If there’s one thing that human beings share in common, it’s that we all just want to be happy. Seems simple enough, doesn’t it?
But what if happiness isn’t what we think it is? What if we’re all chasing, seeking the wrong thing in the wrong places, and making ourselves stressed, sick and very very unhappy in the process?
According to Melli O’Brien, a mindfulness & meditation teacher from Australia, it’s a core mistaken belief about just what happiness is and where it comes from that keeps so many of us locked in an endless cycle of doing, working, seeking and over-consuming. Research study after research study tells us what we are already know at a gut level; we are not getting happier.
Instead, we are becoming sadder, sicker and ever more self-destructive. The loneliness epidemic, rising levels of depression, anxiety and addictions, and a planet on the brink of a severe environmental crisis as a result of our consumerist ways – if we in the developed world have so much access to happiness, why aren’t we doing better?
Perhaps we need to first clarify what happiness is before we can fully understand the most effective ways to manifest it in our lives.
O’Brien believes we are confusing two very different kinds of happiness when we use the word, and that by understanding the difference between the two, we can discern which actions and activities will bring about lasting, meaningful happiness.
Pleasure vs. Fulfilment
Melli believes many of us have confused happiness with the more fleeting experience of pleasure, such as when we feel excitement or anticipation, enjoy a pleasant physical sensation (think food, sex), or anytime we feel gratified when we get something we wanted.
We are hardwired for pleasure, and there is nothing inherently wrong with seeking it out. We are physical and emotional beings, and savouring the many pleasures this world has to offer is everyone’s birthright. But because pleasure is a feeling, it will naturally ebb and flow, coming and going and changing with the circumstances of our lives as all feelings do, in spite of how hard we may try to cling to it or make it stay.
Fulfilment on the other hand, according to O’Brien, is:
“…feeling whole, deeply satisfied and profoundly alive. This is not just a just a fleeting feeling. It’s a background sense of ease and aliveness that sinks into your bones and takes up residence inside you like warm sunshine. Fulfilment stays with you through the natural ups and downs of a human life. In essence, it is a feeling of being full, enough, whole and deeply connected with life.”
The distinction between the two meanings is of profound importance when it comes to cultivating happiness in our lives. When what one is truly seeking is lasting fulfilment, but one mistakenly looks for it in the ephemeral pleasures of materialism, financial success, sex, food and other forms of instant gratification, what we are actually doing is trying to ‘pleasure our way to fulfilment’ as O’Brien suggests. We search endlessly outside ourselves, struggling with the circumstances of our lives, working harder, being busier, striving further, all for the love, belonging and wholeness – the fulfilment – that already exists inside each of us.
How do we uncover the deeper happiness that resides within us? There are two primary means of access: present moment awareness, and living authentically.
Present Moment Awareness
Modern new age teachings and the ancient traditions have been telling us for thousands of years that true happiness comes with being fully present in the moment, awake to the the now. Even recent research out of Harvard University agrees; when we are fully awake to who we are, and reside fully in the present moment, we are at our most happy.
Cultivating present moment awareness (mindfulness) can begin with something as simple as a 5-minute-a-day meditation practice, yoga, breathing exercises, or any activity that allows the past and future to fall away, such as immersing ourselves in something we love (think painting, gardening).
Awakening to who we really are, discovering our core values, and living in integrity with our deepest nature, rather than living according to what others expect or what we think we must do in order to fit in, means living authentically.
When there is a divide between our core values (who we truly are) and the way we think, speak and act out in the world, this integrity gap can make us feel anxious, discontented and unsatisfied. We are literally distanced from ourselves, and it feels… off. The larger the integrity gap, the more agitated and unhappy we are likely to feel. It’s often these unpleasant feelings that send us off in search of ‘things’ to make us feel better, even if only for a brief respite.
For lasting fulfilment and happiness, we must work to narrow the integrity gap until we are behaving, thinking and breathing as our true, authentic selves in every moment of our lives. We’ll know we’re doing this when our actions just ‘feel right’, and when we feel centered in our own power.
The experiences of real joy, connection, wholeness, and happiness are our birthrights, and are effortlessly uncovered in our lives when we stop searching for them in temporary pleasures, and instead work to remain in the present moment as expressions of our true, authentic selves.