Let us continue with the work of Robert Holden. As discussed last week, Holden advocates self-acceptance and a connection with our unconditioned self. His No. 1 Happiness Principle is that unless we are happy with ourselves, we will not be happy.1 Whenever I observe a very upbeat or contented individual I am reminded of this principle. Happy people seem to like themselves; they are okay with who they are. At the same time, unhappy people often have a tendency for self-judgement and hold themselves in rather low esteem. Holden argues that in order to be happy we need to embrace being good enough. Our ego (the critical perfectionist, stern inner cop, compulsive do-gooder, adopted nice persona, or whatever cracks the whip inside us) would forever have us do better. Yet, Holden puts forth, our unconditioned self believes that we are created whole, that we have an inner light, and that we are essentially full of love.2
This wholeness does not mean that we are perfect or should stop trying to grow or in fact do better when we can. It means that it’s okay not to be perfect, to make mistakes on our life journey, and to be ourselves regardless of how others are doing. It means accepting, embracing and owning the goodness inside ourselves. Holden stresses that until we give up our conditioned self, and stop perpetuating the stories our ego holds on to avoid happiness, we cannot be happy. It does not matter what we achieve; where we are; who we are with; or what we have. Our self-judgements will darken our lenses of perception until the day we decide to give them up.3
According to Holden, in order to invite joy and fulfilment into our lives, we often need to relinquish a set of beliefs. Happiness, he argues, is in fact an effortless state. Yet a number of widely-held beliefs say otherwise. These include that we do not deserve happiness. And indeed, Holden believes (and so do I) that we do not deserve happiness. According to Holden, happiness has nothing to do with deserving; it is a matter of choice.4 (As you know, I believe it is grace given – but it nevertheless requires being welcomed into our hearts). Holden states that we can only enjoy as much happiness as we believe we are worthy of. As long as we fear happiness, because we consider it selfish, inappropriate, or accompanied by hidden costs, we will not be able to embrace it. Guilt and a sense of undeserving will limit our expectation and experience of happiness.5
One of the beliefs to shed in terms of happiness, Holden finds, is the work ethic. This is the conviction that happiness has to be earned, deserved, worked and paid for. Behind the work ethic lies a sense that we need to atone for our unworthiness to be happy. “The work ethic despises rest and play,” Holden argues. It “thinks of happiness as an achievement and not as a natural way of being.”6
Then there is the suffering ethic. Behind this belief lies the conviction that we cannot know happiness unless we know suffering. People who have adapted the suffering ethic view their struggle and pain as a currency with which they might pay for happiness. They might also be invested in suffering because they believe that it makes them better people. Yet no amount of suffering can make us great or more worthy, Holden stresses. This is because our worth is already inherent in the fact that we exist.7
Another false belief tied to happiness is the martyr ethic. Holden explains that behind this lies the fear that our blissful existence will deny others their happiness. It may also hold that it is inconceivable to be happy in a world where there is so much suffering. This belief considers happiness to be a selfish pursuit that has no value to others.8
And yet that is clearly not true. I have kept this information from you because I don’t see the point of rubbing people’s unhappiness into their faces. But the fact is that we do better when we are upbeat. When compared with less happy individuals, happier folk are more energetic, sociable, cooperative, charitable, flexible, productive at work and creative in their thinking. Their marriages last longer. They have more friends, higher income, better resilience to hardship, physical immunity and health. And they live longer.9 Happy people function better, and their state of emotional wellbeing protects their physical health.10 Happy individuals are more altruistic and have more empathy. Seligman writes that when we are down, “we become distrustful, turn inward, and focus defensively on our own needs.” When happy, we are less self-focused, like others more and want to share our good fortune – even with strangers. Thus “looking out for number one is more characteristic of sadness than of well-being”.11
If you happen to hold any of these false beliefs, fear not. I suffered from both the work and the suffering ethic. The work ethic is an ongoing negotiation. My suffering ethic was quite ingrained, however, and it took some time to shed my identity as a sad woman. Eventually I managed it, and now nobody seems to be missing my tears and hopelessness – not my children, not my friends, not my mother, and most certainly, not me.
This week I encourage you to do one of Holden’s self-acceptance exercises: 1. Stand in front of a mirror and look at yourself without any criticism or judgement. 2. Look at who you are without any reference to your past and your life story. 3. Look at yourself exclusively with appreciation and love. 4. Look at who you are in the eyes of someone who truly and deeply loves you.12
Chances are that you don’t want to do this exercise. Many have great resistance to it, as did I. Perhaps you could be the exception and have the courage to perform it.
© Natalie Lydia Barker 2017