You Can Be Happy No Matter What
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You Can Be Happy No Matter What

Five Principles for Keeping Life in Perspective

Richard Carlson, PhD

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eBook - ePub

You Can Be Happy No Matter What

Five Principles for Keeping Life in Perspective

Richard Carlson, PhD

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About This Book

In this revised edition, #1 New York Times bestselling author and nationally known stress-management consultant Dr. Richard Carlson reveals a profound breakthrough in human psychology. Most of us believe that our happiness depends on outside circumstances, that by solving our problems, improving our relationships, or achieving success we will find contentment. But Dr. Carlson clearly shows that happiness has nothing to do with forces beyond our control — in fact, he says, it is our natural state.With this simple and practical guide, Dr. Carlson shows us how to be happy now, before we solve our problems. By understanding five principles — Thought, Moods, Separate Realities, Feelings, and the Present Moment — we can discover a new mode of living that doesn't repress natural emotions yet doesn't allow feelings and thoughts to overwhelm us. You Can Be Happy No Matter What is a navigational tool that gently guides readers through life's challenges and restores the joy of living.

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The Principle of


All that you achieve and all that you fail to achieve is the direct result of your own thoughts.
— James Allen
HUMAN BEINGS ARE THINKING CREATURES. Every moment of every day, our minds are working to make sense out of what we see and experience. While this may seem obvious, it is one of the least understood principles in our psychological makeup. Yet understanding the nature of thought is the foundation to living a fully functional and happy life.
Thinking is an ability — a function of human consciousness. No one knows exactly where thought comes from, but it can be said that thought comes from the same place as whatever it is that beats our heart — it comes from being alive. As is true with other human functions, thinking goes on whether we want it to or not. In this sense, “thought” is an impersonal element of our existence.
The Relationship
between Thought and Feeling
Every negative (and positive) feeling is a direct result of thought. It’s impossible to have jealous feelings without first having jealous thoughts, to have sad feelings without first having sad thoughts, to feel angry without having angry thoughts. And it’s impossible to be depressed without having depressing thoughts. This seems obvious, but if it were better understood, we would all be happier and live in a happier world!
Virtually all the clients I have worked with over the years have begun their sessions like this:
Client: “I feel very depressed today.”
Richard: “Did you recognize that you were having depressing thoughts?”
Client: “I didn’t have negative or depressing thoughts; I just feel depressed.”
It took some time before I recognized the problem in our communication. We have all been taught that “thinking” means sitting down to “ponder,” to put in time and effort, as if we were doing a math problem. According to this idea of thinking, a person who wouldn’t dream of spending six hours obsessing about a single angry thought could nevertheless feel quite “normal” thinking fifteen or twenty angry thoughts for thirty seconds at a time.
“Thinking about something” can occur over several days or within a passing second. We tend to dismiss the latter as unimportant, if we recognize it at all. But this is not so. Feelings follow and respond to a thought regardless of how much time the thought takes. For example, if you think, even in passing, “My brother got more attention than I did — I never did like him,” the fact that you now feel resentful toward your brother is not merely a coincidence. If you have the thought, “My boss doesn’t appreciate me — I never get the recognition I deserve,” the fact that you now feel bad about your job came about as soon as that thought came to mind. It all takes place in an instant. The time it takes to feel the effects of your thinking is the same amount of time it takes to see the light after turning on the switch.
The ill effects of thought come about when we forget that “thought” is a function of our consciousness — an ability that we as human beings have. We are the producers of our own thinking. Thought is not something that happens to us, but something that we do. It comes from inside of us, not from the outside. What we think determines what we see — even though it often seems the other way around.
Consider a professional athlete who “lets his team down” by making a critical error in the last championship game before his retirement. For years after retiring from the sport, he dwells on his error for a moment here and a moment there. When people ask, “Why are you depressed so much of the time?” he responds by saying, “What a fool I was to make such a mistake. How else do you expect me to feel?” This person doesn’t see himself as the thinker of his own thoughts, nor does he see his thinking as the cause of his suffering. If you suggested to him that it was his thinking that was depressing him, he would, in all honesty, say, “No it isn’t. The reason I’m depressed is that I made the mistake, not that I’m thinking about it. In fact, I seldom think about it anymore. I’m simply upset at the facts.”
We could substitute any example for our ex-athlete’s error: A past relationship, a current one “on the rocks,” a financial blunder, harsh words we said to hurt someone, criticism leveled at ourselves, the fact that our parents were less than perfect, that we chose the wrong career or mate, or whatever — it is all the same. It’s our thinking, not our circumstances, that determines how we feel. We forget, moment to moment, that we are in charge of our thinking, that we are the ones doing the thinking, so it often appears as though our circumstances are dictating our feelings and experience of life. Consequently, it seems to make sense to blame our unhappiness on our circumstances, which makes us feel powerless over our lives.
We Are the Thinkers
of Our Own Thoughts
Unlike other functions or abilities that we have as human beings, it’s hard to remember that we are the thinkers of our own thoughts. It’s easy to remember that our voices are the product of our ability to speak. It would be virtually impossible to startle ourselves with our own function of speech because we are so aware that we are the ones creating the noise. We could scream and yell and rant and rage, but we still wouldn’t be frightened by the sound of our own voice.
The same could be said about our ability to ingest and digest food. You wouldn’t eat something and then wonder why you had a certain taste in your mouth — you are always aware that you are the one who put the food in your mouth.
But thinking is different. William James, the father of American psychology, once said, “Thinking is the grand originator of our experience.” Every experience and perception in life is based on thought. Because thinking precedes everything and goes on so automatically, it’s more basic and “closer to home” than any other function we have. We have innocently learned to interpret our thoughts as if they were “reality,” but thought is merely an ability that we have — we are the ones who produce those thoughts. It’s easy to believe that because we think something, the object of our thinking (the content) represents reality. When we realize that thinking is an ability rather than a reality, we can dismiss any negative thoughts that pass through. As we do so, a positive feeling of happiness begins to emerge. If we harbor negative thoughts (pay too much attention to or dwell on them), we will lose the positive feeling and feel the effects of the negativity.
Here is a typical example of how thought can be misunderstood and how this lack of understanding affects us — the “thinker.” Let us pretend that you accidentally spill a glass of water on the floor of a restaurant and look up to see that a man, two tables over, has flashed what you believe to be a disapproving look. You respond with anger. “What’s the matter with that guy,” you think. “Hasn’t he ever dropped anything? What a jerk!” Your thoughts about the circumstance make you frustrated, and end up ruining your afternoon. Every few minutes you remember the incident, and as you think about it, you become angry. But the truth of the matter is, that person didn’t even see you drop the water. He was in his own world, reacting to his own thoughts about an error he had made at work earlier that day. He couldn’t have cared less about you. In fact, he didn’t even know that you existed.
Unfortunately, all of us have experienced this kind of situation many times. We forget that we are only thinking. We fill our heads with false information, which we then interpret as “reality” instead of “thought.” If only we could remember that we are the thinker. If we really could understand that as we think about something, we feel the effects of our thoughts, during this episode at the restaurant, we might have been able to recognize that it was our own thoughts, not another person, upsetting us.
To understand the principle of thought and how it applies throughout the human experience is a valuable gift. We need not constantly be in conflict with our environment and with those around us. We can maintain a positive feeling of happiness, because we no longer feel compelled to seriously follow every train of thought that comes into our heads. You may have no control whatsoever over what another person does, but you can be immune to the adverse effects of your thinking about him, once you understand that you think “thoughts,” not “reality.” Your thoughts, not your circumstances, determine how you feel. An absence of negative thought brings forth a positive feeling.
If you don’t understand this principle, it may seem as though thinking is determined by what the outside world is doing. But it’s actually the other way around. Our thinking shapes our experience of life. The way we think about something and, most important, the way we relate to our thinking, will determine its effect on us. The outside circumstance itself is neutral. Only thought brings meaning to a circumstance. This is why the same circumstance can, and will, mean entirely different things to different people. In our restaurant example, had you dismissed your negative thoughts, the incident wouldn’t have mattered to you. In a healthy relationship to your thinking, you would have your thoughts, but you wouldn’t “run with them” and allow them to upset you.
Our Relationship to Thought
A person’s understanding of the relationship between thought and reality can be put on a continuum:
“My thoughts________________ “My thoughts
represent reality.” are only thoughts.”
On one side is thought as “reality.” Clinically, this would be a psychotic, a person who would never use the word thought. A psychotic actually experiences every thought as reality. To him there is no difference between thinking and reality. If he thinks he hears voices telling him to jump out the window, he tries to do it; if he thinks he sees a monster, he runs from it. Regardless of the content of his thoughts, he believes them to be reality, 100 percent of the time.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is the person who understands the thought process — a person who epitomizes mental health and happiness — a person who doesn’t take his own, or anyone else’s, thoughts too seriously — a person who rarely allows his thinking to bring him down and ruin his day. A person on this side of the scale can have any thought run through his head and still understand that “it’s only a thought.”
Most of us fall somewhere in between these two extremes. Very few of us take all of our thoughts so seriously as to be considered psychotic. Surprisingly, however, even fewer of us truly understand the nature of thought enough to fall on the far right of the scale. Most of us don’t understand that we are the thinkers of our own thoughts — we do it to ourselves. Perhaps at times we see it, but only selectively. Our minds will create numerous exceptions to this principle, which keeps us from the understanding we need to implement it in our lives. For example, you might be feeling low one day and have the thought, “I’ll never be able to finish this project.” Rather than saying to yourself, “Oh there go my thoughts again,” and putting an end to the negativity right then and there, you might continue on the same train of thought. You’ll say, “I knew it when I started; I never should have tried this project; I’ve never been any good at this kind of work and I never will be,” and so forth. Proper understanding of thought allows us to stop these everyday “thought attacks” before they beat us up. Recognize these types of thoughts as static on the television set — as interference. There is no value in studying and analyzing static on a TV screen, and there is equally little value in studying the static in our own thoughts. Without a proper understanding of thought, the smallest amount of static in our minds can spiral and grow until it ruins an entire day or even a lifetime. Once you see your negative thoughts as static, interference, you can dismiss them — they are no longer serving your needs. In the example, the negative thoughts about your ability to finish a project are certainly not going to help you finish it.
We all produce a steady stream of thoughts, twenty-four hours a day. Once a thought is forgotten, it’s gone. Once it’s thought of again, it’s back. But in any case, it’s just a thought. In a practical sense, this suggests that to think about something doesn’t mean we must take the thoughts to heart and react in a negative way. Pick and choose which thoughts you wish to react to.
Most of us are capable of understanding this principle for other people, but not for ourselves. Take the case of a frustrated freeway driver. Another car cuts him off and almost causes an accident. A thought passes through his mind: “I should shoot the driver of that car.” What has occurred is a thought, passing through his mind. Most of us would dismiss it as a silly thought. We would all prefer that drivers be more careful, but we wouldn’t take our violent thought very seriously. A psychotic, however, may not be able to dismiss the thought so easily. He fervently believes that any thought that comes to mind is reality and must be taken seriously.
While we can empathize (if not laugh) at the folly of taking such a thought seriously, we all do the same thing, in different forms and extremes, hundreds of times each day. Each of us, in our own fashion, confuses our thinking with reality. We can see other people’s thoughts (like the freeway driver’s) as being “just thoughts,” but we almost always fail to see our own the same way. And why do our thoughts seem so real? Because we are the one who creates them.
We Don’t Always
Have to Take Our Thoughts Seriously
For one person, the thought, “I wonder if she likes me, I’ll bet she doesn’t,” might cause distress. Yet this same person may recognize the freeway driver as “just having a thought.” Most of us believe that if we have a thought, it’s worthy of serious attention and concern, but if someone else thinks something, we might see it as just a thought not worthy of attention. Why is this so? Again, because thought is something that shapes our reality from the inside out. Because it is so close to us, it’s easy to forget that we are the ones doing it. Thought helps us make sense out of what we see — we need it to survive in the world and to put meaning into life. When we understand the true nature and purpose of thought, however, we don’t need to take to heart (or take so seriously) everything we happen to think about; we can lighten up.
Our thinking is not “reality,” but only an attempt to interpret a given situation. Our interpretation of what we see creates an emotional response. Our emotional responses are not the product of what happens to us, then, but are derived from our thinking, our belief system.
To illustrate, let’s use the example of the circus coming to town. For people and families who love the circus, this is great cause for celebration. For those who don’t love the circus, the increased traffic and confusion causes concern. The circus itself is neutral — it isn’t the cause of positive or negative reactions. We can think of many similar examples ourselves. Once we understand the concept, our thoughts can be a tremendous gift to us and help us with our lives. Conversely, we can become the victims of our own thinking, and the quality of our lives can diminish. Since our thoughts change from moment to moment, life can become a struggle, if not a battleground.
Our level of happiness seems to go up and down with our circumstances. In reality, it isn’t the circumstances, but our interpretation of them that determines our level of wellbeing. This is why identical circumstances can mean different things to different people. Learn to see negative thoughts as a form of mental static, and you can stop paying so much attention to them.
Understanding the nature of thought allows us to live in a state of rest, a state of neutral, of positive feeling, happiness, and lighthearted contentment. When our attention is taken off what we are thinking about, particularly when it is negative, we are left with a nice, easy feeling. In no way is this meant to suggest that we don’t need to think — we definitely do. It only suggests that negative thoughts — thoughts that cause distress and unhappiness — aren’t worth dwelling on because they take away what we are looking for, a feeling of happiness. This contentment creates necessary space in our mind for new, creative thoughts to enter, allowing us to have that childlike quality of soft focus which brings back wonder and adventure to life.
This softer focus allows us to listen to people in a loving way. It enables us to listen even to criticism in a way that does not bother us be...

Table of contents

  1. Cover
  2. Title
  3. Copyright
  4. Dedication
  5. Contents
  6. Preface to the 15th Anniversary Edition
  7. Foreword by Dr. Wayne Dyer
  8. Acknowledgments
  9. Introduction
  10. Part One: The Principles
  11. Part Two: Applying the Principles
  12. About the Author