When I go jogging, sometimes I notice a pebble in my shoe. At first I try to tune it out, but the longer I ignore it, the more I notice the relentless poking in my foot.
Somehow, I convince myself that I should just continue jogging; after all, I’ve already come so far! Finally, once the discomfort has become unbearable, I stop and remove the pebble from my shoe. After that, my jog is much easier and more comfortable.
Like the pebble-in-shoe scenario, intentionally stopping during our daily routine and addressing perpetual problems can make a huge difference in the long-term.
Before continuing on your happiness journey, ask yourself why you are determined to feel better. For many of us, the true answer to this question is simple and undeniable: We are suffering.
To be happy is to feel inner peace and minimal suffering. To make our pursuit of happiness fruitful and worthwhile, we must turn inward. There, waiting for us, is deep emotional pain. Our quest will be far more successful when we understand the nature of this pain and how it can be alleviated.
Inner suffering is typically related to feeling negative emotions such as anxiety, depression and anger. Attention and compassion are potent remedies for the painful effects of these emotions.
Confused? Zen meditation expert and bestselling author Thich Nhat Hanh offers a useful analogy for understanding this process. Imagine that inside of you is your “inner child,” crying out for comfort and nourishment. (I know this sounds clichéd and hokey, but stay with me.) The longer the inner child lives without care and attention, the louder he or she cries. If we were to purposely turn our attention toward our child and provide compassionate, loving care, his or her suffering would lessen.
Approach your negative emotions and inner suffering in exactly the same way. This may be very difficult to do. We may realize that we have neglected our suffering by pretending that it isn’t there, wishing that it would go away, or by distracting ourselves with temporary solutions such as food, television or alcohol. The moment we approach our suffering with the love and compassion of a close family member or friend, we begin to understand that we, as human beings, are more than our negative emotions. We are capable of observing the existence of our pain and taking good care of it with warmth and care. This compassionate act of turning inward and giving ourselves the love that we need is called self-love.
Self-love should not be confused with narcissism, vanity or self-absorption. Rather, self-love is accepting yourself just the way you are and forgiving yourself for not being perfect. It is the act of loving yourself with the same consideration and warmth with which we may love our spouse, child, parent or best friend. Self-love requires a conscious, deliberate choice to acknowledge our negative emotions and tenderly care for them.
Although self-love may seem abstract, there are very concrete ways to practice it. Some of the most effective techniques are breathing exercises that help us concentrate on healing. By identifying a negative emotion that is part of our suffering, we can express acknowledgement and love toward that emotion, and thus, toward ourselves. Sound difficult? Try this useful breathing exercise:
This simple act is a powerful and radical demonstration of love and compassion for yourself. At first, the pain you acknowledge and care for may feel overwhelming, but the healing has begun. With practice and patience, one day the healing will be complete.
This breathing exercise may appear strange, but recent studies suggest that the practice of self-love is effective in promoting positive emotions and wellbeing. One experimental study found that the practice of loving-kindness meditation (another exercise for enhancing self-love) led to increased experiences of positive emotions such as joy, gratitude, hope, and awe. Consequently, these participants reported many desirable outcomes including higher purpose in life, self-acceptance and life satisfaction, as well as decreased symptoms of depression. In fact, a follow-up study revealed that these benefits remained over one year later! These results support what teachers around the world have claimed for thousands of years: Self-love is a powerful vehicle for attaining happiness.
Ironically, the practice of self-love can help us to love others as well. If you have someone in your life that you resent, remember that he or she is suffering just like you. Self-love helps us relate to the pain of others when we compassionately acknowledge that they need love just like any human being. In fact, in the study mentioned above, people who practiced self-love reported greater positive relationships with others! Perhaps we are capable of truly loving other people only when we have love for ourselves. Standing firmly upon a foundation of unconditional self-love allows us to love others without fear or hesitation.
Please remember that if you have severe emotional pain, it is wise to consult a trained professional who can give you appropriate treatment. Nonetheless, if you are struggling to find happiness, consider pausing and reflecting on what you feel inside. Muster the courage to address inner suffering that cries out for your love and comfort. Doing so will open yourself to a potentially life-changing revelation: self-love. This may forever alter the course and destination of your journey toward happiness.
Fredrickson, et al. (2008). Open hearts build lives: Positive emotions, induced through loving-kindness meditation, build consequential personal resources Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95 (5), 1045-1062 Cohn, Michael A. and Fredrickson, Barbara L. (2010). In search of durable positive psychology interventions: Predictors and consequences of long-term positive behavior change The Journal of Positive Psychology, 5 (5), 355-366
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