As is sometimes the case when a person first hears what I do for a living, the lady sat next to me at a dinner party began to declare her various reasons (excuses) for not having achieved what she’d expected from life. Though at fifty she was far from old, there was a certain resignation in her assumptions that her best years were long behind. When I could listen to her whining no more (for her sake, as well as mine and our host’s), I interrupted, ‘OK, I’ve heard what you haven’t done and don’t have, but what is it that you really want from your life?’
Her reply, ‘I just want to be happy’.
I dropped my head in my hand and shook it a little theatrically. ‘Not you as well?’ I groaned.
When you next check the dictionary you will find that it fails quite miserably to describe what happiness is: ‘noun: the state of being happy’. Yeah, but what is this state and why does it seem so elusive to so many people?
Just as I am writing these words, I caught a glimpse out of my home-office window of my wife returning from the school run on her bicycle. In the front seat is my three-year-old, mouth covered in what looks like chocolate and eyes shining through a sparkling sequined mask, complimented by his orange safety helmet.
In that split second of viewing this whirring vision of almost everything that matters most to me, I felt it – zing – happiness, a quick jolt of the finest electrochemical orchestration known to (this) man.
Tell me if I’m wrong (and I all too often am) but happiness rarely comes when we seek it?
Even Buddhists, the world’s elite experts in such states, attain their experience from a disciplined practice of wanting nothing, or at least not much at all. I’ve meditated many hundreds of hours over my lifetime, and I know that the fastest way to ruin a good sitting practice is to chase the end result, rather than simply being in it. Chasing happiness is a bit like chasing a nervous chicken. The closer you get, the speedier it flaps away.
Not that this stops an entire industry from selling the idea that you can get/be/acquire happiness for the price of a workshop or book. What self help-guru wouldn’t want to promote (to an insatiable audience) the dream of success and happiness; those Siamese twinned concepts that we wish could be picked straight from the shelf of life.
It seems that for a majority, regardless of how much money we throw at the happiness product range, or bow deep to the many gurus, few folks will actually attain what they seek.
The lady at dinner, surprised and maybe a little offended, asked me, ‘are you saying you don’t want to be happy?’
I replied, ‘not as much as I want to be relaxed, productive, engaged, curious, autonomous, self directed, optimistic, compassionate, caring, and any other number of approaches that I have the ability to choose, rather than hope for the arrival of’.
Then I ate some more of the delicious food in front of me.
Maybe Happiness is elusive because in the real world, it’s not a noun as the dictionary claims, but a neurological process often triggered by rare and unexpected events. It can also be confused with experiences of satisfaction, or love or some other state that really cannot be accurately labeled, if it was even possible to label any state accurately at all.
When we generate happiness it’s most often as a consequence of the attitudes, approaches and meaning we apply to each day. If you think about my dinner time claim of desiring to be relaxed, productive, engaged, curious, autonomous, self directed, optimistic, compassionate, caring and the likes, it is because all of those forms of experience are achievable by my own hand.
- We can relax by ensuring that our breath and physiology (posture, muscular position etc) is even, regular and without tension, regardless of the context we find ourselves in. We can also learn to effectively reframe what we assume to be stressful events and make them something else altogether (more on this in a future blog).
- We can be productive by a limitless number of paths… starting with throwing the TV out, and blocking all social media for hours per day- as if you could?
- To be engaged with the world requires that we get better at asking questions, and creating direct experiences, rather than second hand ones-from the TV you just threw out.
- Well-formed questions are the tools of champions (or bright three year olds who want to know EVERYTHING) and the simplest way to utilize our curiosity in the world.
- Autonomy and self-direction may become THE most essential attitudes and approaches in the years ahead, as the old world paradigms of education, finance, career and government get chewed up and spat out. Learn to do one thing really well so that it provides you a foundation to live without recourse to your employers or governments.
- Optimists have been shown in numerous studies to live longer. If that’s not important to you, know that where we place our attention will influence our experiences and outcomes in life. If you find yourself being pessimistic, you can again change the frame and ask, what’s the positive value of this?</li>
- Compassion and caring aren’t for everyone. Life is often a matter of basic survival for many folks. But life is also a series of moments that can only be lived each step at a time, and rarely will any of us get to experience moments of value as life-affirming as when we exercise our compassion in the world. Maybe it has something to do with our mirror neurons reflecting back our actions, or maybe nature hard wired us this way to ensure team survival. Either way, doing good deeds comes with some pretty wonderful feedback to our neurology.These (and other) specific target states, attitudes and approaches of mine are relatively straight forward to achieve because they have a clear pattern or set of steps to achieve them.
But happiness, how do you go about creating that?
I often wonder if what some people are looking for in their lives isn’t actually happiness, but rather the absence of sadness, misery, boredom or helplessness?
Wouldn’t it be good to replace desperation, sadness, misery etc with happiness, like a warn out engine part?
If you’re willing to give up the world of Sex, media, career, relationships, money, bubblegum and lipstick, and instead go sit cross legged and straight backed for 10,000 hours or more in a monastery, you might be able to generate real happiness on command – maybe.
However, even if happiness is a state that a person could experience all or most of the time, would that be useful? Wouldn’t we miss the meaning in sad movies, the tides of stirring music and the call to action from unjust deeds?
Its also important to remember that the states we experience consciously and label as fear, sadness or whatever, are signals from the primitive parts of our neurology and that to override all unwanted signals with permanent happiness would be dangerous. Happiness is the last feeling you want when your intuition is urging you to walk away from the danger that is brewing in a bar, or when someone is lying to you to get what he or she wants. Similarly, when we experience seeing other people suffer, happiness is far from appropriate as it is unlikely to compel us to take action to relieve that suffering.
Did I just save you 10,000 hours?
My experience is that we’d all be popping in and out of happiness a lot more if we stopped chasing it. Instead, how about getting really honest with ourselves about what makes us un-happy?
Some suggestions: boredom, excess stuff, chasing fame/status/money/glory instead of meaning, disconnect from nature, comparing ourselves to others, meanness, dogmatic obedience, carrying useless beliefs, gossiping, reading celebrity magazines, dieting, living for tomorrow at the expense of today… all these activities will likely have you craving the H state more often than not.
I offered another question to the lady at dinner, ‘what made her so unhappy?’ After all, this was someone who is married to a hugely successful LA producer who wants for nothing, from the material world at least.
Her reply, ‘I miss our children, and … you don’t realize how fast they grow up and how little you appreciate them until they are gone’.
‘I also miss having something to fight for. We struggled when we were younger but it was satisfying in a tiring way’.
I asked, ‘do you think it would make you happier if you were poor again and your children came home to live with you?’
She giggled at the absurdity of both ideas, and drank some more of the exceptionally good wine.
‘So, tell me, she continued… speaking of misery, what do you Brit’s think of Donald Trump?’