Happiness and Meaning

At present, there are nearly fifteen thousand books in print exploring happiness.  As if that were not enough, there are another 65 million web pages on the subject.  This banquet reveals two things.  First, everybody wants to be happy.  Second, mankind has yet to crack the code on what guarantees happiness.

As far as I can tell, the singular pursuit of happiness is a destructive behavior in itself.  Most human emotions exist in contrasting pairs.  Happiness and sadness, contentment and anger, love and hate.  If we managed to completely eliminate everything negative, then we could never truly experience ecstasy.  Happiness is something that is experienced, not pursued, as you live your life fully mindful of each moment.

You can create a mindset and an environment that will allow you to capture the moments of happiness as they arise.  Here is an approach.

Today and every day, find meaning and joy in large and small things

People appreciate what they have and resent what they do not.  However, remind yourself to be grateful both for what you do have as well as for what you do not.  This allows you to shift your mindset from the negative to the positive.  For example, if you live in a small, one-bedroom home, you might waste your days resenting the fact that you do not reside in a mansion.  Instead, you would be much better off focusing on the gift you have been given of not being homeless.

There is an excellent Jewish folk take that drives this point home.  A poor farmer along with his wife and an army of children and relatives are crammed together in a one room shack.  When he goes to his Rabbi to express his misery and seek advice, the farmer is instructed by the sage to bring a chicken into the house.  Of course, this only makes things worse. The man returns to the Rabbi who tells him to also bring in the family goat.  And so it goes day after day, animal on top of animal, until the living conditions become truly insufferable.  At last, the Rabbi tells the farmer to remove all of the animals.  In the end, the man learns to appreciate the relative space and quiet that he had to begin with.

In addition to finding joy in what is not, you should strive to perceive the hidden potential in all things.  Buddhists have a term – emptiness – that encapsulates this principle.  Emptiness highlights that nothing has an inherent positive or negative quality.  More concretely, people assign qualities to tangibles and intangibles based on perception and interpretation.  Take the feeling one has when lying down in a tranquil, flower filled meadow.  For many, this represents the peak of relaxation.  For the extreme allergy sufferer, it might be the incarnation of hell on earth.  Even in sorrow, there can be joy.  Consider the loss of a spouse after fifty years of close companionship.  The survivor can dwell on his or her grief or appreciate that the deceased loved one did not have to suffer the loneliness of being the last to go.

All too often, people cannot experience happiness because they are caught up either in the pain of the past or the promise of the future.  Again, Buddhists come to the rescue with the principle of mindfulness.  This concept teaches us to be fully engaged in the present.  Right now, you are just reading (and hopefully enjoying) a book.  Spending time thinking about how you got here and where you are going is not going to make you happy.

Searching for one true meaning of life is another major barrier to experiencing happiness.  Though a long range meaning to your life may exist, it may or may not reveal itself – and if it does, will do so only at the end.  Rather than a being source of stress, the quest to find meaning is a primary motivational force.  Embrace the tension this striving creates as necessary for mental health.  To free yourself from the tyranny of searching for a single purpose, ask not “What is the meaning of life?” but rather “What are the meanings in life?”  Meanings differ from person to person, from day to day, and from hour to hour.  According to existential psychologist and World War II concentration camp survivor Victor Frankl, meanings are found in three areas.  First, meanings exist in the work you do.  Second, meanings exist in your relationships – especially with the people whom you love.  Third, meanings exist in the positive “why” behind unavoidable suffering.  For example, a mother dies in childbirth so that her daughter can survive.  Finally, before you get yourself all twisted around, you must accept that meaning does not exist in every task, relationship, and situation.  Sometimes, you just have to relax and smell the roses.

Today and every day, enjoy and show appreciation for your friends, family, and fellow human beings

Taking the time to show appreciation for others has both selfless and selfish benefits.  On the selfless side, your gift of gratitude makes other people feel better about themselves and their value in the world.  On the selfish side, every show of appreciation that you provide is another seed you have sown.  Some seeds will shrivel.  Others will thrive.  The more you plant, the greater the chance that you will reap rewards in the future.  Remember that appreciation comes not only through actions and words, but also from thoughts.

One of the most compelling though often overlooked ways to show appreciation is bringing other people together.  Go the extra mile by giving them ideas and helping them to succeed.

Today and every day, follow your dreams and true purpose

What things would you consider worth doing today if it were your last?  Take the time to answer that question to set yourself on the right path.  As you proceed, you will need to arm yourself with defenses against self-doubt so that you can continue taking calculated risks.

Remember that the journey is the reward.  Stated from another perspective, where you are going is here.  Limit unrealistic expectations of yourself and instead take the time to appreciate everything that you have done so far.  You are not alone in wondering “How did I get here and when are they going to see that I am a fraud?”  Yet, know, truly know, that trying and staying in the game are what matters.

To be able to follow your dreams, you must live for self-recognition, not the recognition of others.  In the end, success is based on the quality of what you do and who you are as a human being.

Limit your expectations about the behavior of others

Learning to abandon expectations of yourself while you are on a journey in pursuit of your dreams is only half the battle.  The other half is releasing expectations about the behavior of others.  If you have ever said to yourself, “I cannot believe that Jane did that!”, then you are guilty as charged.

Every individual has a dynamic set of behaviors.  Rather than become fixated by someone else in the short term or, worse still, the long term, accept that you simply may not understand their motivations.  Generally people act in an internally consistent manner and though often selfish are rarely malicious.  Most of the time, the song is simply not about you.

Recap

Here are the concepts you can immediately apply to create a mindset and an environment that will allow you to capture the moments of happiness as they arise:

  • Today and every day, find meaning and joy in large and small things
  • Today and every day, enjoy and show appreciation for your friends, family, and fellow human beings
  • Today and every day, follow your dreams and true purpose
  • Limit your expectations about the behavior of others

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