Each of us has a divine spark that can fuel our own happiness and brighten the lives of those around us, writes Martina Lehane Sheehan
Research in positive psychology suggests that while around 50% of our happiness levels are influenced by genetic components, only 10% are attributable to external circumstances, despite the huge amount of energy we invest in ensuring we drive the best car, buy the biggest house etc. The remaining 40% is something we can cultivate through committing to life-giving choices and intentional activity congruent with our values. Maybe scripture is telling us the same thing when it advises us not to worry about material things (the 10%) but to seek first the things of the soul (life-giving choices) (Mt 6: 33).
Numerous studies tell us that when we integrate more resourceful habits in our thoughts, attitudes and behavioural choices, we can increase our level of activities whereby we use our gifts and talents to create a meaningful life. We can also choose to heal the early memories that may have caused emotional shutdown.
From what I have explored in psychology, and what I have learned from my own life, and from the life of my clients in counselling and spiritual direction, I would conclude that this 40% necessitates that we live with a degree of uncertainty, a willingness to live with the complexity of life, an ability to trust and to take risks and to stop trying to control the uncontrollable! It requires an ability to deal with setbacks in such a way that they become opportunities for learning. It invites us to practise altruism, drawing us to live a bigger life where, alongside caring for ourselves, we actively contribute to the well-being of others and of the planet.
Psychologist Martin Seligman, who, since the year 2000, has been promoting the field of positive psychology, tells us that “happiness is not just about obtaining momentary subjective states. Happiness also includes the idea that one’s life has been authentic”.
He explored, in depth, those thoughts and behaviours that serve to give people a sense of purpose and which, therefore, help to maintain people’s happiness. Among them are:
*counting one’s blessings
*setting goals to help us develop our strength
*practising a religious faith that gives us meaning
*engaging in activities that help humanity
*avoiding obsessive rumination or comparisons with others.
I decided to ask a few ‘happy people’ what they thought. Most of them said that an attitude of gratitude is a prerequisite to experiencing happiness. In fact, many said it even helps to be grateful when we are experiencing difficulties or challenges.
Really? Yes, I too felt a bit dubious about that one. What about the therapeutic benefit of having a good old rant instead? However, gratitude can help access good in a difficult situation. Gratitude is rather like a vaccine, a reliable preventative for many kinds of depression.
While, therefore, we have predispositions that may make us more vulnerable towards such things as anxiety, one of the most exciting discoveries of this era is that we can change our lives (according to findings in neuroplasticity, we can even alter our brain structure).
These changes can come about through an intentional and dedicated changing of our attitudes, habits etc. When we activate our energy for life, it is like the acorn mobilising itself towards the oak, the mustard seed towards the mighty tree, the dancer towards the dance, the clay towards the hands of the potter. Our sleeping souls uncurl and turn towards the light as every part of our being and even our immune system are enlivened.
Each new dawn tells us we can rise again because it is never too late to exchange mediocrity for the miraculous. As one elderly woman said to me, “I want to learn these things so I don’t die with the fire still inside me”. Perhaps you don’t want to exit with the poetry, or the music or the love still inside you.
A relentless force
The Olympic athlete grasps the flaming torch and carries it with all his might before passing it on. Likewise, we are called to take hold of the spark we are each given; we are called to carry it for a while, allowing it to blaze brightly before passing it on to those who are coming after us.
Unlike the Olympic athletes, this fire is not ‘handed’ to us from external sources, but rises from within, where it animates us and moves us forward. Maybe this has something to do with what the ancient Greeks refer to as our daemon, or our indwelling spirit. In psychological terms, we say it is ‘our true self’. Once we see it, we can never again ‘un-see’ it (although we can certainly neglect or ignore it).
Even if, therefore, you did not inherit the happy gene, or do not enjoy many of the world’s lucky circumstances, you have a compelling life force, a divine orientation towards life continually seeks entry into your consciousness. Just as the snowdrop emerges through the hard ground after the winter, time and time again we heroically re-emerge from our own hard ground situations. Something in us relentlessly chooses life and light.
When you fully awaken to this exquisite reality, you not only increase your resilience, you also help raise the vibrational energy of those around you: in fact you become a bridge that allows others to also cross over from stuck-ness to freedom.
The film Billy Elliott tells the story of a young boy, the son of a coal miner, who wants to be a professional dancer. At the interview for the ballet school, he describes a relentless fire inside of him: “It starts stiff and that, but once I get going then I – like – forget everything and sort of disappear. Like I feel a change in my whole body. There’s fire in me. I’m just there, flyin’ like a bird, like electricity, yeah, like electricity.”
For us it also ‘starts stiff and that’ until we know that the spark that has been ignited cannot now be quenched, and we ‘sort of disappear’ as we ourselves become fire.
Once we embark on the journey of finding our flame, life can no longer be seen as a mere haphazard or random string of lucky or unlucky events. Scripture tells us it is an indwelling divine spark, which is not timid but powerful, and it is our responsibility to fan it into flame (2 Tim 1:6). We are called, therefore, to be continually open to transformation, whereby we allow the past to become the compost that produces new growth for the present and a compelling vision for the future. Seen in this way, nothing is wasted; mistakes can be turned to key lessons, obstacles and setbacks can be turned to opportunities. There is, after all, nothing like that joyous thump in the heart when we have unburdened ourselves of an old negative habit or dared to take a new risk.
Every snowdrop, every blade of grass, every tiny insect is sharing this life force with you, as all creation seeks life, emergence and growth. We have, moving within us, a dynamic force, which Dante tells us also “moves the sun and other stars”. We are part of the flame that sparked the universe into being; the same energy that lit the sun, breathed the planets into orbit and ignites new dreams in the human heart. We have to be spark throwers in a universe that longs for hope. George Bernard Shaw tells us we have to burn our light brightly because we have it for only a short while before passing it on to future generations: “Life is no brief candle for me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment before handing it to future generations.”
*Martina Lehane Sheehan is an accredited psychotherapist, counsellor, keynote speaker and spiritual director. This extract is taken from her new book Surprised by Fire, published by Currach Press (€14.99).