Seven Years ago in August, I adopted a rescue puppy named Ben. He turned eight a couple of weeks ago. Not treated well by his first owner, he and his brother were surrendered to a shelter. The original owner reclaimed Ben's brother, leaving Ben alone and feeling abandoned, when he was first adopted by another. He had difficulty adjusting to his first adoption and was returned to the shelter the very next day. I was fortunate enough to adopt him that very next day. Though it's been a tough road at times dealing with his severe separation anxiety and reactive aggressive behavior, he's given me so much joy and I admire his defiance, which is perhaps better called " resilience". While I could make a list of dozens doggy behavioral lessons on happiness that Mr. Ben has taught me, here are seven simple ones.
1. Take time each day to play .
Ben Loves to play. Every morning after his walk and breakfast, he searches for a ball for me to throw to him. If he can't find one, he then grabs one of my shoes instead. Catch or catch me if you can has become a big part of our morning routine.
Adults need to be silly, laugh and play. It releases endorphins and actually can help them to be more productive at work and more at ease with others. Woking too hard or always being on the go, stresses the adrenals and leads to anxiety and depression.
2. Take time to rest.
Ben loves to go for walks- short ones though. Once he tires out, he just plops himself under a shady tree. He has no particular exercise agenda (unlike his owner) and he listens to what his body needs. When he needs to slow down or stop, he does.
Just as people need to take time to play, they also need to sleep and take time out in their days for rest. Believe it or not, just ten minutes of mediation a day or a fifteen minute power nap can be a wonderful reset for one's mind, body and soul.
3. Ask for what you want.
There's a park that I often take Ben for walks. At the beginning of the loop there’s an inlet to the pond, and oooohhhh how Ben loves to swim. We have a routine when he goes swimming: I throw out a stick for him to fetch – and off he goes…paddling with a mission, head above water and tail wagging the whole time. Each time we approach the inlet, without fail, Ben runs down the sandy beach, wags his tail and waits. That's his ask. Ben doesn't assume I know what he wants, (though I do), so he makes sure to ask me each and every time we approach the pond.
When people come to therapy, particularly when they are having difficulty in their relationships, I notice that they often assume the "other" should always be attuned to what they want and deliver on it. It's an assumption that can cause a lot of strife and disappointment when expectations aren't met. I encourage people to ask from their hearts what it is they want rather than expect the other will just know.
4. When you can't get what you want, find a way to come to terms with it.
There's a rule in my home: if Ben goes in the pond – he then goes in the tub for a bath. This doggy momma doesn't have time for a fluff and buff bath routine every day, so Ben doesn't always get to go for his much coveted swim. Though he always asks, when I know he’s not going swimming on a particular day, I say “no” and then keep walking. He waits for a few seconds with sad eyes hoping I will change my mind, but soon finds a way to let go, and follows me for the rest of his walk.
People can't always get what they want from another. Yet some have a hard time tolerating when things don't go their way. Certainly one can always ask again from their heart, but if another doesn't want to oblige, it's best to respect theit wish. If the other obliges because they feel guilted or pressured, then resentment will build over time.
5. Make sure your actions match your words and surround yourself with those who do the same.
When I ask Ben if he wants to go for a walk, we take one. When I ask him if he wants to eat, I feed him. Imagine what it would be like for him if I only followed through on what I said only some of the time? Would he feel loved and secure?
No, he wouldn't.
When someone follows through on what they tell the other they intend to do, it says that they are a person of integrity and that the other matters. It shows that they care. When they don't, the opposite is true on all counts. Now, no one's perfect and life happens. When things get in the way and force a change of plans, explain that to the other and find a way to make it up to them. It feels good to make other's happy and others feel happy and respected when people in their life do the same. It builds trust and deeper intimacy and It's win win.
6. When someone's actions don't match their words, know it's not about you.
Dogs take everything personally. Their limbic brains are much bigger than their human companions and they don't have a prefrontal cortex that helps them use logic and resort to higher reasoning. One of the reason's Ben has anxiety and PTSD is because he didn't know that his former human had problems and took them out on him.
Here's where humans have dogs beat. Yes, it hurts when people don't do as they said they would and sometimes, one may never know the reason why they didn't. Learning not to personalize others behavior and lack of follow through can help build one's self esteem. It can also create enough space for one to calmly ask the other what happened rather than react harshly -which will only shame or push the other away. If necessary, not personalizing an other's behavior can then make it easier to walk away from those who's actions consistently don't match their words .
7. Above all else: "To thy own self be true."
Dogs are incapable of being inauthentic. They show us who they are all the time. Their sometimes bad behavior also lends a clue as to what happened to them. When a stranger approaches Ben and he feels uncomfortable, he growls and barks. He can't pretend he feels what he doesn't and he won't warm up to someone until he feels safe, secure and happy with that person.
This lesson is much harder for humans. It's not easy to live authentically as choosing to do so may mean letting others down. A mentor once told me that at some point in the life span, everyone must choose between the following seemingly impossible dilemma, which boils down to this: "If I choose what others want for me, I betray myself and if I choose what I want for myself, then I betray others."
While there are those who believe it's "nobler to suffer", I believe Shakespeare's Polonius had this one right. To thy own self be true. The human heart is filled with wisdom and when one follows it, they follow the ultimate lesson on human happiness- which in the long run, has a positive trickle down effect on those around them. The same holds true for when they don't. When people follow their hearts and learn to disappoint others in a compassionate and loving way, it actually IS in everyone's best interest because it allows them to do the same. Inauthentic living never amounts to genuine happiness.
So there it is, seven simple lessons on happiness.
The irony is, none of those lessons are easy.
Most have to make time to play and they often don't believe there's enough time in the day to do that.
Most need to take time to rest and they are worried that they won't get everything they need to get done if they do.
Many need to learn to ask from their hearts what they want and accept that sometimes they can't alway get it. This requires the courage to be vulnerable and grieve the disappointment.
While most want to have their actions meet their words, sometimes they can't and then they avoid explaining to the other the real reason they didn't. This avoidance only leads to hurt, distrust and more avoidance: not down the path of happiness. It's also hard not to take another's lack of followthrough personally, because it really does hurt.
Yet, when people master the last lesson: To thy own self be true- the hardest lesson of all, all the other lessons fall right into place. If they consistently practice lessons one through six, then lesson seven becomes easier too.
When all of these lessons get practiced consistently, then one can truly say that "life is good!"
My new book: Finding Hope in the Crisis: A Therapist's Perspective on Love, Loss, and Courage has hit the bookshelves. Learn more about it by clicking here.