It’s not just for your sake.
Happiness depends more on the inner disposition of mind than on outward circumstances” – Benjamin Franklin
In case you hadn’t noticed, there’s been a wealth of information recently in the form of books, TV shows, CDs, DVDs, magazine articles, and even movies on a subject that is near and dear to everyone’s heart. The subject is happiness. I’m not sure why it is that there seems to be more interest in happiness these days than there has been in the past. I don’t believe that it’s a reflection of a trend toward greater narcissism and self-centeredness in our culture, nor that it is simply a temporary fad that will pass when people find something else to concern themselves with. And that’s a good thing, because a world with more happy people enhances the quality of life for us all.
Although happiness has been an essential aspect of the American consciousness since the inception of our nation when we were first informed that it’s pursuit was a fundamental right of all US citizens, it has never seemed quite proper or respectable to acknowledge how much we desire, even crave this experience. Perhaps it’s out of a fear of appearing overly self- absorbed or unenlightened. Perhaps it’s because in acknowledging that we deeply desire happiness we implicitly admit that we don’t have as much of it as we want, and that may feel shameful or embarrassing. Or perhaps it’s because we’ve grown up believing that good people shouldn’t care too much about their own happiness but rather should be more concerned about the well-being of others.
Religious doctrines aside, there’s a fair amount of evidence that we humans are predisposed to favor pleasurable experiences be they mental, physical, or emotional, over those that are unpleasant. This predisposition seems to be hardwired into us. Feelings of happiness not only enhance our sense of well-being but as scientists have proven, promote changes on a physiological level in our bodies. Chemicals and endorphins flood our bodies when we experience well-being and fulfillment. Happiness gives our cells the message that life is good and reaffirms our commitment to being alive in ways that can enrich not only our quality of life, but our actual physical health, and even affect our longevity. His Holiness the Dalai Lama himself has been quoted as saying “The purpose of life is to be happy.”
So, I think it’s great that our longing for happiness is not a reflection of selfishness, but rather an expression of our humanness, and that it is finally coming out of the closet, and that increasing numbers of us are unabashedly acknowledging this desire and committing ourselves to becoming more fulfilled and joyful in our own lives.
In our book, 101 Things I Wish I Knew When I Got Married, number 4 is “The greatest gift that you can give your own partner is your own happiness.” While some people might see this statement as being grandiose, I think it is rather modest and that a more accurate phrasing of it would be that the greatest gift that you can give the WORLD is your own happiness. What the world doesn’t need is more sacrificing martyrs who forgo their happiness in order to fulfill a vision of nobility or righteousness, but inwardly feel resentful and unfulfilled.
Not only are personal happiness and generosity towards others not mutually excusive, they are inextricably linked. The happier one is, the more inclined he or she is to share their inner and outer resources with others. Happy people naturally contribute to the overall well-being of those around them, not just by what they do, but by who they are. Those who are uncomfortable around happy people or who resent them often do so because they are, for whatever reasons, denying themselves the feelings of well-being that these people are expressing and that may be activating feelings of envy or anger.
When we stop denying ourselves the experiences that promote happiness and the feelings that go along with them, we stop resenting those that are happy, and feel enhanced and enriched by them. The Buddhists have a term for this phenomenon. They call it “sympathetic joy” and it has to do with taking pleasure in others’ happiness. The opposite of this is known as Schadenfreude, which has to do with taking pleasure in others’ pain or misfortune. When we don’t honor our innate drive for happiness, we secretly wish for others to suffer or fail. Since this tendency feels shameful, we do our best to conceal it. We pretend that we want the best for everyone, even when we may secretly harbor an entirely different intent. The best cure for Schadenfreude is a commitment to our own happiness and well-being which will inevitably lead to a dedication to the well-being of others, not just those closest to us, but to all beings.
When we live in this mindset, we don’t see the world in terms of allies and adversaries, heroes and zeroes, or friends and enemies, but rather as a place in which we are all connected by common needs, desires, concerns, and feelings, with each of us doing what we believe will bring about greater fulfillment and less suffering in our own life.
Sylvia Boorstein, whose best-selling book, Happiness is an Inside Job, agrees with Ben Franklin’s assertion that external circumstances are less relevant to our quality of well being than our inner state of mind or mental attitude. Not that either of these two wise elders claims that we should or even can be continually joyful.
While as Ben Franklin says, external circumstances are less relevant to our level of happiness, there is little if any possibility that any of us can experience a life that is completely and permanently free of any and all unhappiness. Life for all of us inevitably contains some suffering and some circumstances are powerful enough to derail even our clearest intentions to be happy. Life sometimes hands us situations that, despite our best efforts, feel overwhelming or completely unmanageable. At these times, surrendering resistance and control may be the wisest thing that we can do. If we can do this, at the very least we won’t unnecessarily prolong or aggravate an already difficult situation which will in time, inevitably pass.
Managing our thoughts and choosing our attitude doesn’t guarantee happiness, but it does enable us to be less affected by outside forces and to have more influence over the moods that possess us. The best medicine for happiness is a balanced and unconfused mind that neutralizes much of suffering by promoting feelings of benevolence and compassion within ourselves and others.
In our busy daily lives, finding even a few moments of inner quiet and peace can be a daunting challenge, but the good news is that even a few minutes can be enough to cool our hyperactive thinking and bring about greater clarity and understanding. It’s possible, even in the most hectic of schedules to take a brief break, pause, and check into our inner experience and actually feel our feelings, acknowledge and sense our physical sensations, and become mindful of our thoughts. Such reflection interrupts and weakens habituated thought patterns that may create anxiety and confusion. This may not always be enough to put you into a mood of ecstatic bliss, but it will at least put a little more breathing room into your life. And that sure beats the alternative!