- What holds you back from letting go, lightening up, having more fun, being less self-conscious, doing more of what you really want, and being more of the kind of person you want to be? Fear? Shame? Guilt? Grief? Sorrow? Write down a few of these “happiness inhibitors” on a blank sheet of paper, putting check marks next to the ones that stand most directly in the path of you being a happier person. Don’t be surprised if you uncover elements of fear, shame, or guilt, or unearth insecurities that have a bigger hold on you than you thought. There are powerful and stubborn joy inhibitors in all of our lives that hold us down, often without our even knowing it. Naming them is often the first step on the path to defusing them.
- Fill in the blanks in each the following statements:
“With more ____, I’d probably be happier.”
“With less ____, I’d be a more joyful person.”
“I will allow myself to be more content if/when ____.”
Listing the things that prevent you from being a happier person will give you a clearer sense of what’s holding you back. The next step is to come up with a few healthy strategies, and practices for “uninhibiting” yourself. Putting what you’ve learned into action and putting joy-generating thoughts and activities into daily practice are essential elements to becoming the more joyous version of yourself.
You noticed the word healthy? It’s because we’ve become a “lubricated” society that depends on alcohol and drugs to have fun. Many of us fail to learn how to shed our inhibitions naturally by cultivating a sense of confidence, lightheartedness, playfulness, fearlessness, freedom, and courage. Unless we’re under the influence of a drink or a drug, we remain dependent and self-doubting when it comes to letting go. And our instincts for knowing how and when it’s safe and how far to go begin to atrophy.
- In addition to alcohol or drug dependencies, there are matters of the body, mind, spirit, and world of relationships that stand directly in the way of our happiness and need to be addressed. Unburdening ourselves of the things that weigh most heavily on our hearts, taking steps to reset and recalibrate our minds and bodies when necessary, and making peace with life as we age builds our capacity for happiness and also strengthens our defenses against life’s inevitable losses and unwelcome changes.
- There are unlimited healthy ways to learn how to uninhibit ourselves, most of which require the courage and willingness to step out of our comfort zones. Taking a dance class, singing lessons, expressive-arts workshop, or joining a “meetup” group (photography, book club, singles, Toastmasters, AA, Bible Study, tennis, golf, grief support, etc.) might all be helpful. So might going on retreats, exploring adventure travel, volunteering, going for counseling, or making time to simply sit still and listen to the beat of our own hearts.
For me, giving myself permission to be happy came from a simple moment of uninterrupted silence, sitting on the beach many years ago following the death of my oldest daughter, Jenna. She had died tragically while studying abroad, and it was as if every ounce of joy and pleasure had drained from my life. All I could feel was pain. I didn’t even want to be happy. How could I be when my oldest daughter’s life had ended? Sitting quietly with tears streaming down my face, and imagining what Jenna and her sister, Stefie, would be saying to me, opened many doors of awareness. Among them was the discovery that I had a bad case of PSG (parental survivor’s guilt) that was blocking me from any chance of ever being happy again.
I had convinced myself that allowing pleasure into my life was, in a word, “despicable.” What right did I have to be happy when my daughter’s life had ended? Covering my eyes, recoiling, and hiding under a heavy blanket of misery, I turned my back on anything that threatened to bring me joy. Not only did I deny myself even the slightest permission to experience pleasure, I enfolded myself in profound sorrow.
As with many awakenings, the possibility of turning a predominance of my sadness (and guilt) back into love first appeared to me in that moment of stillness, sitting on the beach. I could hear both of my daughters cheering me on: “Go, Dad!” I realized that tears born of despair are okay. Understandable. And even necessary. But suspending myself in a self-enforced state of mourning, endlessly staring into the abyss, and dying a slow death was not. Fighting my way back into life, step by step, breath by breath, would make my earth and angel daughters, Stefie and Jenna, proud of me. My courage and willingness to live on, inspired by my daughters, allowed me to once again embrace the goodness and beauty of life, which slowly turned things around. Making the rest of my life purposeful and finding joy again is how I could best honor them.
Giving yourself permission to be happy may involve stepping out of your comfort zone and getting help for the ways in which you’ve been hiding, denying, avoiding, self-medicating, or grieving. You may find yourself sitting on a beach, hiking in nature, praying, dancing, or singing—or summoning newfound strength in a counseling session, workshop or support group. Coming to terms with one of life’s many “living losses,” such as a divorce, illness, accident, estrangement, or business failure can help clear the air and prepare the soil for better days. Finding the strength to leave your deepest sorrows behind, face your most daunting fears, and get your butt out on the dance floor are noble acts of courage.
We’re all works in progress. And things don’t change overnight. But they are steps in the direction of your new normal for happiness.
The permission to be happy and the courage to move forward lies within all of our hearts and minds. Surrendering to joy comes with learning patience, kindness, self-compassion, faith, and bravery. Responding to happiness-killing invitations from guilt, shame, fear, self-deprecation, and embarrassment with an emphatic “No!” may be difficult. We may want to justify, rationalize, explain, excuse, and/or defend the fears and inhibitions that hold us back. And we can do so for the rest of our days. Or, we can make the decision to let them go, one by one, and lighten up, trusting that joy is also our birthright. Discovering new and healthy ways to partake in life’s sweetness will require a plan of action and a good deal of practice. But we can do it!
Just affirming, “It’s okay for me to be happy” three times and thinking positively will not be enough to ensure your happiness or freedom. My smiling heart wants to assure you that exercising the muscles of joy, practicing letting go, retraining your face to smile and your feet to dance, opening your eyes to the daily miracles and simple joys of life, and cultivating kindness are all concrete ways to begin discovering true happiness.
Ken Druck, Ph.D., is a best-selling author, internationally known thought leader, executive coach/consultant and renowned expert in self-compassion, aging, civility, and healing after loss. His books The Secrets Men Keep, How to Talk to Your Kids, The Real Rules of Life, Courageous Aging, and Raising an Aging Parent; and his speeches, workshops, trainings, and community leadership have won him the Distinguished Contribution to Psychology and Visionary Leadership awards. Find him at www.kendruck.com or on Facebook.
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