Friday, July 07, 2006


It's been so long since I've left a post on this blog that I'm shocked that I'm actually doing it now! Yack. Wow, that was a mouthful, wasn't it?

Well, here's another mouthful...happiness. Everyone focuses on it, but what does it mean? Thomas Jefferson said in the Declaration of Independence "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." Ever since Jefferson, Americans have believed in their right to the "pursuit of Happiness." When compared with other things that people hope for - health, wealth, success, status - happiness is rated highest for most of us. Along with life and liberty, without which it is largely an irrelevant consideration, happiness is at the very foundation of the American way of life.

Let's run with that thought for a moment. hmmm.... How do we actually view happiness? In addition to wealth - fame, success, youth and beauty are critical components of being happy. Let's face it people! Aren't the young, rich, famous and good-looking happier? Doesn't the one who collects the most toys win the game of life? Maybe Jefferson would have been more prophetic if he used the words "Life, Liberty, and the Purchase of Happiness." hmmm.. For me, it is undeniably enjoyable to go shopping and make great deals. Unfortunately, it is also undeniable that the kind of happiness shopping brings is not long lasting. The excitement fades too quickly an I find myself needing to recreate the joy of the initial experience, so I go out to the sales again and again. So, it's no surprise that I would be happier if I only had more money and a mailing address set up at Macy's.

There's a lesson here, there's got to be. Could the definition of happiness be different then what I thought? Maybe happiness is not what most people suppose it to be. If money, age, health, race, education, employment and geography are typical indicators of happiness, and happiness is relative, then, hmmm, it must follow that circumstances have little to do with happiness.

We have a tendency to compound our problems. We compare ourselves against illusionary standards and thereby increasing the sense of restless dissatisfaction that fuels unhappiness. We strive to keep up with others because they appear to be happier than we are. It turns out that in all the usual areas of comparison, they probably aren't. Here's the problem. We believe them to be. It is this misperception that creates real unhappiness where none existed before. Advertisers exploit our willingness to compare ourselves with the images of others who appear to be better off (and consequently happier) than us. Bombarding us with images of people whose elegant possessions (extravagant lifestyles, gorgeous bodies, harmonious families, etc.) awaken our envy, they enlarge our circle of comparisons and whet our appetites for what others have. This manufactured unhappiness used as a motivator to get us to purchase the "missing" ingredient of our happiness.

It is also believed that we would be happier if we had fewer problems or that once the problem we are immediately facing is resolved, happiness will result. But, damn it, it never quite happens that way. Today's problem is replaced by new problems in an unending procession. We seem barely to have a chance to catch our breath before new challenges confront us. This way of thinking equates problems with unhappiness. Is it possible to establish a problem-free life for any significant length of time? I have to say no.

Sustainable happiness is not the absence of problems. Let's make that clear. No one can avoid problems. Let me re-phrase this: Everybody has problems. Yet we all know people with enormous problems who are happy and people with every advantage who are miserable.

At the most fundamental level, we need to recognize that life is filled with problems. Have I nailed that into your head, yet? (hehe) This existential outlook has percolated through Western culture and has filled volumes. "Life is difficult," are the opening words of M. Scott Peck's The Road Less Traveled. "This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths," Peck writes.

To understand that life means difficulty liberates us because it helps us to understand problems and suffering as natural parts of life, not as signs of our inadequacies. There is a saying, "A small heart gets used to misery and becomes docile, while a great heart towers above misfortune." The fact that life is filled with problems is no reason to be depressed, downhearted or resigned to a miserable fate. Stoicism is not the study of life. The idea is to have life find happiness in the midst of rather in the absence of problems.

To be realistic, achieving happiness takes more than effort. You have to know what happiness is, what it is not, and, most important, have a practical way to get there. So, as they say on Sesame Street "practice, practice, practice!"

"Hell is to drift, heaven is to steer," wrote George Bernard Shaw. The more often you practice happiness, the more you will gain ever-increasing control of your inner state and, consequently, control of your exterior circumstances. You can literally take charge of your own universe and become a master of your fate by mastering your own mind.

I am very close to someone who had/has a lifelong pattern of failed relationships and jobs. She's often deeply discouraged about her future and depressed inside. It's like she's in a state of Hell without hope sometimes. However, when she focuses on a lasting relationship and a meaningful career, forward movement is made. But no matter what she is doing right, she is oftentimes plagued by the self-fulfilling prophecy of failure. Through the years, she has become more aware of her thought processes and she gradually recognized the root of her problem: self-hatred. Her inner critic constantly pestered her with thoughts of self-doubt and worthlessness. She often wonders "Why doesn't anyone love me? What's wrong with me?" As she continued to explore the definition of and practice happiness, she realized that no one cold love her because she didn't love herself. From that point forward she focused her energy on seeing her true self, her great qualities, and her own nature. She came to accept her weaknesses as natural and to witness and acknowledge her unique and wonderful assets. The more she loved and appreciated herself, the more her environment began to reflect that inner change.

Tapping into happiness also means living optimistially. Optimists are healthier and more successful. "No empowerment is so effective as self-empowerment" wrote Harvard University historian and economist David S. Landes in his book, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor. "In this world, the optimists have it, not because they are always right, but because they are always positive. Even when wrong, they are positive, and that is the way to achievement."

Feeling fulfilled is one of the many ways to practice the experience of happiness. It arises from realizing yourself and helping others to realize potential in life and exerting yourself to make it a reality. Let's call it compassion. Living on a path of helping others is living a compassionate life and that deepens the river of happiness flowing through you. Living without compassion, however, is a shallow existence. So let's keep reminding each other of that little (big) "c" word, OK?

Here's a quote from George Bernard Shaw again, from Man and Superman: "This is the true joy in life,the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of nature instead of a feverish selfish clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world ill not devote itself to make you happy."

So, here's what I want you to take from all this psycho babble. Whether we feel happy or unhappy ultimately depends on us. Without changing our state of life, we cannot find true happiness. But when we do change our inner state, our whole world is transformed. The means for accomplishing this transformation is practicing happiness, the cornerstone of life. We practice happiness to achieve our human revolution, to reform beliefs we harbor, and to summon the inner strength to transcend ascend our personal difficulties and help others. Let's keep it going.

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