There are those who believe that all illness is psychosomatic, or originating in the mind. I don’t know to what extent this is true but I am convinced that the state of our minds plays a huge role in our overall health.

I fell seriously ill after a prolonged period of unhappiness and am in no doubt that this was a major contributing factor. Few would argue that our mental and physical health are not inextricably linked and interdependent. In the same way that enjoying good health makes us more likely to be happy, being happy makes us more likely to enjoy good health,

So how can we achieve a happy and healthy state of mind? Many of us believe that this is largely down to our personal circumstances. We tell ourselves that if only we could find the perfect partner, job, house or car, or win the lottery, then we would be happy. Especially in the rich world there is an assumption that happiness can be measured in terms of status and material possessions. Simple observation of lives of the rich, or of some cultures that we consider poor but live simply and contentedly, however, demonstrates that these are, at best, only temporary or contributory factors.

Of much greater significance is the way we are able to deal with whatever life throws at us. Obviously, it helps if our basic needs for food, water and shelter are met, and some of us are presented with more difficult life situations than others, but it is how we respond to those situations which will ultimately determine whether we find lasting happiness or not.

The Dalai Lama in the book The Art of Happiness claims that we can all train our minds to be happy by systematically identifying and eliminating the states of mind or emotions that cause us suffering whilst cultivating those mental states and emotions which bring joy and contentment.

This may be a difficult process as it involves identifying and confronting our deepest fears and weaknesses. At the same time we need to be constantly reminding ourselves of all the joyful things that life has to offer. This is why I refer to my “roller coaster journey”. It seems, initially at least,  that by delving  deeper into ourselves, our experiences, both negative and positive, become more intense. As we progress, however, we gradually develop mechanisms which allow us to overcome and learn from  the negative experiences whilst enjoying the positive ones.

If entering upon such a journey seems daunting or simply too much effort for you at the present time, you might find useful a little tip I learnt from John Bird the founder of “The Big Issue” magazine in a booklet entitled How to Change Your Life in 7 Steps. He talks about focusing on the 3%, or setting yourself small achievable goals each day so that you advance step by step towards your goal and don’t become overwhelmed by the enormity of the task.

An essential first step on the road to happiness is to exercise your free will. This can only be achieved through self awareness, which in turn, is achieved by observing the conditioning which determines what choices and decisions we make in life. Whilst our actions are governed by a combination of our instincts and our social conditioning we do not exercise our free will. Once we become aware of what factors are involved in our decision making processes and resolve to change them is when we begin to exercise our free will. We begin to fulfil our uniquely human potential.

Stephen Covey in his excellent book The Seven Habits of Successful People calls this being “proactive”. Although we can’t always control what happens to us, being proactive means realising our power to choose how we respond. When we suffer a negative emotional reaction to something or someone, if we have developed sufficient self awareness to recognise that the emotion is a consequence of our own fear, guilt, anger, jealousy or hatred, then we are in a position to proceed in a different way than if we had merely followed our conditioning.

Eckhart Toll in his book The Power of Now explains how we can develop self awareness by the simple technique of observing our minds. If practised regularly we can develop what Buddhists call “mindfulness”- an invaluable tool which gives us that capacity to recognise a conditioned response in the crucial split second of time that it takes for us to commit to that response. If we develop this capacity then we are able to take control of our minds and egos rather than being controlled by them. We are in a position to choose a wise response which will lead to happiness rather than a conditioned response which may lead to suffering.

Developing the capacity to exercise our free will and truly take control of our lives is, of course, only part of the story. We also have to decide how we are going to exercise our free will. We have to learn how to make wise choices and responses. Stephen Covey suggests that we “begin with the end in mind”, and that we take time to identify and reflect on our deepest values- to try to develop a clear idea of what is truly important and what we would like to achieve in our lives. If the decisions and responses that we make are in accordance with our values and long-term goals then we are on the road to wisdom.

Another way to find out whether our thoughts and decisions are wise ones is to test whether they stand up to rational analysis. The Dalai Lama argues that all negative states of mind are “delusions” based on mis-perceptions of reality, whilst positive states of mind are based on solid foundations. To give a very simple example: if we react angrily towards a person then we are likely to cause suffering to both that person and ourselves in the long run, whereas if we act compassionately towards someone there is a good chance that both of us will benefit.

Obviously there are many more complex situations than this, but the bottom line is that negative states of mind don’t make sense or stand up to reason. They can only harm us and possibly others whereas positive emotions and responses can benefit us all. This has to be qualified slightly in the sense that negative emotions do have an important role to play in our lives. In the case of fear, for example, this may be a very useful emotion if we are in a position of genuine danger. It is the motivation we need to shy away from that danger. The problem comes when, as is usually the case, we are not in any danger but are still governed by fear. In the case of anger, it can be a trigger for us to take positive action to remedy a situation. If, for example we feel angry about a certain injustice in our society and resolve to do something about it then our anger could have a positive effect. The problem comes when we choose to vent our anger by acting aggressively towards others. So although we may have to accept certain negative emotions there is no logical reason to justify a negative response to them.

Perhaps the most effective way to combat our negative states of mind is by cultivating the antidotes to these states. Thus we can combat anger by cultivating patience, tolerance and compassion. Anxiety, stress and worry can be controlled by cultivating courage, relaxation and serenity. There are now a plethora of self help books which give advice and techniques for developing positive states of mind, some of which will be more useful than others, depending on our particular personalities and needs. Whichever you choose I would recommend that you develop a daily practice to consistently reinforce and remind yourself of the positive aspects of your life. There may be a temptation, when things are going well, to think that we don’t need to bother, but you can be sure that difficult times will never be too far away, and the more effort we have put into training our minds, the better we will be able to cope with and overcome these difficulties.

I have found that combining positive affirmations with my meditation sessions, both morning and night, to be very helpful. Although the concept of angels may be a step too far for some at this stage I would still recommend the book Daily Guidance from Your Angels by Doreen Virtue, as it provides a different positive affirmation for each day of the year as well as containing much wisdom. Another book that I have found very useful is Change Your Life in 7 Daysby Paul McKenna, even though the title implies a “quick fix” method which is a little misleading.

So to summarise; my 8 steps for achieving a happy and healthy mind are as follows:

  1. Recognise that happiness comes from within- our material conditions only play a small role.
  2. Recognise that you have free will and can choose to be happy.
  3. Develop self awareness and understand where your negative states of mind come from.
  4. Develop mindfulness- the ability to change your habitual reactions to events and emotions.
  5. See the lack of logic to your negative states of mind.
  6. Combat your negative states of mind by cultivating the antidotes to them.
  7. Develop this practice of cultivating positive mind states into a daily routine.
  8. Have patience and remember to laugh, smile and have fun along the way!