So, here’s something most people have in common when it comes to happiness; there is a widely held belief that happiness is an end goal, or some destination we’ll arrive at in the future if we do everything just right for some pre-determined amount of time. Why do we think this way? Simply put, because it’s the way we’re wired. All human beings on a biological level are neurologically wired to avoid pain and seek pleasure. Sigmund Freud, an Austrian neurologist, also referred to as the “father of psychology”, coined this neurological concept as the “pain pleasure principle” and it is often at the core of most of the decisions we make. Humans have been on an elusive chase for pleasure, the very definition of happiness, since the beginning of time. But burn out, not happiness – is often at the end of the road.

If you’ve ever driven a stick shift vehicle, you know you can’t go faster without shifting gears, or you’ll burn out the clutch. Many people are barreling down the road of life, chasing happiness, trying to go faster and faster in the same gear, and burning themselves out. When we need to slow down, we have to downshift. If we don’t, we often miss what’s on the side of the road, and some of life’s greatest pleasures are there – like those little fruit stands with the freshest, ripest fruit you’ve ever had. If you’ve never taken the time to stop at one because you’re constantly in a hurry, you need to. That fruit is life changing.

Also, life changing is our thinking patterns. What we know today, thanks to advances in neuroscience, is that we can change our neural wiring, in other words, the neurobiology of our brain. So, it stands to reason then that we can adjust our wiring around the concept of happiness. But how? By shifting gears. We can shift both the way we think about happiness, and our behavior in the pursuit of it.

If you want to be happier, shift the way you think about happiness.

Changing the way we think, changes the way we feel. In turn, our actions change. This is known in psychology as Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT). The problem with us thinking we have to constantly pursue pleasure is that the feeling of happiness is fleeting. The things we seek that produce momentary bursts of excitement – a fun activity, an impulsive purchase – these things are temporary. So, the feeling of satisfaction we get, even the pop of dopamine that occurs in the brain, eliciting a feeling of pleasure, dissipates over time. Happiness is a moment-by-moment state that shifts with situations and circumstances.

The fact of the matter is, we can be truly happy even when things aren’t going well in our lives, if we are focused on a more permanent state of mind vs. the temporary moment influencing the mind. Shifting our perspective to what’s enduring shifts our emotions too. We can’t control every thought that pops into our mind, but we can control how long we dwell on it, or how much attention and energy we devote to it. For instance, focusing on what you can control, instead of what you cannot, shifts the gears in your brain. Think of it as changing the channel on your television. You can do that. And focusing on gratitude for what we have, instead of focusing on what we do not – these cognitive shifts change the neural wiring of the brain. Practicing gratitude actually alters brain circuits that regulate emotions and can reduce the impact of negative emotions. Changing the way you think changes the way you feel. This shift can transition to a much more lasting emotional state than happiness – it’s called joy.

Hope whispers, joy is a state of mind.

Many people confuse happiness with joy. While happiness is dependent and temporary, joy is independent of circumstances and can be a permanent condition. Joy is more of a state of mind, and it’s what we’re really pursuing. People often discover joy when they connect with the things that bring them meaning and purpose. While happiness is rooted in the shallowness of the situation, joy is rooted in a much deeper intricacy of the whole person – mind, body, and spirit. When we experience joy, happiness is a by-product. We connect with joy when we connect with our values.

If you want to make the shift from happiness to joy, turn your attention to what you value.  

One of the most well-known quotes about happiness is by the poet Henry David Thoreau, “Happiness is like a butterfly, the more you chase it, the more it will elude you, but if you turn your attention to other things, it will come and sit softly on your shoulder”.

I like to think that those “other things” in Thoreau’s quote are your values.

Many people live their entire life doing things because they are important to other people, but never discover what it is that is important to them. If we don’t identify our own personal values – the things that matter to us – it’s like trying to drive cross country in a foreign land without a map or compass. We’re just going to get lost, become frustrated, exhausted, and never reach our destination. When we don’t live a life according to what we value, we are definitely going to feel lost, as well as anxious and depressed. Turning our attention to what we value, and making choices that line up with those values, results in a deep sense of joy – oh yes, and the happiness butterfly showing up on our shoulder.

If you have never done a value sort, I highly recommend it. There are many quality value sort resources available through therapeutic channels. Identifying your top values shifts the way you make decisions and generates a greater sense of meaning and purpose. Every time we make a choice in life that aligns with our values, we fuel an internal sense of joy. Joy is not fleeting. It sticks around when life gets difficult; when the road becomes fraught with hazards and detours. When we pinpoint what we value, just as we drop a pin on a map, it helps us get to where we want to go, while navigating the hazardous conditions along the way.

I first did a value sort about 12 years ago, and I felt like I had discovered a treasure map! While I felt like I had some knowledge of what was important to me before I did it, clearly identifying my top 10 personal values gave me laser sharp focus and a firm direction for every choice I make. As a recovering people pleaser, my identified values gave me permission to say no to the things that don’t align with my values. Life changing. And joy producing.

You shift from happiness to joy when you lock on to your values.

One of my top values is faith. Focusing on my faith, and not on my circumstances, has saved my life many times over when there were obstacles in my path that threatened my well-being. Happiness is but for a moment. Don’t get me wrong, we all need those momentary bursts of excitement brought about by moments of fun – I love a good roller coaster ride!  We should balance temporary pleasure with the pursuit of things that bring us a sense of purpose and meaning and are enduring. My faith will outlast me. That’s an investment in joy. Connection is another value of mine. The relationships I invest in will also outlast me.

Joy – pure, unfiltered, organic, consistent, and deep – comes from within. It’s our internal state of mind and spirit that translates into our choices that will produce profound joy along the way.

Enjoy your life. You’re here for a purpose. Lock onto it. Embrace it. Live it. Safe travels on your journey, and don’t forget to down shift when you see one of those little fruit stands on the side of the road. 😉

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