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Self-help

Finding Happy Ground: A practical guide to hope and happiness

By Ivan Zwart

Synopsis

Finding Happy Ground is a practical guide to hope and happiness. The book comes from Dr Ivan Zwart - a person who has suffered greatly from mental illnesses including anxiety, chronic fatigue and bipolar disorder, but who eventually discovered a path to a much happier life. It combines the lessons learnt from a lived experience of mental illness and recovery, with many years of research, meditation practice, and happiness teaching.

The central premise of Finding Happy Ground is that true happiness comes from within, and that the way we feel can be improved through the five steps and over 40 practical exercises in the book. The book is highly innovative, making the case that happiness is not only about the condition of our mind, but also our non-physical heart, which is the centre of feelings like peace, love and joy. This is contrary to current approaches to improving mental wellbeing, which focus predominantly on the mind.

This book can help you to:

- Better manage challenging emotions such as fear, anger and sadness
- Think in ways that support you
- Improve your relationships
- Make smart lifestyle choices
- Feel more peace, love and joy

Introduction

WHY I WROTE THIS BOOK


Immediately after a very rough time in my life I thought ‘I’m going to write a book about this one day because perhaps I can help others’. I made my first attempt in 2007 and it was terrible. At the time I was angry, sad, and hurting at the loss of my mother. This, as I have since discovered, is not the time to write a book, at least not one that will have a lot to say about how we can all become a little happier. It was also a slow and painful process. I think I wrote about three pages over a few weeks with plenty of tears, and then gave up.

Fortunately, I’m now in a much better place. So when I started this venture the second time in 2014 I had just finished writing a happiness course, it was proving of great benefit to others, and I was reading a lot about wellbeing. After reading a book called The Millionaire Messenger by Brendon Burchard I also felt inspired. Here was a guy who had rolled his car when he was nineteen, nearly died, and then started a new career out of the lessons he had learnt. He said we all have a message to share and that if we can help one person with their problems, help them become the person they were supposed to be, then we should do it. The other thing he made clear is that we have an obligation to do it.1 I tend to agree.

A few other things pushed me along in writing this book. The first is that over recent years I have become acutely aware that many of humanity’s problems are linked to happiness or unhappiness. I don’t like to bring this up, but I think if we were all truly happy we would not devote an estimated 1.6 trillion US dollars each year to build the arms to hurt each other.2 If harming each other isn’t a big enough problem, the World Health Organisation estimates that over 800,000 people commit suicide each year, or roughly one person every 40 seconds.3 As far as I can tell no other species do this. I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I’d like to be part of the discussion about what we can do about it.

Although the world has plenty of problems that are caused by the way we feel4, there’s also so much we can do to become happier. We can learn to do all manner of things to become happier, such as become more grateful, more optimistic and more forgiving. We can learn to meditate with all its attendant benefits, and we can learn to manage our stress. We can become more compassionate and relate better to others. We can also modify our lifestyles in many different ways. All of these things can make us happier. As a result of being happier our brains function better, we are more productive and creative, and time at work and home become more enjoyable as well. When we feel happy life goes more smoothly and we look forward to today and every day after that.

While I have had a growing awareness in recent years of the importance of happiness to solving many of the world’s problems, and I had a desire to write, life can get in the way. However, a few incidents in 2016 made me even more aware of why I needed to write this book.

One morning my wife, Dani, was looking at a video of a young lady in America called Grace VanderWaal. Grace, a twelve-year-old ukulele player and singer, was on a big American talent show and she was performing an original song. Prior to playing she was asked by one of the judges whether she thought she could win. She responded, ‘well I believe miracles can happen, so maybe’. This I think is a very cool thing for anyone to say. Grace then started her song by singing ‘I don’t know my name’. She also sang ‘I don’t play by the rules of the game’. At this point I was intrigued. After a reference to being bland and popular to joining the marching band and making the closest friends she had ever had, she finished the song with a triumphant ‘I now know my name, and I don’t play by the rules of the game’. This song really resonated with me. At that very moment I knew who I was but I didn’t really want to share it. I was happy to share some of myself but I was too scared to share other parts, the deeper and potentially less popular parts. I also knew that having just quit my safe government job to pursue a happiness business I was someone who had to some degree stopped playing by some of the rules of the game. Grace’s song really got me thinking. If a twelve-year-old girl has the courage to be open about who she really is, perhaps I should as well. I should really tell how I think we can all become happier regardless of how many rules this might break.

A day or so later I was watching footage of a Jewish cleric at Muhummad Ali’s funeral, who said that what he loved about Muhummad Ali was that he was a man who stood up for what he believed in, despite the fact that it could have had terrible consequences for his career. The Jewish cleric also said that he didn’t play by the rules of the game. At this point I started thinking I really should be paying attention to this. It is time to tell the truth and the whole truth as I see it. If I follow my heart chances are the consequences will be good anyway. It worked for Muhummad Ali so perhaps this approach can work for me and everyone I love as well. I hope it will also help you.


MY STORY


Here’s a further introduction which will tell you a bit more about me and why I have written this book. I was born into a great family in Hobart, Tasmania, Australia. My mother, Pamela, was a loving and caring woman. My father, Pieter, was a lovely and very intelligent bloke, and my twin brother Derek, and sister Megan, were and remain the best mates anyone could ever want. As a child I went to good schools, made some nice friends and played heaps of sport. While I had my fair share of teenage insecurities, I was a happy kid and probably not bad company for those around me. But things changed when I was about twenty-two. My mother developed a rare form of dementia which was awful for her and my family. It shook all of us terribly, but for some reason I reacted the worst. Having an ill mother gradually changed me and I went from being relatively happy and care-free, to someone who struggled to see the lighter side of life. I saw most of my life through the lens of my dying mother and I became very unhappy. For almost ten years Mum battled dementia and watching her gradually lose her memory, her personality and her life was one of the hardest things I have ever been through. 

While losing Mum in this way was terrible, my poor long-suffering father Pieter faced a similar battle, which started a few years before Mum died in 2006. After earlier in his life facing and defeating bowel cancer, Dad developed prostate cancer around 2004. So not only did he have to face the prospect of a life without Mum who he loved dearly, he was also faced with his own mortality, not to mention considerable pain during the latter years of his illness. Dad died in 2010 and while Megan, Derek and I had learnt to deal with grief by that stage, when we lost Dad we also lost Mum again. At least that’s how it felt to me.

During the almost fifteen years of my parents’ illnesses I really struggled with my mental health. I moved to Darwin at age twenty-three and while I enjoyed some of my time there, making new friends and playing a lot of hockey, I worked in a job I hated and was 4500 kilometres from home at a time that my mother was unwell. I developed chronic fatigue syndrome which stayed with me for six months, which had me struggling to sleep and feeling incredibly tired day after day. Fortunately the illness ended, and after twelve months in Darwin I moved back to Hobart where I undertook and completed a doctorate in political science. This looked at the ability of different methods of public participation to address local environmental issues. I found the whole process intellectually stimulating and very worthwhile, and I met some wonderful people while at the university.

When back in Hobart I also met my first wife, and we had a short and difficult relationship due in part to my unhappiness. After that relationship ended, I developed anxiety which was to last for five years. I also moved to Melbourne soon after the relationship finished, where I had a range of jobs including social researcher, community engagement officer and consultant. I also had a few relationships which didn’t last long, undoubtedly because of the way I was feeling. The good news, however, was that I did make some nice friends, began to follow Richmond Football Club, and I also undertook my first meditation course in 2006. I did everything I could to make myself feel better, going to counsellors and psychologists, as well as reading a large number of self-help and psychology books. I also did a personal development course whilst in Melbourne. All of these interventions had a positive impact on my life and taught me that there are ways to improve our mental wellbeing that don’t involve medication. 

In about June 2010 and a few months after Dad died, I moved back to Hobart for a short while. During this very difficult time I discovered a little meditation and yoga centre called the Lotus Centre, and I attended my first Open Heart Meditation session. It was wonderful and it felt strangely like I was coming home. The half a dozen people who were there were all very friendly and there were lots of smiles, greetings and hugs. I didn’t quite know what to make of it. During the first meditation I felt like Darth Vader had entered my body as I began to realise just how angry, hurt, upset, and sorry for myself I still was. The second day I attended the meditation I began to have visions of Mum and Dad together, and there were a few tears which was probably a good thing. I also got the sense that while the meditation might sound a little wacky, with all the discussion about forgiveness and a mysterious thing called True Source (or the Divine), it was doing me good. I felt a pressure in my chest which I was told was common, but there were so many emotions coming up I felt like I was being cleansed. I continued to do the practices from time to time, before it became a daily ritual a number of years later.

Unfortunately, however, soon after starting the meditation practice I was to have the first of three manic episodes, ending up in the psychiatric ward of the Royal Hobart Hospital. Soon after I got out I became depressed. I was diagnosed by one doctor as having bipolar disorder, while another thought I had just been through a very tough time and was probably just struggling with many years of stress. Either way, with the support of a doctor I got off the medication I was given and got back to normal.

After spending about a year in Hobart the work dried up and so I moved back to Melbourne where found a good job. While I was finally starting to feel better I had some great luck, meeting my now wife Dani, the woman with the biggest smile in the world and the heart of a small elephant. We hit it off immediately, fell in love, and had a wonderful six months together, before I became manic again and found myself back in hospital for a few weeks. By the time I got out I was very heavily medicated on a drug called lithium, which is used to treat mania, and I quickly became very depressed. To make matters worse, the drug made me feel dead inside, I couldn’t communicate properly anymore and I was barely able to think. I was also on a high dose of antidepressants which didn’t seem to help.

My health situation was particularly problematic at work, where I was required to work on complex reports with tight deadlines. In a relatively short period of time my manager made it clear to me that my work performance wasn’t up to scratch and I was introduced to someone in human resources who had a number of discussions with me. I told all involved that I needed to get off the drug I was on and I needed some time to do it. At the same time, I told my psychiatrist that I needed to get off the lithium as I was afraid I would lose my job, but he offered me no hope. He said I had bipolar disorder, lithium was the only drug for me, and that there were no alternatives. Thus, after a short while I began a search for another psychiatrist. Unfortunately, my workplace had come to a decision and they showed me the door, albeit with a severance payment. I didn’t fight, as I was depressed and I didn’t want to work for an organisation that would treat their workers so appallingly.

During the course of this horrible ordeal I felt awful, bloody awful. Not only was I severely depressed but along with that were some truly dreadful thoughts. I thought I had an incurable condition and I would have it for life. I had a condition that nobody wants or talks about, and I felt ashamed. I was going to lose my job, be unable to get another one, and would therefore lose my house. Dani would probably leave me because of my condition, and then I would be alone again with no hope and no future. The upshot of all this was, I became suicidal. After considering the idea for a number of weeks, I then tried to end my life, ironically with a large number of lithium tablets which can be fatal if taken in high doses, washed down with a considerable amount of gin. While ultimately, I have to take responsibility for the terrible decision I made, we all have our breaking point and sadly I was pushed to mine.

When Dani found me, I was bent over the sink, crying and dribbling. She found the bottle of gin and made the connection that I had drunk a lot of the stuff. She tried to sit me down, but I was catatonic and stiff as a board so, with great difficulty, she placed me on the floor. Frightened, Dani then called for an ambulance which quickly arrived and drove us both to a nearby hospital. I was treated for alcohol poisoning and stayed the night, after a short discussion with a psychologist (which seemed hugely inadequate). I got a taxi home early the next morning, and promptly went to work.

The impact of the whole saga on Dani and I was considerable. I apologised to all involved over and over and over, but it took me many years to forgive myself for what I had tried to do. Dani was also affected for quite a while, as she suffered anxiety and worry if I didn’t pick up the phone or return home when planned. In fact, the whole event was so painful for her that it is only in writing this section of the book, that we have discussed it in any detail.

The good news is that immediately after my suicide attempt I realised I had been given a second chance. Sometime during the next day I began to realise just how lucky I had been, because I was still alive. On that day I made a pact with myself that I would make the most of my second chance.

After losing my job in Melbourne, Dani and I moved back to Hobart in Tasmania and I was lucky enough to have recovered sufficiently to accept a job with the state government, and Dani also found work. While I was medicated for my illness, I also did my best to maintain my wellbeing in more natural ways, playing hockey again and also turning my heart meditation practice into a daily occurrence, as regular practice made me feel so much lighter, happier and more peaceful. I found that after doing the practice I could also smile again, and life started to become really enjoyable. The meditation combined with the antidepressants was so beneficial that after a few months I was able to get off the antidepressants, remaining on a much better drug for me to address mania.

Given that I was feeling so much better, the other thing that happened about this time was I started reading a book called be happy by British happiness expert, Robert Holden. After reading it I thought, happiness: now that’s something that interests me. My mind turned to one of the crazy ideas I had the second time I was manic, where I was instrumental in creating a happiness event at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. While that seemed unachievable, I did the next best thing and I started writing. A few months later I had a draft of the Happy Ground program, a wellbeing program that was an amalgamation of all the psychology books and self-helpies I had read during the hard times, the counselling, the meditation practices, and the multitude of lessons I had learnt over my life. It was invigorating as I was starting to implement something that would be about others. I had a plan, it felt amazing, and it was fun. 


ABOUT HAPPY GROUND WELLBEING


After numerous drafts and some commentary from my psychiatrist, a teacher, Megan, Derek and Dani (who incidentally, has an honours degree in psychology), our first wellbeing course began. We had eight participants, including a few kind friends. It was heaps of fun and the feedback we got after the first class was great - ‘keep going guys, you’re doing a great job’.

So this is how Happy Ground started. With dreams of running happiness courses for a living, the business slowly grew and evolved. Since 2014 we have run many courses with quite spectacular results. Our evaluations of the community and business happiness programs have shown that overall, participants became significantly happier and less stressed. Participants were also more present in their daily lives, able to sleep better, relate better to others, and became more grateful and forgiving. 


Program outcomes


Our most recent community and business program called ‘Happy Heart, Peaceful Mind’, has elements for the heart and the mind, and draws on some of the exercises in Steps Two, Three and Four of this book. We ran the program twice in 2018 with members and staff of ‘Flourish’, a community health organisation established to provide a strong voice for people with a lived-experience of mental ill health in Tasmania. As part of the evaluation, participants were asked at the start and end of each course a range of questions to understand both their knowledge and skills, and also their wellbeing.

These questions revealed that there were significant improvements in all areas. By the end of the program, participants understood considerably more about the impact of both the heart and mind on emotional wellbeing. While having greater knowledge and skill is important, we were also interested to find out if there were any changes in participants’ wellbeing following completion of the course. We used a number of indicators of wellbeing, which included:

• How stressed, pressured or tense do you feel?

• How light do you feel?

• How peaceful and calm do you feel?

• How strong are your feelings of love for yourself and others?

Measured on a five-point scale where one is a low rating and five a high one, the results for each question (for the seventeen people who completed the survey), are combined together. The combined results for each question are shown in the charts (opposite).

As the charts show, participants became significantly less stressed, pressured or tense, with the combined total falling from 56 before the training, to 33 after the training (a fall of 70 percent). Feelings of ‘lightness’ are also something that comes with an improved heart, and which were experienced to a greater degree by all participants after training was completed. The rating for lightness more than doubled, moving from 30 to 64 (being a 113 percent improvement). We also asked people how peaceful and calm they felt, and this also improved for every participant, with the overall rating going from 41 to 67. Given the program had a strong focus on the non-physical heart, we are also interested in changes in feelings of love for self and others. This also improved considerably, with the combined total for all participants going from 51 to 73, being a 43 percent improvement. 15 of the 17 participants had greater love for themselves and others, and two remained the same. Our evaluation also showed that not only were participants feeling less stressed, lighter, more peaceful, and more loving, but written comments also confirmed that many were also happier. 


The results above are supported by further comments from participants. One participant, Kathy O’Brien, a peer support worker and consumer consultant, stated:


I felt a heart-swell, so when I was thinking and feeling in the heart, there was almost an expansion in the chest. Also surprisingly again as I went through it and as we were coming out of it, that blockage that I described and have felt, it was healed…it was pulling the gunk out.

  

Another participant, Julia, had the following to say about the impact of the heart practices:


Some days I wake up and I think ‘not again, not another day’. But on some of those days I then decide to relax, touch my heart and smile, and often after I have finished my practice there’s a complete shift, because I think ‘what’s next, what can I do today?


Quite a few participants also commented that they were using their diaries to log things they were grateful for on a regular basis.

Apart from changes in the way participants were feeling, one of the biggest benefits of the ‘Happy Heart Peaceful Mind’ course was it provided a new way forward and hope for the future. To illustrate, one participant, Lisa, stated; ‘This course has opened up possibilities I never thought possible’. Another participant said that the course was about healing, allowing people to be human beings who can heal. This beautifully sums up what we believe can occur, and are trying to assist people to do.

While self-assessments at the end of our courses are one way to describe the effectiveness of our programs, people have also shared their stories with us about the impact our programs have had on their lives once the courses have ended. Outcomes vary depending on life circumstances and the amount of ongoing work people undertake to maintain and improve their wellbeing. However, we do know that for those participants who continue to apply the tools taught, there can be some very beneficial outcomes.

One such person was a lovely lady with a fabulous laugh, who was nevertheless going through a tough time before she began our ‘Happy Ground Program’. She suffered from anxiety before the program, but what she learnt changed her life. About six months after completing the course she had the following to say:


Before the course I was anxious, negative and worried about the future. I did the course because I had to do something for myself. The course has helped me change the way I look at life, as I’m more positive about everything and I feel good things now. I have come to realise how important gratitude in the workplace is and I make sure I say ‘thank you’ to people at work. I thank them personally and give them a little chocolate frog when they co-operate and get their reports to me. It has also boosted my self-esteem. I’m not scared of life anymore. When I started work years ago I was quiet and shy, whereas now I can lead discussions and talk in front of large groups of people. Before I did your course I did the odd gutsy thing but now I do what makes me happy. As a single mum, a lot of my time is spent looking after everyone else and not myself. So it’s been empowering and has helped me to ‘get out there’. I now know what makes me happy and making happiness a priority and ensuring I do something for me every day is important. I knew deep down this is what I needed to do, but I wasn’t actually doing it. These days I write in my gratitude diary every night which I have found very powerful and I meditate daily and through stressful situations. As a result I smile more at people, think more positively and make the best of bad situations. Your course has changed my life! I have had lots of friends, colleagues and family say that I seem much happier. 

The reason I share these results is that they support our view that our wellbeing and happiness is something that we can work on and improve (which is further discussed in Step One). It also supports the use of many of the exercises in this book (please see Appendix One for further program results). The Happy Ground Wellbeing programs have also had the effect of bringing people together, which is a big part of why they work so well. I firmly believe that we need to be together to maximise our wellbeing and our happiness, because we are social creatures. Furthermore, we are all in one way or another both a learner and a teacher, so the more we get people together the better. For this reason, if you have one or more friends who would like to do the exercises in this book with you, I would encourage you to all get together, have a cup of tea and work through the book. You’ll have fun and you’ll learn a lot from and about each other, as well as things that can make you feel better.

I believe that this book represents a pretty thorough account of what we can do to feel happier, from the perspective of someone who has experienced some real highs and lows and has finally, after years of trying, discovered what it takes to be happy. My dream is to continue to help all sorts of people become happier, whether they have a diagnosed mental illness or are just looking to feel better and get the most out of life. 


THE FIVE STEPS TO HAPPINESS


Over time I have come to realise that there are many things we can do to become happier. I am also of the view that achieving happiness isn’t all that complicated if we break it down into some simple steps. I have developed five steps which, if followed, can help you to feel better. 

Step 1: Understand happiness The first step is to obtain a basic understanding of happiness: know what it is, take some responsibility for our own happiness, and accept that we can all change and improve the way we feel. 

Step 2: Improve your heart Having obtained an understanding of happiness, the question then becomes, what are those tools that we all need to feel great? This brings us to our second and most important step, which is to improve our hearts, which are the centre of nice feelings like love, joy, gratitude and peace. 

Step 3: Improve your thinking While having magnificent hearts is central, our thinking also matters greatly, so the third step is to improve our thinking. 

Step 4: Live well with others Given we are social creatures, much of our happiness also stems from our relationships, so the fourth step is to live well with others. 

Step 5: Look at your lifestyle The final step is to look at our lifestyles. Many of the important lifestyle choices we make have a big impact on how happy we can become. 

These five steps form the remaining sections of this book.

About the author

Dr Ivan Zwart works with his business Happy Ground Wellbeing in Tasmania, Australia. He runs wellbeing programs on a regular basis. While Ivan has had his battles with his mental health over the years, he now has a very enjoyable and full life with his wife Dani, dog Frank, and family and friends. view profile

Published on October 28, 2019

70000 words

Worked with a Reedsy professional 🏆

Genre: Self-help

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