If You Think You’re Happy, You’re Not!
Thinking you’re happy doesn’t get you there.
Happiness is a feeling in your body, it’s a matrix of sensations that arise in your physiology, not in your head.
In fact, you cannot be happy in your mind. Our head is where we go to avoid intense feelings – happy or otherwise.
Did you know that the body doesn’t really differentiate between pain and pleasure, all it knows is SENSATIONS?
And most bodies have a limit to the level of sensation they can ‘tolerate’. That means we each have a unique threshold on both pain and pleasure. We all have an upper limit unique to us.
Yes, that’s right, for each of us, there’s only so much pleasure we can handle before our mind starts taking consciousness away from our body (too much sensation) and creating narratives in our mind that occur as: fantasies, anxieties, worries, reasons and excuses or complaints.
Why does this happen?
As young children, when emotions (sensations) got too intense and overwhelming our little nervous systems got scared and coded the sensory-overload as “near death.” As a protective mechanism, your wise system took awareness out of your body and retreated into the mind; this is called ‘disassociation’.
Children often go into fantasy, make-believe, song, or some sort of mental distraction to keep them safe from intense sensations, especially fear. This disassociation strategy works so well for us in stress, it gets habituated and we keep it going into adulthood. And so we continue to leave our bodies and go into our heads (narratives), whenever we’re at our edge, despite knowing that feeling our feelings cannot kill us.
It now happens unconsciously whenever we get scared or hit our pleasure threshold. You see pleasure can feel scary to a child too. It’s the intensity of sensation that has the threshold.
Depending on our early environment, we pick up from our family system what level of pleasure is ‘safe’ and what isn’t. Often, we get coded with these upper limits (of pain and pleasure) from watching when and where our parents hit theirs.
Ever notice how you’ll be sitting somewhere peaceful, relaxing into the moment, breathing in your surroundings, when all of a sudden, unbidden, an anxiety pops up from nowhere and usurps your attention. “I wonder if I paid the phone bill?”, “I hope it doesn’t rain tomorrow”, “I wonder why X never emailed me back.”
This common phenomenon is organic and hard to spot, but often it occurs as something haunting you from the past or worrying you about the future.
However, this is a subtle indication that your ‘pleasure’ or ‘relaxation’ limit has been reached. So off you go…on your mentally created unconscious ‘movie’ of what went wrong in the past or what could go wrong in the future. Stress can actually get manufactured by your thoughts to counter-balance the intolerable state of ‘too much delight’.
If you want to raise your pleasure limit and stretch your ability to relax into the softness of the moment, you must learn how to generate the inner game of ‘happiness’ and make it a regular practice. This is not an insight driven shift, it takes repeated attention and practice.
The first thing to do is to start noticing the tiny little anxieties and worries that pop up out of nowhere. Pay close attention to them as they arise and the immediate circumstances (internal and external). How were you feeling? What were you doing? Where were you going?
No need to change or stop these anxieties, or even do anything different. Simply notice how and when they surface. Observe yourself with objective journalistic precision.
Become an anthropologist investigating your self–curious and explorative. Study your own behavior the way Jane Goodall might have studied her chimps, with avid fascination and no judgment. Your job is just to notice, not to change anything about the process. Only observe.
There is a word for the thought that comes before the one you’re currently having, it’s called the “nen”. The nen is a bread crumb leading you back to the state of being just before the worry or complaint arose. Often they show fearful associations, subtle insecurities or unease. Learning to spot and track the nen helps you understand how one thought leads to another in your mind. It also reveals how you might go from standing happily at the window — calmly gazing at the wide sky — to waltzing over to the fridge for a third serving of ice-cream.
Your silent, mostly unconscious internal narrative holds the key to understanding how and why you do the things you do. Become a detective, searching for clues that make connections between your thoughts, feelings and actions.
The second step to increasing your pleasure threshold is to start tuning into your body (intentionally) whenever you notice your feelings, ie: nervous, afraid, sad, excited, joyful or angry.
Your body is the home of sensations (through your five senses), and the place where all emotions happen. When you’re having a feeling, no matter how small or big, try taking your consciousness and liquefying it, so it can flow down your body and scope out the terrain.
Let your awareness move through your nervous system like an intelligent liquid, scanning for somatic indicators like tightness in the chest, stomach tension, nausea, tingles in the arms, pains across the shoulders, strain across the back, pressure around the neck.
These are the actual characteristics of your feelings–physical sensations not reasons or stories or explanations. Feelings are older than words, we had them as babies, long before we could talk. They are pre-cognitive and pre-lingual which is why they can be difficult to identify and articulate. This takes practice.
Feelings vs. Thought About Feelings
It’s important to differentiate 2 distinct layers here. First there is the feeling -which are physical sensations in the body and then there is the story-about-the-feeling -which is a collection of assumptions, reasons, explanations, meanings and justifications. Many of us conflate these 2 separate things.
Answer 1: When asked: “How do you feel?” We might say…”Well I’m upset because X didn’t pick-up the dry cleaning even though I phoned and texted him twice! He always does this and I’m sick and tired of being unimportant to him.”
We don’t go into our body, interview it for sensations and report back on the physical indicators of the emotions.
Answer 2: When asked: “How do you feel?” …We could say…“Well, I’m very upset, I have a tightness across my back and black ball of tension in my stomach and my neck is tingly with electric pulses; I’m feeling a 5/10 anger, 4/10 frustration, and 3/10 of sadness disappointment.”
Notice the difference between the 2 answers above, the first one has no reference to the body, is unspecific in naming the emotion, goes into reason, blame and smuggles in an interpreted story about not being important enough.
The second answer is very specific about the sensations experienced, it details discernible somatic markers, it reports without blame, shame or judgment (of self or other) and it specifies the names of the emotions and the intensity (x/10).
The first answer is the story-about-feeling, the second is a clean, honest journalistic report about the actual feelings themselves. Only the second one is useful in this game of stretching your facility to feel more authentically.
You see learning to feel more pleasure means learning to feel more sensations and developing the capacity to hold more and more energy in your body without leaving it and going into mental story, narrative, interpretations and meaning. It requires a commitment to standing ‘in the heat’ and holding space for the intensity, a little longer each time.
Like the burn of those last reps while lifting weights at the gym, each time you stretch yourself to hold more sensation or ‘pain’, you’re creating room in your body to tolerate more ‘pleasure’.
Remember it’s the tearing of the fibers that actually build muscle. Every upset, frustration, heartbreak, breakdown is a tear in your emotional muscle, but it also makes you and your heart stronger a result. You see when feelings are fully felt (in the body and not the mind,) your ability to experience more sensation and therefore more aliveness continually increases.
Optimize Not for Happiness but for Aliveness
When it comes to feelings, all are useful, all are sacred messengers from the unconscious sent to guide us, so try listening to what they have to say. Don’t fall into the trap of making some feelings better than others. Welcome each one as a teacher and see what you can learn from them while staying in your body.
Sadness and anger are no worse than happiness and joy. You may prefer some emotions to others, but don’t try to get rid of any of them. Avoid getting caught up in striving for happiness and dodging sadness, instead optimize for aliveness. Aliveness is the measure of your access to reality and all your desires.
So keep up the practice of tracking how and when your worries and anxieties arise out of nowhere. And begin tuning into your physical body whenever you have feelings you want to process. And don’t confuse the actual feeling (in your body) with your story-about-your feeling (in your head). Continue to stretch your capacity to hold more and more sensations by staying with them and optimize not for happiness but aliveness itself.