Secret to happiness: Control

06 July 2022

If we could bottle happiness, whoever was selling it would invariably do a roaring trade (and probably be very happy as a result).

Achieving and maintaining happiness is, of course, not as easy as that. Nevertheless, as business transformation coach Jenny Allen-Smith from Stretching the City highlights, there are tools and techniques that we can use - and learn - to help us feel more positive, resilient and generally more contented with life.

Taking psychologist Dr Rangan Chatterjee's model of a 'three-legged stool' of happiness, Jenny emphasises how, if we are looking for true happiness, we need to get all of three legs of the stool - 'alignment', 'control', and 'contentment' - firmly into our lives.

The first leg of the 'happiness' stool is how to embed greater alignment into our lives, so that our inner values line up much more with our external actions and behaviours. Here we explain the second 'leg': control.

As Jenny explains: "I really want to focus on how can we get control back within our lives? Do we feel agency in our lives, in the way we live, the way we work? Do we feel a sense that the world around us is predictable and safe? And how can we do more to get a better control of our happiness levels; how can we really elevate those?"

While we may assume 'control' means asserting greater control over external factors and influences on our lives - our work, relationships, social life, and so on - in fact the biggest driver of change is our brain, she argues, the way we perceive, respond to and think about the world around us.

"When we’re talking about control, and the control we feel we have over our lives, this can only start in one place - and that is in our mind," Jenny explains. "This is a key to controlling happiness. It is controlling the attitude we have towards ourselves; the way we think about ourselves."

She highlights the danger of falling into 'messy' thinking habits. These can act to limit the belief we have in our abilities, make us feel unhappy, unfulfilled and frustrated with life. "Limiting beliefs can be deep-seated but they are rarely the reality; they are rarely the whole truth," Jenny points out.

What we want to be trying to achieve instead are empowering beliefs, she contends. "Empowering beliefs are beliefs about ourselves that make us feel happier. They build our confidence, they encourage us to take the risk, to believe in ourselves, to believe in a successful outcome.

"Empowering beliefs tell you that, regardless of the circumstance, you are capable of succeeding. Believing positively about yourself empowers you to just keep striving forward without limiting yourself through negativity. Empowering beliefs really do give you the confidence to persevere through the rough patches," Jenny advises.

How, then, should we go about making this affirmative mental transition? Jenny suggests four exercises.

Secret to happiness: Control

In the second of a series of three vlogs, Jenny Allen-Smith, a business transformation coach, talks about the secret to happiness with 'control'.

Empowering beliefs

Exercise 1: Counter 'messy' or negative thinking

Jenny advises getting a piece of paper and, being totally honest with yourself, writing down the negative beliefs you have; your messy thinking habits. On the other side of the page, counter-balance this negativity with a list of empowering, positive beliefs.

"These could be that you are assertive, or able to listen with empathy, or that you're a loyal friend," Jenny outlines as examples.

Exercise 2: Reject one limiting belief at a time

This list-making alone may help you to crystalise - and reject - those limiting beliefs sitting on your shoulder whispering poison into your ear. However, as a second exercise, Jenny suggests focusing in on each one in turn.

Now, sit down and work through a series of questions to try to reframe it. "Is it true? Is there any evidence for it? Is it helpful? Was it true once? Where did it come from?" she outlines, pointing out that often these limiting beliefs can come from childhood experiences or even childhood misunderstandings.

You now have a choice, Jenny advises. "You can keep it. But rewrite it so it is more appealing or useful. You can destroy it. Or you can write a new one. Think about what would be the impact on you and on your life of you making this choice?"

Exercise 3: Reframe 'bad' thoughts

Another useful tip, Jenny recommends, is to work to reframe default mental positions that don't make us feel good about ourselves.

For example, rather than creating anxiety by constantly thinking 'what if it all goes wrong?' think instead about what can (and hopefully will) go right. "Focusing on the negative can create all these stories in your head of all the bad things that can happen," Jenny says.

This can also lead to 'negativity bias', or ruminating on all the negatives going round your head rather than the positives. It is all about "loosening the shackles of your mind", argues Jenny.

Exercise 4: Go with 'the flow'

Finally, Jenny recommends trying to enter what psychologists call 'the flow state'. As she explains: "Have you ever been engaged in an activity where you lost all sense of time? Hours might have passed and you just didn't notice. You might have felt calm, focused, in control, deeply satisfied; maybe you were even in a meditative state."

This is known as being in the flow state. The more often you experience 'flow' in your life, the greater your happiness levels will be.

But how to do this in practice? Learn or master an activity you love to do, Jenny recommends, one where you are totally absorbed, or which allows you to shut out the day-to-day 'noise'.

"If your job doesn't naturally put you in flow state, that's OK. Try to find other ways of accessing the flow state in your personal time. If you're not sure where to start perhaps just try thinking about something that you loved to do as a child. What made you feel joy as a child? Maybe building Lego, painting, playing an instrument, playing games," Jenny explains.

"Observe yourself. What causes you to go into flow? When and where do you find yourself in that flow state? Reflect afterwards and consider how you can drive this more frequently. More frequent flow equals more frequent happiness," Jenny concludes.

About Jenny Allen-Smith and the author

Jenny Allen-Smith is a Transformational Coach, a Master NLP Practitioner and a Mental Health First Aid Trainer with MHFA England. Jenny works daily on her happiness practices and tries to incorporate something that makes her feel joy, every single day! She is getting good at happy.

Nic Paton is one of the country's foremost journalists on workplace health, safety and wellbeing, and is editor of Occupational Health & Wellbeing magazine. He also regularly writes on the health and employee benefits and health insurance markets.