Each day we have countless opportunities to choose. We make choices about what activities to pursue, how we spend our time and money, and where we focus the precious resource of our attention. What kinds of choices make us happy? Researchers in the field of positive psychology, in particular professors Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ed Diener, and Martin Seligman, have investigated this question in depth, and their findings may surprise you. The first kind of choice they looked at was the pursuit of personal pleasures – such as eating a good meal, having a glass of wine, going to a movie, having sex, and shopping. These pleasures do increase our happiness but only temporarily, for a few hours or a day or two at most.
As the researchers discovered, the choices that really make us happy are those that allow us to express our creativity or promote the happiness of another person. It turns out that making other people is the fast track to happiness, and its effect is long lasting. If you want instant happiness, the secret is to open your heart and give freely and without any expectations. The intention behind your giving is the most important thing, for when you give unconditionally and from the heart, the energy and joy in the act of giving increases many times over.
While material gifts are wonderful, keep in mind that what really brings people happiness is these four intangibles:
Attention Attention is deep listening. When we give our attention, we are completely present and open as we focus on understanding another person’s perspective – even when we don’t agree with it. We don’t give advice (unless the other person directly asks for it) and we don’t interrupt or try to get someone to hurry up and “get to the point.”
According to neuroscientists, when we practice deep listening, the person who is being heard experiences a “cooling down” or slowing of activity in the amygdala – the “primitive” part of our brain that processes fear and anxiety and produces the “fight-or-flight” response when we feel threatened. Simply by listening attentively to someone, we are actually helping to calm their brain and reduce their stress, which has many benefits for physical and emotional wellbeing.
Appreciation Appreciation is letting someone know that you value them and are grateful they are in your life. You notice the qualities you love about a person and share your appreciation for who they are, their unique gifts, and the ways in which their presence and actions creates more peace, joy, and fun in your life.
Affection Affection is deep caring. We express our affection through our words, physical touch, and other actions, letting someone know that we are there for them. Loving touch is particularly vital to health and happiness. It releases a shower of natural pain-relieving and mood-elevating chemicals throughout the body, calming the mind’s busy chatter and promoting feelings of safety, comfort, and relaxation. While technology allows us to see and hear each other from a distance, it can’t create the true connection and fulfillment that comes from loving touch.
Acceptance One of the deepest human needs is acceptance . . . that feeling of being completely seen and accepted, even with all of our weaknesses, inconsistencies, and shortcomings. According to the ancient Vedic sages, one of the greatest attribute of an enlightened being is the ability to embrace life’s inherent ambiguity. Though most of us haven’t attained enlightenment, we can still cultivate this ability to embrace paradox and accept both ourselves and others exactly as they are.
This week as we focus on opening our hearts, we invite you focus each day on giving the gifts of attention, appreciation, affection, and acceptance. Keep a journal of your experiences and how you feel when you open your heart just a little bit wider each day.
Cultivating Your Intentions
3 Practices to Deepen Your Gratitude Gratitude is an immensely powerful force that we can use to expand our happiness; create loving relationships, and even improve our health.
Many scientific studies, including research by renowned psychologists Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough, have found that people who consciously focus on gratitude experience greater emotional wellbeing and physical health than those who don’t. In comparison with control groups, those who cultivated gratitude:
- Felt better about their lives as a whole
- Experienced greater levels of joy and happiness
- Felt more optimistic about the future and got sick less often
- Exercised more regularly and had more energy, enthusiasm, motivation, and focus
- Made greater progress toward achieving important personal goals
- Slept better and awoke feeling refreshed
- Felt stronger during trying times
- Enjoyed closer family ties and were more likely to help others and offer emotional support
- Experienced fewer symptoms of stress
If you want more happiness, joy, and energy, gratitude is clearly a crucial quality to cultivate and express. Here are three practices you can begin using this week to open your heart to gratitude and love.
1.) Keep a Gratitude Journal
Each day list at least five things for which you are grateful. Challenge yourself by not repeating items from the previous days, for this will make you look more deeply at all the “little” things that enhance your life and give you joy, such as waking in a comfortable bed, listening to your favorite song, receiving a phone call from a friend, hugging your child, or being able to access a wealth of music, literature, and so many other gifts of human creativity with the click of a computer key.
You can write in your journal just before bed, when you wake up in the morning or just before you meditate. The time of day isn’t important; what is important is that you consistently take a few moments to consciously focus your mind on your blessings.
What we put our attention on expands in our life, so by focusing on what we have to be grateful for, we feel happier and open ourselves to an unlimited flow of abundance in every area of our lives.
2.) Write a Thank-you Letter
Make a list of at least five people who have had a profound impact on your life. Choose one and write a thank you letter expressing gratitude for all the gifts you’ve received from that person. If possible, deliver your gratitude letter in person.
In studies of people who have practiced this form of gratitude, the results have been amazing. Often the recipient of the letter had no idea what an impact he or she had had on another person and were deeply touched by the expression of such authentic gratitude.
While we may often thank people verbally, the written word can often be even more powerful because someone has taken the time to write their appreciation. A letter can also be re-read and treasured, creating joy and love that will continue to ripple out into the universe.
3.) Take a Gratitude Walk
This is a particularly useful practice when you’re feeling down or filled with stress and worry. Set aside twenty minutes (or longer if you can) and walk in your neighborhood, through a park, around your office, or somewhere in nature. Pay attention to your senses – everything you’re seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling, and maybe even tasting – and see how many things you can find to feel grateful for. This is a powerful way to shift your mood and open to the flow of abundance that always surrounds you.
In today’s meditation, Chopra Center Vedic Master Amanda Ringnalda will guide us in an exploration to deepen our experience of wholeness and oneness with everything around us. We will explore our sense of connection with our community and open to new possibilities for nourishing this connection using our unique gifts and talents.
Happiness Series Week 5 Meditation.mp3
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Consciousness in Motion
The essence of yoga is the union of all the layers of life – physical, emotional, and spiritual. It is a practice for going beyond the illusion of separation. If we go deep enough, we realize that everything is interdependent and that we are all inter-beings who inter-arise in the inter-isness.
This sequence of heart-opening yoga poses will help you experience the bliss of union and enhance the flow of intelligence throughout your entire physiology.
1. Sky to Earth Pose It is best to perform this pose in a standing position, but you may choose to do it from a seated position if necessary. Begin by bringing your palms and fingers together in “prayer” position, feeling your thumbs gently touching the area of your heart. Close your eyes and take several slow, deep breaths.
Very gradually, begin moving both hands upwards. When they reach about forehead level, interlace your fingers while continuing to raise your hands over your head. When your arms are fully extended, rotate your wrists outward while your fingers remain entwined.
Continue extending with your arms, shoulders, and spine, arching up and backwards, feeling the stretch in your chest and abdomen. Look up at your interlaced fingers. If you feel you can maintain your balance, rise up onto your toes to complete the full extension.
While slowly exhaling, begin flexing your body as you fold forward, bringing your arms down and relaxing your neck. Gradually collapse through your upper, middle, and lower back, walking your hands down your thighs, moving your outstretched hands towards your feet. It is not important whether or not you can touch your feet.
When you have flexed forward as far as you can, close your eyes and relax into this position, slowly inhaling and exhaling for several breaths. With each outflow of your breath, soften through your neck, back, shoulders, and hips.
As you inhale, gently raise yourself upright, again lifting both arms over your head, stretching as far upwards as you comfortably can. Again, rise up onto your toes if you feel you can maintain your balance. Complete the pose by slowly returning your hands to the level of your heart.
2. Swaying Palm Pose Begin this second posture in the same manner as the Sky to Earth pose, with both of your hands together at the level of your heart. Again stretch upwards until you are fully extended. Slowly begin to arch your body to the left, stretching through your arms, shoulder, side, and hip. Hold the arch, breathing into the stretch with slow, deep breaths, lengthening with each exhalation.
Slowly return to an upright position, and then gradually arch your body to the right, stretching through your left shoulder, side, and hip. Inhale and exhale, gently lengthening your stretch with each outflow of your breath. Slowly return to an upright position and then slowly lower your arms.
3. Pelvis-Opening Pose This next pose enlivens awareness in the body’s second energy center or chakra. This site is classically associated with primitive emotions, sexuality, and creativity. Because of the powerful messages many young girls often receive about “keeping their legs together,” this pose can sometimes awaken strong feelings and images. Perform it in a safe setting where you can explore the emotions and pieces of information that emerge.
Lying on your back, place both hands over your heart. Bring your knees up so the soles of your feet are on the floor. Now slowly lower your knees toward the floor, opening at your hips. Open to the point where you feel tension, then gently pull your ankles towards your groin. Breathe deeply into your pelvic region while maintaining your awareness in your hips. Without straining, relax and release with each exhalation.
Repeat this process several times, gently releasing further with each opening. Then, slowly extend your knees and rest on your back.
4. Pelvic Lift Pose Lying on your back, bend your knees and plant your feet on the floor. Reach with outstretched arms towards your feet, holding your ankles with your hands. If you cannot reach your ankles, place your palms on the floor with your fingers pointing towards your heels. Keeping the back of your head on the floor, lift your pelvis up in the air, stretching through your chest and abdomen. Take several slow, deep breaths in and out through your nose.
Slowly lower your bottom to the floor and then repeat the movement, lifting up your hips while stretching through your midsection. After several more slow deep breaths, lower yourself to the floor and extend your legs.
5. Cobra Pose Lying on your stomach, place your hands on the floor under your shoulders. Predominantly using your back muscles, lift your chest off the floor. Use your hands to provide support while you inhale. Stretch and extend through your neck, even raising your eyes upwards as if trying to see the top of your head. Take several slow, deep breaths, then gradually lower your chest to the floor. Repeat this pose several times.
6. Open Twist Pose Lying on your back, stretch out both arms to your sides at right angles to your body. Bend your left knee and bring your left foot over your right leg, placing it on the floor next to your right knee. While your lower spine and pelvis are twisting to the right, turn your head and neck to the left, feeling the stretch through your spine. Take several slow breaths, releasing further into the pose with each exhalation.
Return to midline, with both legs on the floor. Then, bending your right knee, place your right foot across your left leg next to your left knee. While rotating your lower body to the left, turn your head to the right, again feeling the stretch throughout the spine while taking slow, deep breaths. Return to resting position with both legs extended on the floor.
7. Child’s Pose This final pose promotes safety and centering in preparation for inner exploration. Beginning on your belly, bring your knees up with your legs and ankles together. Leaning forward, slowly flex at the waist until your chest is resting on your thighs and your forehead is on the floor.
Stretch your arms over your head in front of you and take several slow, deep breaths. Then bring your arms back towards your ankles until they are resting alongside your legs. Feel the movement of your chest on your knees as you slowly inhale and exhale with awareness. Remain in this position for several minutes, noticing your thoughts and sensations.