Each of us has a past, a life we live in the present and an outlook towards the future. The positive emotions about the future include optimism, hope, faith and trust. Those about the present include joy, ecstasy, calm, zest, pleasure and (most importantly) flow; these emotions are what most people usually mean when they casually but much too narrowly talk about “happiness”. The positive emotions about the past include satisfaction, contentment, fulfillment, pride and serenity. By learning about each of the three different kinds of happiness, you can move your emotions in a positive direction by changing how you feel about your past, how you think about the future and how you experience the present*. These are the voluntary variables (V) in the happiness formula that will create sustainable change and allow you to live in the uppermost reaches of your set range.

It all sounds wonderful but what if instead of satisfaction and pride, your past brings back memories of pain, bitterness and shame? Flushed with enthusiasm for the belief that childhood has great impact on adult development, many researchers, starting fifty years ago, looked carefully for support. They expected to find massive evidence for the destructive effects of bad childhood events such as parental death or divorce, physical illness, beatings, neglect, and sexual abuse on the adulthood of the victims. Some support appeared, but not much. Most of the earlier studies turned out to be methodologically inadequate. In their enthusiasm for the sway of childhood, they failed to control for genes. Later studies that do control for genes find large effects of genes on adult personality and only negligible effects of any childhood events*.

To the extent that you believe that the past determines the future, you will allow yourself one excuse after another for not actively changing the course of your life. When lab mice were trapped in a cage and given periodic electric shock, at first they tried desperately to escape. But after they realized that there was no escape, the mice simply gave up. Later when an escape was installed and could be easily found, the mice just stayed in the cage, passively enduring the painful shock because they no longer believed whatever they did would make a difference to their situation. This is called learned helplessness.

In most cases, we have more choices than we allow ourselves to see. The same is true with our wronged past. All emotions about the past are completely driven by thinking and interpretation, which means when we think about the same events in the past, we can choose to interpret it differently without altering the facts. Today when I remember my mother’s rage and explosion, I interpret as a woman’s desperate attempt to connect with her daughter. It took me more than 40 years to come to this place, and therefore I am careful not to allow anything happening in the present to become a past that’ll take the second half of my life to unload.

Gratitude enables one to amplify good memories about the past: their intensity and frequency. Nobody’s life is perfect. If we allow ourselves to dwell on the negative, negative emotion will take over and rob us of the happiness we deserve. Emotions, left to themselves, will dissipate. Expressed and dwelt upon, though, tend to multiply and imprison you in a vicious cycle*.

Can you find it in your heart to forgive those who’ve inflicted great pain and suffering to your life? Forgiveness is much easier said than done. Often times people choose to hold onto the bitter grudge because they refuse to let their offenders off the hook. Forgiveness may even mean our agreeing with what they did and it also blocks revenge, right and natural in the mind of the wronged.

Forgiveness is a virtue that author Everett Worthington Jr. has advocated as a counselor and psychologist. On the New Year’s morning of 1996, he got the most awful news: his aged mother had been raped, beaten to death and her house trashed. His successful struggle to forgive is an inspiration to anyone who wants to forgive but can’t. In his book “The Power of Forgiving,” Dr. Worthington explains the paradoxical power of forgiveness through his personal and professional experiences. The paradox is that in forgiving for the well-being of others, we actually receive tremendous benefits for ourselves in terms of physical and mental health. Worthington shows readers the map to forgiveness using methods such as his time-tested and research-supported method of REACH, a five-step process of forgiving.

There are three ways you can lastingly feel more happiness about the past. The first is intellectual – letting go of an ideology that your past determines your future. The second and third V’s are emotional, and both involve voluntarily reshaping your memories. Increasing your gratitude about the good things in your past intensifies positive memories, and learning how to forgive past wrongs defuses the bitterness and makes satisfaction possible*.

I’ll discuss the present and future in future posts.