We all just want to be happy so how come so many people are miserable?
As I said in my pervious post the foundation of happiness is, understanding how to approach pain when it arrives, and be kind to yourself as you move gently and firmly through the pain.
But if all we do is deal with pain we’re not likely to find the happiness we seek. And to seek happiness is part of this condition we call human.
So we need to practice happiness regularly, like a small child who knows and does without ever learning.
Happiness is like the proverbial elephant and sometimes we are blind to our own narrow version of happiness. We can believe that we are holding and leading the elephant by the trunk only to wake up with elephant crap all over our face because we were holding the other end. Well perhaps you’re too smart for that to happen but I know it’s happened to me, often.
Although happiness is our birthright most of us have lost sight of what or how to be truly happy by the time we arrive at kindergarten.
So here I’m going to unpack a few versions of happiness (in brief) for you to consider and draw your own conclusion as to whether your particular version of happiness is sustainable and nourishing or just that old bluebird of crappiness come to shit on your shoulder.
This version has become the most popular practice of happiness in our culture. Advertising uses this cult of happiness by possession, to sell us happiness through anything from a new car to a MacDonald’s hamburger. They sell us this version of happiness that sings, buy this, have this, and you too can be happy. Even though we may not believe this rationally the messages usually speak to our non rational side, emotions of fear or longing or love for family, all the things tied up with our happiness, or lack of happiness.
The sneaky message in this is that if you don’t have this car, this new vacuum cleaner, gourmet coffee you wont be happy. So when you feel unhappy, or some emotion not equated with happiness, you are likely to reach out for this thing you must have to make you happy, to have happiness.
When we feel unhappy we look and reach for something to change that.
The reason this one has such a big hook is that is based in the experience of pleasure, or fleeting happiness. When you buy a new pair of shoes you get some instant pleasure, aka feel happy. But the happiness factor is in that one fleeting moment of having, possessing that object of desire, but then there is already another thing you desire swimming before your eyes, probably on a flat screen or perhaps in your imagination.
This is the spin of having happiness with a need to possess that can keep you running around in circles.
Doing happiness means doing things that you love to do to make yourself happy. This version of happiness can be a valuable practice to cultivate happiness or it can become another spin.
This requires more effort than the first version, and in taking the initiative to go for a walk or bike ride, take a photography class, meet a friend for coffee, you have already changed your state.
At the heart of misery is stuckness, so getting moving or focusing on something you can do helps.
Here’s the rub, if you keep doing something to make yourself feel better, to get away from pain or misery, or have a dose of happiness, it can become an addiction.
Drugs and alcohol are the most common example. We take a pill, puff on something, or have a drink, to take away the pain or to feel relaxed, happier, it gives us pleasure. But then we find we can’t do without it. Our happiness becomes entangled with the drug.
Even healthy practices and activities can become addictive if we can’t do without them and may be masking a sneaky version of happiness that is keeping us in a loop outside true happiness. Just something to think about.
Waiting for happiness
This is tied to if then, when, but thinking. I will be happy when X is here or I have X, Y or Z. I can’t be happy until that happens. Yes this is nice, but I don’t have X yet so I’m not really happy is how the thinking goes. X can be anything from losing weight to having a relationship, to getting job or finishing the renovation on the house.
It is the most passive approach to happiness, almost like the other side of pursuing happiness. It can begin life as a kind of oh well I can learn to be happy no matter what, which is like the antidote to pursuing happiness, which as we said can lead you on a wild goose chase up a tree, or with elephant crap on your head.
Waiting for happiness can become the burnt chop scenario where you honestly tell yourself you don’t need anything to be happy, that you can be happy with whatever life throws at you. I don’t believe it when people (including myself) tell me this. Instead it is usually a reaction to fear of taking a risk to say what you want or reach for it, or some kind of avoidance.
Detachment is not about not having wants and needs. To be human means to have wants and needs. Detachment is about how you react when those wants are frustrated or how you can learn to accept and adapt when your needs aren’t met. But we can’t pretend we don’t have wants and needs.
Here is the one at the heart of sustainable happiness.
Somewhere between pursuing happiness, going after and doing what gives us joy and pleasure, and waiting for happiness, or taking whatever life gives us and being happy with it, is being happy. Sounds easy, but its not.
Being happy is more like trekking along a winding path up a steep mountain, than a walk in the park. It takes effort.
It requires learning to hold your pain gently and at the same time choosing, again and again, to turn towards happiness, whatever is coming at us.
At first it may look like pursuing happiness because it has a seeking or orienting quality. Turning towards whatever happiness is available now is different to pursuing an exclusive version of happiness that is somewhere off in the distance.
Being happy comes more from within rather than looking outward for something to fill us up. It’s like finding and cultivating the quality of feeling happy that we experience in our activities or relationships instead of focusing on the other person, object, activity that elicits that feeling of happiness. In other words happiness is a state we experience in response to the world and we can cultivate that state and practice it rather than waiting for it to land, or pursuing it like chasing an elephants tail.
It is more like cultivating a garden than going out and buying the flower. The flowers may not be perfect and we have to keep weeding but the happiness comes in the growing not only in the having.
What you cultivate in your garden is different for everyone, what brings happiness is different for each of us, but the how of sustainable happiness is pretty much the same.
Here are some of the principles that you probably know already that cultivate sustainable happiness:
It is only, only available in the present moment.
It always has an element of gratitude for something. The orientation is on what you have rather than focusing on what you don’t have or what is wrong. That’s why cultivating gratitude is a simple practice for cultivating happiness.
It comes from within. If your happiness is dependent on someone else then it will be very fleeting and outside anything you can control.
For example, needing a relationship to be happy is like both ends of the elephant stick, having or pursuing happiness by finding the one perfect relationship, as well as waiting for it. It is a fast path to misery. This belief that one perfect love relationship is the only thing that will make you happy is often an avoidance of the pain of loneliness. It requires some work with the first foundation of sustainable happiness, which is to learn how to hold your pain gently and keep moving through it.
The other thing about waiting for a relationship means that you are focused on the future and not on the present and instead of finding gratitude for what you have you are longing for what you don’t have, this is the best recipe for misery that I’ve seen around the playground, of life that is.
Acceptance that everything, everything has it’s pluses and minuses. In other words nothing is perfect, even though the pasture might look greener over there and the elephants bigger, so is the elephant crap.
The only worthwhile perfection is in finding the beauty in the moment of whatever is happening. And knowing that life is not a photograph, snapped in a perfect moment that we can edit in Photoshop. Life is a messy conglomeration of good, bad and ugly, along with profound beauty and mystery.
I know there are more qualities that we could add to the mix of how to cultivate being happy, but I’ll leave that up to you to investigate.
There are many people writing about it. I touch on it in my book, i-brainmap, freeing your brain for happiness in the section in sustainable happiness.
Rick Hanson writes on this topic and you can visit his website and sign up for his blog. And if you don’t already know the work of Tara Brach she always has some words of deep wisdom to offer on the subject of pain and happiness, and life in general.
Me, I’m just going out for a walk to watch the day unfold in the light gleaming through the trees, and perhaps write down the beautiful in a poem or a song.
May you be happy, do-be-do-happy-you-be…..
Ok a very bad song…….