Heightening Your Happiness is a new book by Karen Degen that builds on many positive thinking techniques that have come before it, but it stands out because Karen puts her own spin on how to achieve happiness and she offers practical techniques to make that happen. She teaches her readers, no matter what their situations, how to determine and get rid of the obstacles that are holding them back in life, even if they don’t realize what those obstacles are. Sharing examples from her personal life, from those nagging fears and the mind chatter we all have to a major tragedy she experienced, Karen takes readers through a series of practices that will have them finding new joy and meaning in life, and most of all, a renewed sense of happiness.
While I don’t have room to discuss all the points in this book that Karen makes, for me, her discussion on stress was the most helpful. Karen begins by explaining what stress is and how our bodies can’t differentiate between the stress of a being attacked by a lion or having to meet a deadline at work. It just knows stressed or relaxed. She then makes a point that hit home for me: “The main difference between happy people and not so happy people is that happy people do less and, therefore, have less stress. Happy people simplify their lives.” Karen then gives us multiple tips about how to do less and how to create time for ourselves. She asks us to look deep into our beliefs that we’ve been carrying around that make us try to do too much, such as “It’s up to me to look after my family.” She explores the roles we take on as children, perhaps as the eldest child who has to help mom, or the “good child” who behaves because a sibling is causing mom and dad emotional pain. While those roles may have served us in the past, now they are hurting us so we need to let go of them.
Many of us do too much because we don’t know how to say, “No.” We’ve all heard how we have to learn to say that magic word, but most of us don’t know how. Karen offers practical words and an effective technique we can use in difficult situations so we can quit agreeing to do what we don’t want to do. I found her examples helpful and I am slowly learning to adapt her “No” phrases as my own.
What Karen’s ideas largely boil down to is changing the rules we’ve imposed on ourselves and are trying to impose on others. Too often, we get upset when people don’t play by our rules when they may not even know what they are, plus they probably have their own rules guiding them. Karen explains: “I think of each person as having an unwritten rule book in his or her head. This rule book has all of our needs, wants, and expectations in any given situation or relationship. The relationship may be a romantic one, a parent/child relationship, a friendship, a business relationship, or in fact, any person you interact with. The other person has a rule book in his or her head too. The problem is we often don’t communicate our needs, wants, and expectations to the other person. ‘I shouldn’t have to tell him’ I often hear from my clients. ‘It should be obvious.’ We just assume that other people’s rule books are the same as ours, but very often, they aren’t.” Karen then goes on to explain how we can learn to set boundaries, which includes communicating our rules and perhaps negotiating them with others to come to a mutual understanding. I know from personal experience that setting boundaries is vital to a person’s happiness so I highly recommend her advice here.
I’ll admit I’ve read a lot of self-help books, but if nothing else, two very short sentences in this book had a profound impact on me. The first is my favorite line in the book: “feel the guilt and do it anyway.” I absolutely love that sentence because it gives me permission to do what I want to do. I’ve often tried to learn how not to feel guilty about things, but now I feel freed from even trying not to feel guilty.
The other powerful sentence I found relates to when Karen describes how she can let her fears get the worst of her until she’s convinced her husband who may just be late coming home is experiencing a terrible death or disaster. We all have unreasonable fears that we allow to transform themselves into the worst scenarios. We also know that fear is usually unreal. The way Karen handles this is not just to notice what her brain is doing, but flippantly to say, “I knew it was just my brain doing what brains do.” She goes on to compare this situation to the fable of Chicken Little shouting that the sky is falling because an acorn fell on her head. We wouldn’t listen to a dumb chicken so why listen to our brain when it’s acting dumb? From now on, I’ll just ignore my brain when it goes into crazy worry mode.