I’ve written in the past about cultivating the habit of contentment, and how this can be a valid goal for the holistic spirituality practitioner in and of itself. It has a great many benefits, of course; making happiness a habit can get you through tough times and make joy your default position in life. It also makes you much more enjoyable to be around, which means that everyone in your life can benefit from your practice as well.
Because we all have problems to solve in our work, homes, and relationships, we can easily get in the habit of approaching every situation from a “what’s wrong here?” angle. But in the same way that that response becomes habitual–through practice–the happiness habit can be cultivated as well.
Neuroscience tells us that our habits become established when repeated behaviors create neural pathways in our brains. When we get a payoff for a behavior (through the release of endorphins), we repeat it in search of that same reward; this is how the “grooves” in our brains are created. And yes, there is a payoff for the pessimistic approach: even when the response is negative, our brains are happy with what’s familiar to them. We get the same biochemical reward for positive and negative responses to life; it’s just a matter of what we’ve gotten used to. (Anyone who’s predicted the worst possible outcome and then feeling perversely satisfied when that’s exactly what happens will understand what I mean!)
The point is that conscious living gives us a choice of which patterns to make habitual. This is one of the great tools an active yoga and meditation practice offers– the ability to make conscious choices about how we’re going to respond to events in our lives. It also teaches us to let go– to release the impossible goal of total control. A great deal of suffering and emotional unease can be traced back to attempts to control things that are by their nature quite beyond our control. There’s a well-known quotation that is often erroneously attributed to the Buddha, but which nonetheless is an excellent guide:
In the end, only three things matter: how much you loved, how gently you lived, and how gracefully you let go of things not meant for you.
Regardless of who originally said this, it’s quite brilliant! Love liberally, live gently, and release things not meant for you– like total control, for instance! Make joy your default position; it will benefit you and everyone who comes in contact with you.