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Health & Balance

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Why You’re Not Happy

Six common barriers to personal happiness and fulfillment and how to overcome them.

Happiness Barrier No. 3: Negativity

Solution: Let go

“Your prison is nothing in comparison with the inner prison of ordinary people: the prison of attachment, the prison of anger, the prison of depression, the prison of pride.” wrote Lama Zopa Rinpoche to a California prisoner, a student of the Liberation Prison Project, which offers Buddhist teachings to people in prison.

Some might view this statement as a bit of an exaggeration. But negative, compulsive thoughts do have a quality of stickiness to them, Jinpa says. How you see things and the way you experience the world are strongly linked, making it critical to adopt a positive outlook. “You interact with the world through your senses and mind,” he says. “If you can find a way to stand at the doorway of your senses, you can have a say in how you experience the world.”

In our culture, though, we take it as natural that people are angry, depressed, or dejected, Courtin says. “No wonder we get depressed -- it’s a depressing world view. It says you can’t do anything about it.” If you believe your abusive boss, father, or partner is the main cause of your suffering, for example, then you’ve tied your own hands and risk becoming imprisoned by toxic thoughts.

The Buddhist view, by contrast, is that happiness is what you get when you give up a neurotic state of mind, Courtin says. It’s empowering, she says, because knowing you can change it gives you the courage to look inside, pay attention, and take responsibility for your thoughts. Rather than judging negative thoughts, Courtin advises observing them with compassion. Then ask yourself, “What can I do about this?”

Techniques like mindful meditation can help with this, but may not be for everyone, especially those experiencing severe depression, says Philippe R. Goldin, PhD, research associate in the department of psychology at Stanford University.

But there are other simple steps you can take to counteract negativity and enhance your happiness. Practicing gratitude is one. People appear to have a certain set point for happiness, a range that’s influenced by genetics. But those who regularly practice gratitude can enhance this set point by as much as 25%, reports Robert Emmons, PhD in his book, Thanks!: How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier. Through his research, Emmons found that people who kept gratitude journals felt better about their lives, exercised more, and were more optimistic.

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