The Will to Be Happy
  • Sat, 01/09/2016
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William James, one of America’s greatest psychologists, was sitting and talking with a friend at a restaurant. At that moment, a retired soldier was passing along the street with a bucket full of eggs. William James shouted “Attention!” and the poor old soldier immediately went into the stance of attention. The bucket fell; all the eggs were destroyed.

The solider was very angry. He said: “Who is the fool who has done this?”

William James said: “We are free to say what we like, but we didn’t say that you had to follow!”

He said: “It is no longer a question of following, it has become my nature. Attention means attention! I was in the army for twenty-five years: attention means attention; it does not mean anything else. And even if I am asleep in the middle of the night, if someone shouts ‘Attention’ I will stand at attention.”

I had a friend who came to me very upset after receiving an irate and rude letter from a young man who disagreed with his views. I asked my friend how he could expect to be happy and sleep contentedly at night if he paid such attention to letters like this.

I then smiled and said to him: “There’s no reason to get anxious over a person who disagrees with you and expresses his disagreement in the only way he can. He is the one who bears the responsibility for it. Maybe he has a problem with discussing matters of religion, since it seems like religious zeal is what moved him to write. He might just be the kind of person who projects sincerity, honesty and integrity upon himself while projecting doubt, confusion, and suspicion on those he disagrees with.”

I then told him: “The best way to deal with this kind of thing is to turn to Allah in humility and sincerity, for it is Allah alone you serve, and beseech Allah to guide you to what is right and keep your intentions pure. Pray to Allah to protect you from your own shortcomings first and then the harm brought by others. No one is entirely safe from other people’s abuses, so ask Allah to give you the strength and fortitude to bear it and act justly.

“The point is, my friend, that no created being can make you angry or distraught unless you allow them to. It is your will that determines how you feel inside, not what goes on around you, and certainly not an irate letter you get in the mail. What takes place inside of you is because of how you decide to respond to what happens around you. When you change the way you look at something, you change the way you feel.”

One time I was plagued by a controversial and sensitive religious question. I was very worried that someone would ask me that question in public and my answer would be misconstrued, or even worse, I would say something that I did not know. I thought about the question long and hard, and finally I came up with a very good and balanced response to it. I began to hope that someone would pose the question to me, regardless of their motives for asking, so I could have the chance to say something useful.

When you get into a debate or argument with someone, there is a good chance they will say something that will hurt your feelings. It is easy to interpret what they said as a personal attack or deliberate ridicule. However, you can decide to look at it another way and consider that the person may be facing difficult circumstances like family problems or debts and they just cannot cope very well, so they lash out. Maybe this person will regret the hurtful things they said in the heat of the moment. They might be ashamed of their behaviour but be too embarrassed to apologise. When you change the way you think about what happened, it changes the way you feel inside. Remember that Allah does not change your state until you start to change yourself.

Offer the supplication: “O Allah! Suffice me from them in whatever way You please, for you heart and see all things.”

Or even better, say: “O Allah, Suffice me and protect me from my own evil and the evil of others, I seek refuge with you from the evil of myself and of every being that you take by the forelock. Indeed, Lord, Your path I straight.”

The same rock that you can hurl at someone else, you can use to build a road of opportunity instead. Be positive.

A Prescription for Being Light-hearted

Something I have tried and found to be deeply effective in life is to avoid taking a long view of the progression of days, months, and years. Instead, I concern myself with individual units of time. There are particular years, individual months, and specific days, hours and minutes.

When I wake up in the morning, I am starting a new day. I will spend the next dozen or so hours meeting people, getting work done, attending events, reading, writing, eating, and what have you. To make this time go happily, I focus on beginning it well. The first thing I do when I open my eyes is prepare myself to focus on each small thing when it happens and take what pleasure I can from it. I do no permit the great, grave matters weigh down my mind. I have made it my habit to start the day by making ablutions and offering two units of prayer to cleanse and refresh my soul. This provides unparalleled emotional support. It remedies our sins and reminds us of the greatest, most sublime meanings in existence, and it only takes a little bit of time.

If you, unlike me, are not deprive of your parents’ presence, give them a kiss each.

After I finish praying, I turn my cell phone on and begin reading the messages that were send during the night while I was sleeping. There is much to enjoy: a few beautiful lines of poetry, a message from a good friend, some encouraging words, an invitation…

There are a few negative messages containing insults and words of censure. When I see something negative, it is easy enough to delete them as soon as I come across them, without bothering to read them all the way through. I do not let them spoil your good mood. The same goes for Twitter. I skim through and read what pleases me, and do not dwell on things that will darken your mood. It is good to focus on reading positive things.

When I read an article that attacks me personally, I imagine that it is speaking about someone else. From this angle, I ask myself if the article has any credibility to its readers. Will it really have an impact on the life and reputation of the person it is targeting? I consider how much has been written like it about the greatest people in history and how it did not affect them in the least.

I take a light breakfast in the company of those I love. I enjoy what I eat, as if I have nothing else to do later on. Then, after I finish eating, I get on with my day.

This is an indispensable habit to cultivate in order to have a happy day. If you make it one of our life habits, you will see how it positively affects your whole day. You will be calmer, more relaxed, and more positive about everything.

Do not forget to offer the following supplication when you wake up in the morning: “Praise be to Allah who has returned my soul to me, made me of sound body, and gave me the opportunity to remember Him.” [Sunan al-Tirmidhī]

Remember that life is a great blessing, so you should start each day by praising and thanking Allah and thinking about the positive aspects of having the chance to live another day with faith and well-being.

How does my advice seem to you? If you are a person who wishes to be happy, you must have some response to it. The approach I outlined above is a good one, but it is not suitable for everybody. Some people will add to it or alter it to suit their particular needs. This is good. This is just advice and not something written in stone. It is an approach that came about from experience and is altered by experience. It is meant to be adapted and adopted as needed.