Fact: Most people cannot say that lead happy lives.
Though they may find happiness in fleeting moments, their relationships, work and personal lives leave them feeling empty.
Fact: Much of the well-intended research and content on happiness doesn’t help.
Because it relies too heavily on platitudes, koans, and nebulous spiritualisms. These lead one to believe they are, for whatever reason, incapable of unwrapping some thinly veiled, secret knowledge. Eventually frustrated, they turn away and stop seeking, stop listening. Perhaps resigning themselves to the nihilistic message: “Life is hard and then you die”.
Why is this?
Because the entire concept of happiness has been distorted: Confused with states of mind like nirvana, elation, bliss, etc. And while a happy life certainly sets the stage for these fleeting emotional experiences, the expectation that anyone can render themselves completely immune from the difficulties of modern life causes humanity to seek solace in all kinds of destructive behaviors like: experimentation with drugs; meaningless sex with multiple partners; spending sprees that run up the credit card balance; addiction to foods; dangerous adrenaline producing activities like street racing, skydiving, rock climbing and so on. Activities that eventually may lead the participants farther from their ultimate goal.
That is not to say that all fun is bad. Certainly not. But fun that carries with it a high degree of risk, tempts fate and threatens to destroy any chance of a life balance that might actually set the stage for happiness to thrive.
Chasing that perpetual high as if we could actually catch it is like trying to run toward the horizon. The closer you get, the more it retreats from you.
How should we view happiness to bring it into greater alignment with reality?
Step out of our lives to take a broader view of the human condition. Our parents, teachers, mentors and counselors bored us to death by admonishing us to reflect on how many other people are so much worse off then ourselves. And though this can easily be written off as a pointless intellectual exercise, it is actually useful to consider the many millions of other innocent men, women and children without a place to call home, without healthy food or clean water, without basic sanitation or freedom from violence.
Losing perspective of this robs us of a basic fact:
That it is truly difficult to find happiness when we are hungry, thirsty, have no shelter, or ability to bathe ourselves. And yet, happiness survives.
Even among the most oppressed, when their basic human needs have been denied, happiness can still be experienced through the miracle of cold water, to quench the thirst, a safe, warm place to sleep, a nutritious meal with friends and family or a cease fire that raises a hope of peace.
Yet, for you, here at home, dealing with life in the fast lane, reflecting on others' misfortunes seems of little comfort when you lose a job, when a primary relationship fails or suddenly ends, when your health takes a turn for the worse, when unexpected expenses threaten to impact you financially. These do indeed lead to real emotional trauma.
Until you translate these abstract concept into action, move the set point at which you choose to be happy.
When you assume that food, shelter, water and safety are guaranteed and a matter of entitlement, these things no longer bring happiness. Therefore, we unwittingly place our set point beyond those basic needs. “Yes, I am safe, warm and healthy, so what? I don’t have ______________ “ (fill in the blank). We are unable to recognize all the we DO have and find gratitude in that.
Regardless of your political view of the refugee crisis now playing out on the world stage, refugees are forced to leave their homes, families, language, cultures, foods, memories, everything that has made them who they are. They are forced to start over, forced to learn a new language, to get used to new customs and foods, forced to find new housing, to learn how to drive or how to use the bus. So many things that we take for granted they must struggle and fight to attain, while coping with the emotions of being displaced, pushed out, reliving the horror of loved ones who disappeared or were lost to violence. And yet, they go to school, they learn the language, they find work and often start businesses. And yes, they somehow, once again, find happiness.
Now let’s look at your situation:
You say you’re unlucky: You have a bed, food in the refrigerator, a place to bathe and hopefully your health. These are not small things. In the overall human experience, these account for 99% of our needs. And you are lucky to have them.
You say you’re misunderstood: We are all misunderstood. No one can truly know us except ourselves. Seek not to receive understanding and compassion from others, seek it instead from within. The most you can do is deal fairly with others, honestly. Speak your desires and intentions clearly and the rest is beyond your control. Your happiness arises in this area from knowing that you have integrity. That you have treated others as you would wish to be treated.
You say things are hopeless: Life is unpredictable and is full of surprises. I have read about and experienced being at an extremely low point in life when serendipitously, the arrival of a new idea, a chance opportunity or an unexpected meeting turned everything around. Hope is a faith in the energetic productivity of life. Look around you. Everywhere you see life emerging and thriving. Yes, there is violence and destruction, but there is also cooperation and creation happening everywhere in the cosmos. Your responsibility is to remain open to that inevitability. If you see life as a wave, dipping and rising, ebbing and flowing, then you know there will be low and high points. You must accept that as a reality of life and not place a value judgement on it. Good, bad, right, wrong, etc.
If we were to say that dark is bad and light is good, then we would curse the night sky. But it is precisely because of that darkness that we can see the light emanating from stars light years away.
So to conclude: Happiness does not arise from the sum total of things that are happening to you, but rather from who you are, what you choose to believe and what you make happen. Happiness also arises from laying down a firm, integrated foundation. By that I mean consuming in moderation; keeping emotions in check; getting plenty of rest; evaluating, pruning or nourishing our relationships to others; keeping our channels open for knowledge and wisdom to stream in; cleaning, organizing and maintaining our personal space. And most of all, not undervaluing, but rather having gratitude for the simple, yet fundamental building blocks of human life: health, food and shelter. When all else seems against us, we can still find happiness in the knowledge that we will ride out this storm and turn it into and opportunity to prepare ourselves for the moment when Nature’s cycles will inevitably carry us aloft again.
Shane Eric Mathias