An Advanced Happiness Skill

Ways to find happiness here and now

Posted Feb 11, 2016

Dr. Robert Puff's photo, Big Sur
Source: Dr. Robert Puff's photo, Big Sur

For a lot of people what I am going to be talking about may be tough to do, and not only tough to do, but something that people may not want to do. Despite this, I think it is something to at least consider today. I think if we at least try to do it a little bit, it’s one of those key essentials to making our lives not just happy some of the time, but most of the time.

If we have been reading these blogs for awhile, we’ve probably gotten pretty good at watching our thoughts, controlling our thoughts, and making sure that we aren’t participating in creating unhappiness in our lives, because we now understand that a lot of unhappiness comes from within. To really integrate this practice, in the sense that it’s not just there some of the time, but most of the time, can be much harder to do.

I actually had a couple of people approach me this week about this very topic. Although they are improving their lives, they are finding that keeping their lives at a much more peaceful happy place is harder for them. They were asking me about how to do this. I think if you are really ready to integrate it, in the sense that life’s going to go well most of the time, then this is a good one to really practice. It’s going to be hard, but it’s a good one. What makes it hard is that the ego is going to fight it. The ego likes engagement. It likes excitement and all the thrills of life, and this isn’t about that. This is about finding a really constant state of peace and happiness, which the ego doesn’t want. The ego is very addicted to the excitement and thrills of life; so the ego is going to fight this, but if we take time to apply it and make it part of our lives, then I think we’ll find that the peacefulness we’re looking for will be there a lot more of the time.

I want to start with a story about something that happened to me many years ago. It was the first time I really observed this happening in me. I saw a shift inside of me and observed a change. I’ve never been much of an arguer, but we do get into arguments when we go through life. A friend and I were having a disagreement and my friend started raising the tone of the argument. The change I saw in me was that, instead of participating in the argument, I observed her, I observed me, and I got quiet. I was just watching the behavior. I watched her behavior and I watched my behavior in a passive, detached way. Instead of jumping in and protecting my point of view and getting angry as I had in the past, I was passive and detached and I just observed my behavior. This caused the argument to not continue very long; and after the argument was over my ego didn’t have much to grasp onto; so emotions of the argument went away very quickly.

After this happened, there was a shift in me. It was not immediate, but what I began to see is that I could do that much more regularly and easily in the future.

I want to talk about the three elements that are part of this shift, this Advanced Skill for Happiness. First I’ll describe them, then we’ll go over each one of them. One is being passive. Two is being detached. Three is being an observer of the situation.

Let’s start with being passive in an argument. Why is being passive helpful? And what is it? What do we mean by that? I think an argument is a good example to use to help illustrate these three points, because we all get into arguments and it’s a great way to practice.  

So, what does being passive in an argument mean? When someone begins an argument with us, instead of actively engaging—putting up our dukes, ready to go at it, actively defending ourselves to make sure we win the argument—we become far more passive. I don’t mean passive in the sense of a doormat but passive in the sense of, “I don’t need to engage with this. I don’t need to participate in this. It takes two people to have an argument and I choose not to.  I don’t need to participate in the egoic struggles of life.” We become passive. We just sit back, relax and don’t need to win. We don’t need to be upset when we lose because we just are far more passive. Again, the other elements need to be there (being detached and being an observer). But the passiveness part of it is not needing to engage in everything that comes our way.  

For example, we’re driving and someone cuts us off. We can just passively let them. We don’t have to engage with that. When someone starts an argument and raises the tenor, we don’t have to engage with that. We can be passive, be still inside, and watch. Usually what unfolds is nothing. That emotional wave that gets raised just drops down when we don’t engage with it. It really does take two people to create an argument. So, if we don’t participate in the argument, that argument won’t happen.

Over the years I’ve been interviewed many times by the media about road rage. I always give the same answer. Of course it’s inappropriate when the road rage person goes crazy, but they probably wouldn’t have gone into a rage toward the other person, if the other person had done nothing.  When one person does something, like honk, or cut them off a little bit, then the other person goes crazy and does far worse, which is wrong. But if the person had just let them pass, and not reacted, nothing would have come of it. When we try to stand our ground and make sure that justice wins, when we’re active instead of passive, we can often create an argument or a situation that escalates and gets much worse.

When we’re passive we still have a lot of power, but our power comes from being passive, not choosing to engage. Think about Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King, who passively resisted people being very cruel to them; and they changed the world.

When a clerk, someone at a store, or someone on the road is screaming and yelling at us, and we choose not to engage with that, but remain passive, we’re still taking a stance. We’re taking a very strong stance. It’s just that in being passive, and not engaging with them, we’re saying, “I’m not going to let my ego engage with your ego. I choose to remain passive.”

It’s a really great way to participate in those negative, charged environments where things can go south very quickly. By choosing not to let our ego get the best of us, we are actively choosing passivity.

This is about passivity with our own ego. It’s really not about the situation because someone else might not be bothered by it at all. So, when we feel that draw to engage, let’s not; let’s just remain passive and see what happens. I think you’ll like the results. I think you’ll find, again, that it creates that peacefulness and happiness. 

I call it an advanced skill or technique because it is challenging. When someone’s screaming at us, not doing anything back can be quite challenging. It’s worth trying, however, and discovering what happens we don’t actively engage but choose to be passive. We may see much better results.

The second element of this Advanced Happiness Skill I call being detached. This is probably going to be the hardest of the three because we’re trained to feel our emotions, and it is good to feel them. But it’s really a sense of being detached from the situation, from what’s happening. It can come across as cold and that’s why it’s hard, I won’t negate that. But it’s really saying, “Hmm, do I necessarily need to create a story here? Do I necessarily need to do anything here? Perhaps I can just observe, be passive, and mostly become detached—detached from my emotions, detached from the emotions of the situation, detached from the stories that are being created here. It can seem stoic. It can seem cold. But that’s the ego’s way of keeping us from doing it. The ego doesn’t want to be detached. It wants to be attached. It wants to be engaged. It wants to be going with things. When we do that we do suffer. When we’re detached we stand back and don’t let the situation create anything inside us—no stories, no emotions—and we just become more withdrawn from it. It’s like we just step back and say, “Huh, I don’t necessarily need to engage with this.  I don’t necessarily need to feel anything about this.  I don’t necessarily need to do anything.  I can just step back and let things unfold.” We do what we need to do, but in a far more detached way.

Let me use an example that might illustrate this. Imagine that we come upon the scene of a car crash where someone has been injured.  There are people bleeding and they’re suffering. We can get hysterical. We can get upset or cry or scream. Or we can be detached and just actively get to work doing what needs to be done to rectify the situation. This is what emergency physicians, firefighters and police officers must do in order to do their jobs well and for a long time.

It’s actually what I have to do in my profession as a clinical psychologist. I deeply love and care for people who come to see me. When I hear their stories, and some of them are very sad and tragic, I do remain detached. I care, but if I were to take it home with me I would not have lasted the twenty-five years I’ve been doing it, and I would not last another twenty-five years, which I plan on doing.

By being detached, we do much better. 

So let’s use another, more personal example. Let’s say our daughter comes home and tells us that she’s pregnant. I know it may seem cold, but we’re going to make much better decisions and we’ll probably hear from her more often if we remain detached. Over the years, teenagers I’ve worked with have so often told me things that they were afraid to tell their parents, because of the volatile response they might get. Kids would tell their parents far more if they knew they would stay calm—and being detached helps with that.

If we get emotionally involved in something and let those emotions run wild, we’re not going to have good communication and we’re going to suffer, and often people around us will suffer. 

Being detached has a lot of benefits. It’s hard. It can seem cold, but it can also be very rewarding. The part that’s a little tricky about being detached is that we are not only detached from the situation; we’re detached from our own emotions. We become far more quiet inside, far more calm, and we don’t allow the immediate stories to be created in our heads.

For example, we’re waiting for a loved one to come home and they’re three hours late. We can really suffer then, or we can seem cold by not being upset and worried— focusing on living in the present moment and being detached. Because there is nothing we can do until they get home, creating three hours of suffering that ends up being nothing brings us unnecessary pain. We could say instead, “Well, they aren’t home right now. I’ll say a prayer for them and hope they’ll be home soon. I’m going to go on and do activities to remain detached from the situation until I can do something.”

We’re far more effective when we’re detached. When we’re attached, more poor choices are made, creating a lot more suffering. And again, it’s not only detachment from the situation, but detachment from our emotions. Our emotions are created by the egoic stories that we create in our head. When we don’t create those stories, we become far more detached.

Again, just a reminder: This is a hard one, because we like to be engaged. We like the emotions; they’re very intense. They seem caring, but ultimately they cause suffering. We can still be caring, while being detached.

I’ve done this for twenty-five years of my practice and I think if you ever met any of my clients they would say I’m quite warm. But there is a sense of detachment. When my clients leave, I do let them leave and I get back to living my life. When I see them the next week, I’m excited to see them. I’m glad to see them and I’m with them one hundred percent when I’m with them, but when they go, they are gone and they are not part of my world at that time.

It involves staying in the present moment, not creating stories, doing what we can do, and being detached. When we’re detached, we suffer far less.

The third and final thing we can do in this Advanced Happiness Skill is observe. This is about observing us, observing the situation, observing other people—not engaging, not participating, not becoming emotionally involved, but just observing.  What are we feeling? What are they feeling? What’s happening? And doing nothing but that—observing.

Imagine a scientist going into the jungle and observing gorillas. He or she may sit there and watch them for days, weeks on end, and do nothing but sit there and watch. A lot of motion may be going on around them, but all the scientist does is observe. This is the same sort of thing. The only difference is, not only do we observe others, we observe ourselves too. We observe anger rising in us, but that’s all we do—we observe it; we don’t have to participate in it.

Again, I like the scientist analogy because I think it helps us understand what we do—we’re just the observer. We’re not making any choices. We’re not choosing to engage or disengage. We’re just observing. We’re watching. That watchfulness, without participation, allows us to become quiet inside. The scientist can sit for hours doing nothing but observing his or her environment. We do the same thing. We just observe ourselves and the situation. We don’t have to do anything but that.

When we throw in the detached, passive part of that—the combination of the three—we can seem pretty quiet inside. We can stay quiet inside because we’re just observing. We’re gathering information, not making judgments, not choosing to participate, just observing.

We struggle with it because we like to participate. We don’t like to just observe. We want to make comments. We want to critique. It’s very hard to be an observer, but when we do, we get much quieter inside. From that quietness we can choose how to participate, instead of reacting negatively. We can make positive choices instead of impulsively reacting as many people do. From that standpoint, we can become a much more gentle, kind person. And on a deeper level, we’ll become that peaceful, happy person that we’re hoping to be.

So, to review, there are three parts to this Advanced Happiness Skill. One is to be passive. The second is to be detached. And the third is to observe. 

May I make a recommendation? Write them down. Carry them with you in your phone, your notepad, or a tablet. Find what works for you, but just carry them with you and look at them to remind yourself, “What’s a good way of living life to really integrate, and experience on a consistent basis, that happiness and peacefulness inside of me?”  I do believe this advanced skill will really help you to do that.