This is a wheel no one ought to re-invent! If you want one more pitch on the best strategy for finding (or buying) peace joy and happiness, please look elsewhere; this article is about what really works, not what some feel-good guru wants you to own.
Money doesn’t buy happiness
We’ve all heard this before. It’s time to get money out of the equation for once. If anyone could sell you permanent happy, you’d have purchased it a long time ago. But money can’t buy peace joy and happiness because they have to be found. They have to be discovered. Like other emotions, joy and happiness come from inside you, and once you learn and practice this, you can have peace.
The best part? You can make that discovery without money…but not without cost.
The cost of finding peace joy and happiness is acceptance and surrender.
The real cost of peace joy and happiness
The feeling of joy and the peace and happiness that come with it are available to you right now. Just like the feelings of sadness, fear, and anger seem to arrive of their own volition, joy can too. The chemistry of our human systems provide these emotions to us as a way of keeping us safe, healthy, fed, and procreative.
Clearly, there are some emotions we enjoy more than others, but they are all – to oversimplify this quite a bit – brain chemistry of one kind or another.
The brain behind emotion
The part of our brain that is most closely related to safety, health, food, and sex is also the oldest part, and perhaps the most experienced: the hippocampus. You may have heard people discuss the hippocampus as “the croc brain” (as in crocodile) or “the lizard brain,” and that’s apt since we share our fight/flight/freeze/feed/f— (well, “mate”) impulses with every other creature endowed with a hippocampus.
Far from being antagonistic to joy, the lizard brain is quite capable of delivering that feeling…along with the others we don’t like so much. It’s for our own good. The hippocampus doesn’t care whether we like the emotions or find them distasteful; it’s just doing its job.
Put another way, this emotion-related region of our brain is judgment-neutral. Its only job is to recognize a situation and prime the rest of us to respond. Scary tiger? Flood the system with adrenalin. Hungry? Prepare to feed with salivation. Tragedy? Open the tear ducts, start those health-giving and trauma-releasing spinal waves, throw in some weeping and wailing. This is how our brains work, people! Interfere with this well-oiled and ancient machine and the results might not be so good.
Don’t get in your own way
This is all to say that, when you’ve got to cry, do that. When you’re scared, go with it. Angry? Let it out. You already know what to do with joy (I hope).
But here’s the thing: whether we must cry, cringe, curse, or celebrate, do it safely. There’s no reason to break things and hurt people if we have good practices for each of the emotions that are more difficult for us to experience.
We’ll get into that good practice thing in a moment. For right now, won’t you agree with me that these emotions – even though they may carry a charge or energy that we don’t like – are basic to our survival?
Why interfere with a process that’s designed to keep us safe and healthy? Don’t suppress that process; it’s there for a reason.
Feelings we don’t like and belief systems
It’s important here to take a look at our emotions in light of our belief systems. I want to be judgment-neutral about this but it still may be a bit hard to swallow. Please know this is not meant to offend, but it may be challenging at first.
Some belief systems demonize anger, fear, and sadness. In my life, I learned that part of the belief system in my family of origin was to suppress anger. Trouble was, suppressed anger resulted in chronic depression, which didn’t fit into that belief system either. Psychotherapists have made good money from people like me!
When we’re not feeling peace joy and happiness, there’s a decent probability that we’re either experiencing something else – usually a feeling we don’t like – or feeling nothing at all. We can psych ourselves out into feeling nothing at all but we can’t stop the multi-millennium-old brain chemistry built into us (thank you hippocampus!).
This can be an awful contradiction: I have these feelings…that my belief system says I ought to suppress or not have in the first place.
So what do we do?
Honoring the lizard brain
Suppressing the brain chemistry offered by the lizard brain is like intentionally drunk-driving a fast car at night on a curvy, narrow, cliffside road covered with black ice…with no guardrails. It’s dangerous and stupid. If that sounds blunt, it’s meant to. No belief system in the world fits that scenario better than the laws of physics, wouldn’t you agree? And the laws of physics don’t care about your safety; they’re just laws that describe how forces work. While those laws can predict outcomes, they are dispassionate about those outcomes.
The brain chemistry triggered by our hippocampus is as impartial as the laws of physics. How we respond to it is what matters. We can disrespect the emotions at our own peril, or pay attention to the information and energy they have for us.
If we honor the guidance our lizard brain offers us, understanding that it has very good reasons for what it does, we take a step closer to self-awareness or self-actualization.
That is, instead of stuffing emotions we don’t like – for whatever reason, including a belief system that doesn’t honor them – we need to find safe ways to allow those emotions, experience them fully, and just let them go.
Notice I didn’t say “express them fully?” Fully expressing anger can break things and hurt people, and that isn’t a very civilized way to be in this crowded world. But it’s possible – and life-affirmingly healthy! – to experience those emotions.
There’s a time and place for expressing emotions we don’t like, but this article is about experiencing them. You can check out your local Anger Bar or take a mixed martial arts class to fully experience anger; crash a funeral if you need to experience sadness; catch a scary movie to really feel the effects of fear. If you need practice with joy, sign up for a laughing yoga class.
Let’s get back to honoring the feelings we don’t like, and developing a practice for that, which is why you’re reading this in the first place.
Acceptance and surrender
These words are shorthand for two powerful practices that work with every emotion, always. These skills that improve with repetition, which is why they are called “practices.” You’re going to have to work at them to get better at them. No silver bullets here. Ready?
Get your allowance on
Acceptance is about allowing. There’s so much we can’t control, and even when we think we’re in control, things we didn’t expect to happen still happen. Trying to be 100% in control 100% of the time can make us crazy patients for therapists. Instead, we can allow. How?
Kids going nuts? Provided they’re safe, I’ve learned to allow that.
Got an overbearing in-law? Allow that.
Nagging boss? Allow that.
There’s a lot in this world that isn’t going the way we’d like it to go. Allow that.
As we practice acceptance we find that our distress declines. Our ability to perceive things accurately improves. And issues that used to worry us simply stop worrying us. Acceptance isn’t a cop-out, though! Far from giving up, acceptance keeps us very much in the game.
The acceptance practitioner is actively seeking situations to engage with in this new way. It’s a forward-focused discipline, not a cowardly resignation. It can get in your face in ways that call up very intense emotions. That’s why we practice.
There are times when my acceptance practice gets me so angry or scared that all I can do is walk it off – this is a practice about allowing those emotions, too. I call this “taking myself for a spin” and I recognize that the immediacy and discomfort of the emotional moment is better than allowing that stuff to build up and imprison me later on. A spin of a few minutes around the block or an hour in the pool is much better and more effective for me than many hours of therapy later, provided I spin in safety (I do) and don’t let it hurt others around me (my wife is amazing about allowing this for me).
The idea is to meet triggers with acceptance. There are some triggers that require intervention, of course, so please intervene when safety is a consideration! With practice, you will find that you develop a very accepting response to things that make you sad, scared, or angry. You will also find that those feelings can come and go quite naturally, provided you allow them to arrive in the first place, and a good acceptance practice includes safety to experience – not express! – the triggered emotions.
Acceptance is like watching a movie – the movie of what’s happening around you.
Surrender is when things get real.
Far from a white-flag cop-out, the practice of surrender is a more active “bring it on” engagement with the world. We jump from the movie theater audience into the movie…but not as martyrs. But to truly practice surrender, you must accept the outcome. (That’s supposed to be difficult teaching – it is for me!)
For example, you have a choice to sit out a difficult meeting or attend it. Your practice of acceptance is strong, so you choose to go boldly into the meeting. You know you might feel anger, sadness, fear, and joy many times during such a meeting, but as you accept each emotional trigger and surrender the outcome – “hello, feeling of anger!” – it flows right through you. Regardless of what happens or what is said, you remain calm, poised, and engaged.
Instead of letting all the emotions of the meeting collect inside you, you surrender to their flow as they happen. You might even find yourself surrendering to decisions that are made. On the other hand, a practice of surrender, similar to a skillful martial arts practice, can be used to turn aggressive destructive energy against itself. Masters of surrender use this power wisely.
A meeting like the one in this example may have some expected goal or outcome: getting team members to agree on something, or conveying information, or brainstorming. The surrender practice accepts (allows) the outcome, too. More important than the outcome is the process of the meeting – observing the emotions that flow in ourselves and allowing them to safely come and go without judgment.
Over time, outcomes and goals change, which gives us more opportunities to practice proactive acceptance (observational allowance) and surrender (active, participatory release of the outcome). Letting go of the outcome in this way can have unexpected and amazing results. Michael Singer’s autobiographical book, The Surrender Experiment, offers the true story of a lifetime practice of surrender.
But it sounds so hard?
An acceptance or surrender practice isn’t too hard, but it is the very opposite of how most of us are taught to deport ourselves in the world. One aspect of a great truth is its simplicity. You may find that un-learning ways of being that no longer serve you is an easy task or a hard one, but when you commit to a practice of acceptance and surrender and really put in the effort to get good at doing so, you may surprise yourself with the side effects of your practice.
Unlike black-box psych meds, or the latest prescription remedy for what ails us, the practice of acceptance and surrender has side effects we want: peace joy and happiness. Why? Because allowing all that distress to flow through us frees us to welcome the default setting hard-wired into us: peace joy and happiness.
Peace joy and happiness is our default setting!
Why is that our default setting? Next time you’re around an infant or very young child, carefully observe how that little being works within its world. It takes very little to make a baby happy because the baby is unencumbered by learned distress and resistance. Acceptance and surrender are practices that bring us, without ignoring anything, back to the happy baby place.
Peace joy and happiness aren’t elusive fleeting feelings any more than sadness, anger, and fear are. We wither in sadness, anger, and fear and flourish in peace joy and happiness. Which will we choose? Instead of stuffing – holding on to – the feelings we don’t like, allow them and let them flow and go…without acting out, please! Remember how easy and safe it is for an infant to do this and let that enliven your practice.
All emotion has some purpose for us, whether warning us of danger, alerting us to injustice, helping us grieve a loss, or strengthening our will to thrive. Practice surrender to what actually is and we find the world can be a joyful place, even in the face of what triggers emotions we don’t want, and that we can inhabit the world in peace.