Years ago, after being swindled by a business associate, I became so confused and angry that I hired a life coach. She listened compassionately while I whined, then said, “Martha, I want you to pick a day when you’ll be over this. It can be in a week or a year, but that will be your graduation day. Once it comes, you’re done with this subject.” I sort of missed the more therapeutic “Let’s examine every tiny nuance of your feelings,” but I gamely picked the next day. That night I complained one last time, then shut my pie hole and got on with life.
That graduation was more empowering than earning my PhD. It was so fortifying to achieve a degree of mastery over my self-pity that I went on to graduate from several other dysfunctional attitudes. In no case were years of grueling course work required. Since the word graduation comes from gradus, the Latin word for “step,” we might say we graduate every time we step forward without going back. If you’ve been specializing in any of the following difficult subjects, you too are probably ready to step into an advanced degree in happiness.
The single best way to improve our well-being is to show kindness toward ourselves and others. Since most of us have more difficulty with the former, I recommend that you focus first on graduating from self-criticism.
Think of something mean you tell yourself and choose a date to begin replacing that thought with a gentler option. Instead of fuming “I’m so stupid,” try saying “I’m overwhelmed, but if I relax and breathe, I can figure this out.” Instead of hating your body, pat it and say, “Thanks for being an incredibly complex machine that carries me through life.” You’ll find that kind thoughts lead to more profound wisdom than cruel ones.
Laughter’s physiological and psychological benefits have been the topic of many studies—all of which are really unfunny, so let’s cut to the punch line: Amping up your daily laughter rate may reduce stress, boost immunity, and increase joy. I suggest that you start by immersing yourself in hilarious YouTube videos; search for “babies laughing” or “woman virtual reality roller coaster.”
Not so long ago, telling someone you wanted to be “more present” was weird, like saying you wanted to keep your teeth in your mouth. Wherever you go, there you are, right? Wrong. Most of us rarely settle into the moment, because we’re too busy brooding over the past, or fantasizing or fretting about the future.
Asian philosophers have long pointed out that this is a terrible way to live, but many Westerners still find it strange to consciously focus on the here and now. Like laughter, however, this simple (though not always easy) process may help heal our minds and bodies. You can graduate into greater peace by establishing a “presence practice”: Set a time each day to stop and bring your full attention to whatever is going on around you and within you. Just five minutes daily is enough. Even if you take baby steps, you’re still moving forward.
If an airplane loses its structural integrity—the proper alignment of all its parts—it may fall right out of the sky. This is metaphorically true for us as well. Integrity can mean the difference between soaring and crashing.
I advise you to start simply, by telling yourself the truth, even about little things. If you say, “I just love to run!” yet repeatedly postpone workouts due to excessive sunshine, try saying instead, “I know exercise is good for me, but I dread it.” Feel that subtle energy shift? Paradoxically, life often flows more easily when you frankly admit it’s hard. When you can confess small truths, the bigger ones tend to pop out, setting you on a path to inner freedom.
C.S. Lewis once wrote that we can never be sure of our virtues, like honesty or compassion, until we face our fears and put them to the test. Over time, we can build our capacity for courage; again, the key is to start small. What would you do if you weren’t afraid? March for peace, sing in public, tell someone you love them? Choose one thing from your list, and on graduation day, do it. Then choose something a bit scarier. Then a bit scarier than that. Each time you’ll get more comfortable—and when you master bravery, every other higher degree will be within your grasp.
Though these subjects may be challenging, I know you’ll graduate with highest honors. And in my experience, each diploma brings a deep sense of accomplishment that motivates you to tackle the next issue. So pick a date, plan a party, maybe buy yourself a graduation present—then step forward into your higher degree of happiness. Let the commencement commence!
Martha Beck is the author of, most recently, Diana, Herself: An Allegory of Awakening.