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Rule 7: Make One Life Better Today

I once worked with a young woman who was dying of cancer. At the time, I was still young in my practice and somewhat uncomfortable with death. I knew how to help people cope with loss, but how do you help someone who is dying? My therapeutic style was problem-solving. In this instance, I was confronted with a problem I couldn't solve. And reading all the death and dying books in the world doesn't help when sitting across from someone who is dying. So I just listened to her. And cried with her. What I remember most, though, was laughing with her. Even when she was so weak and nauseous from the chemo that she could barely walk, she could still laugh.

I learned much from my weekly sessions with her. Later clients benefited from the lessons I gained in working with her. Interestingly enough, I learned that the problem-solving approach of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is still a useful approach when someone is dying or grieving for other reasons. However, the problem to solve wasn't dying but HOW to die. How can a person put the pieces of her life in order and die with integrity?

Homeless man with dog--Make One Life Better Today Before she died she gave me a card that said “If you have helped one person in your lifetime, your life has meaning.” I know she meant that as a “thank you” to me. But what she didn't know, and I didn't know at the time, was that the card was really about her. Through her death and my greater understanding of dying, so many other people have been helped. I dedicate this rule to her memory so that each person who is touched by this is another person she has helped.

How do you go about making one life better?

1) Making one life better does not have to be difficult.
It can be as simple as smiling at someone or genuinely thanking someone. Let someone know they did a good job when they help you. Be pleasant with customer service people (who often deal with a lot of criticism). Be generous with your time or money. Listen to someone. Rescue an animal. Visit the sick. There are probably as many ways to make one life better as there are lives.

2) You may not always know at the moment if you helped.
Sometimes when you feel the most helpless, you may be the most helpful. As I said earlier, when I worked with the client who was dying, I listened to her. Not because I knew that was the best thing to do. But because I felt helpless. Yet, it turned out that listening was the best thing to do. She didn't have anyone else who would just listen because listening to someone who is dying is painful for the listener. Just being with someone in their pain can be very powerful.

3) You don't need to determine whether your help is meaningful.
Many times when people help they want to know that they made a difference. Which is why many people will focus on solving a problem because a positive outcome shows they helped. However, you don't have to solve problems to be helpful.

A statement from another client of mine sticks out in my mind. She said, “I always give to the homeless. I don't care whether some of them may take advantage of me. I just care about the one that may need my help.”

I don't mean that you have to do the same thing as her. However, you can't always know the outcome of your help and whether it was beneficial or not. And that is okay. The most important thing is that you made the effort.

The Secret of Happiness: Let It Find You (But Make the Effort)--page 1

by Monica A. Frank, Ph.D.
"...happiness doesn't come with fireworks and a parade. Instead, it sneaks in quietly as the night so that you don't realize it has been there for awhile."

The first and most important key to finding happiness may be the most difficult for many people (especially those reading this article): To find happiness you must not seek it! In other words, the more you try to find happiness, the more it will elude you. I think Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) said it best, “Happiness is a butterfly, which when pursued, is always just beyond your grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.”

However, don't be discouraged. You can do many things to create a life where happiness is more likely to find you. Yet, the same caveat applies: If you do everything for the purpose of finding happiness, you may achieve much, but you are not likely to find happiness. Researcher Mauss and colleagues (2012) who found that the higher the value a person places on being happy, the more likely they are to be unhappy, stated, “encouraging a mindset to maximize happiness (as some “self-help” books do) may be counterproductive.”

The reason happiness becomes elusive the more you strive for it is due to creating a fixed desire of achieving happiness. If you have read some of my previous articles, you know that a fixed desire is a demand that something has to occur, or be true, or be achieved in order to be happy. Demands, or “shoulds,” are irrational thinking styles that create conditions for stress and unhappiness. Most of the time these demands take the form of “To be happy, I must be thin and wealthy” or “I must find the love of my dreams” or “I must have a fulfilling job.” In fact, a fixed desire can be almost anything. It could be "I should feel good today" or "My son should get an A on his exam."

However, typically the demands are not completely under the control of the individual and/or they are externally focused which means that the individual may not be able to make these things occur even with a great deal of effort. Therefore, this demand attitude allows happiness to be at the whim of the external world.

In the case of happiness itself, many people make the attainment of happiness a fixed desire: “I must be happy.” However, it is only when we realize that we don't need to be happy that we can find happiness. As William Saroyan (1908-1981) said in My Heart's in the Highlands “The greatest happiness you can have is knowing that you do not necessarily require happiness.”

The difference between a fixed desire and a desire or a goal is that the latter doesn't connect personal happiness with the outcome. For instance, a person may desire to find a fulfilling job but doesn't demand that it has to occur.

Interestingly, people who have desires rather than demands may be more likely to achieve their goals (Berg, Janoff-Bulman, & Cotter, 2001) possibly because they are more motivated and less discouraged. When the very essence of happiness is dependent upon the achievement of a goal, striving towards that goal can be quite overwhelming and even frightening: “What if I fail?”

The one time I experienced test anxiety was just as I started to take the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) that would affect my entrance into graduate school to become a psychologist. Just before I picked up my pencil, I said to myself, “This is the most important test you will ever take. If you don't do well, your life will be ruined.” My anxiety shot up as I opened the booklet to read the first question which might as well have been written in Russian because I couldn't comprehend a single word. Fortunately, I knew enough about self-talk and recognized what I had done to myself, so I put my pencil down, did five minutes of deep breathing and told myself, “This test doesn't matter. If you fail, all it means is that your life will take a different path.” That is the difference between a fixed desire and a desire.

The Tau te Ching (also known as “The Book of the Way” which I think of as early cognitive therapy) states, “If you want to be given everything, give everything up.” If you reflect on this statement you may realize that to give everything up, you must also give up the desire to be given everything. Very paradoxical and mind-boggling, isn't it? But that is the first step: To find happiness you must not seek it.

Similarly, Charles Dickens stated in his novel The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, “Happiness is a gift and the trick is not to expect it, but to delight in it when it comes.”

However, that being said, let's discuss how to achieve happiness. Actually, how to create the conditions so that happiness can find you. The work to finding happiness is to remove the obstacles to happiness. READ MORE: page 2

Intro  to Secret of Happiness--page 1

What Is Happiness?--page 2

Is Happiness Possible for Everyone?--page 3

What Intentional Behaviors Can Influence Happiness?--page 4

How Do You Choose Which Intentional Behaviors to Pursue?--page 5

A Final Word About How to Know Happiness When it Finds You--page 6

Kindle Books by
Dr. Monica Frank

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