. She is trained as a Metaphysical Minister, a Co-Active Life Coach, a Reiki Master, and a tax lawyer (probably weren't expecting that last part, eh?). Finally, Rebecka holds a certificate in Digital Marketing through Emeritus and Columbia University, awarded with distinction in 2017. You can support Rebecka's writing via PayPal!

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