How can we reduce or eliminate the primary obstacle to personal happiness? We can use the word “anguish” to refer to a wide spectrum of feelings, ranging from basic discontentment, day-to-day stress and anxiety to profound sorrow, rage, despair and hopelessness. And the experts who deal with these kinds of problems—from the health sciences, including psychiatrists and psychologists, to philosophers, to well-being therapists and gurus, to spiritual and religious guides— all consistently point to three key factors that reduce anguish and increase happiness for everyone: creativity, service and physicality.
Happiness is a how, not a what; a talent, not an object.
– Herman Hesse
Generally, there are two opposing approaches to dealing with anguish, especially during moments of life when we experience it for particularly intense or prolonged periods. One is to shut it down as quickly as possible, usually with some numbing or distracting mechanism. And the other is to learn how to harness and channel it into activities, projects and relationships that matter to us.
History is full of exceptional people finding their way to their greatest contributions during unusually anguished chapters of their lives. We see this especially in the arts, where unprecedented depths and intensity of creative expression often seem to have been opened through great personal turmoil. In various spiritual traditions as well, transcendent insights are often arrived at by passing through episodes of deep personal anguish. All of this is to suggest that anguish itself is not always necessarily the enemy; the question is how to wholesomely navigate with and within it, producing something worthwhile from it, and finding peace and joy in the process.
There’s a meeting point between these two extremes of avoidance and engagement. After all, we need to find enough relief and contentment in any given day just to see and feel the worth of applying ourselves. Creativity, service and physicality are proven ways to help immediately relieve unbearable anguish and open passageways to deeper, longer-term resolutions by exploiting the opportunities these moments of adversity can offer us.
By “creativity,” I’m referring specifically to creative expression, as there needs to be an outward movement away from circular, internal self-reflection — what is inside moves outside. As with each of these elements listed, what matters is less the specific (in this case creative) action, than that you experience a sense of release.
Part of the crippling impact of deep anguish is that we often forget, ignore or claim that we don’t have time for what we really like to do. We need to allow ourselves to get lost in inspired fun, when we are at our most creative. We can find our way back to this state of un-self-conscious playfulness by remembering what used to drive our creative expression in our youth.
Even just pausing to recall and delve back into those energies and emotions we used to access so easily already opens doors to our essential creative spirit, and begins the process of rediscovering (and trusting in) our intuition. I think it’s important to start small and keep it sincere and ambition-free, just like you did as a child.
There are two forms of service that experts on the question of anguish generally promote in order to open pathways to greater happiness: helping others, especially those who are suffering more than we are, and engaging and fulfilling our faith. The only real requirement for the first to be helpful is that it be offered to those who we feel truly deserve it, so that it builds on an existing empathy and interest. For the second, it’s more complex, but what’s important is that it be a cause, idea, ideal or being that appeals to our imagination and values.
Both of these, helping others and fulfilling our faith, channel our minds, emotions and actions into a sense of purpose, giving us reason, meaning and direction. A friend of mine, a holocaust concentration camp survivor and psychologist, once said when we were talking about anguish, “Most deep anguish can’t really be worked through; it naturally diminishes as we focus more and more away from ourselves, especially onto those we truly care about.”
I’m a big fan of simple gestures pursued within the circumstances that are offered to us each day. There’s already significant relief just in finding the clean intent, “I just want to offer some worthwhile service.” You can go to a warzone to do that, volunteer for an urgent project, or just watch carefully for openings that come your way every day.
Physicality is about correctly manipulating physiological variables. I place a high value on “above” and “below” the range of typical day-to-day physical patterns most of us live, because it brings our body, mind and emotions outside of the spectrum in which we experience anguish.
As an example of reaching “below,” meditative breathing is the simplest way to quiet mental and emotional gripping and mania, and can be done anywhere at any time. There’s a lot of worthwhile information out there. And there are all kinds of activities (like yoga) that are designed to slow and lengthen our sensation and engagement of the moment.
On the other end, reaching “above” involves activities that we’re probably already familiar with but have perhaps ignored or avoided that effectively enliven our perceptions, energies and core mood. Dancing and singing are excellent, as are many forms of traditional movement that seek to break us out of lethargy and familiarity.
Also in this family of activity, as has been rightly pointed out in Bruce Almighty when Jim Carrey meets God, “People underestimate the benefit of good old manual labor.” Then there’s this, which some experts claim is the most effective of all: Solvitur Ambulando, or as it is otherwise known, going for a walk alone (you can read a great article about it here).
For me, the pivotal issue is finding enough genuine intention to leave behind discontentment, unhealthy addictions, preference for conflict and, yes, anguish.
Yet in our pursuit to “win” the game of life at any cost, genuine intention and the qualities that flow from it — such as sincerity, integrity, compassion and humility — are often cynically viewed as expressions of ignorance or naivety, increasing the likelihood that we’ll lose the game.
Is it possible that our difficulty in finding sufficient motivation to resolve anguish itself stems from an inability to find a reason to do so?
I suppose we all have the freedom and right to determine whether or not happiness is a worthy enough objective. But if you look around, you’ll find that there is, in fact, the need.