Where Should You Be Looking For Happiness?
Cliches abound recently, as is typical of well-meaning January. Whilst deciding once again that I’m not really one for New Year’s resolutions, I reflected a bit on a few of the things we’re generally nudged towards as paragons of the good life; most commonly ‘happiness’. This word is fired at us from just about every angle from almost every self-help guru, book or well-meaning relative. They are staples; easy to trot out like ‘eat your greens’ or ‘get some exercise’.
Here’s my take on happiness. Don’t look for it, don’t chase it, don’t expect it or think that you are owed it just because you follow some prescriptive advice. Happiness is not a goal, it’s a side effect. And I’m not even sure that the word itself is really enough to do justice to what it is we really want when we think we’re looking for it.
What is happiness? Is it that rush of dopamine we get when we are with a special someone? Is it how we feel when we win the lottery or our team wins or we’ve just been for a run? Is it the opposite of loneliness or sadness or loss? What does it really mean to be happy?
For me, happiness is typically defined by short-term wins; spikes in our happy hormones, our rewards systems lighting up like Christmas trees. If you do this prescribed thing then you’ll be happy. For a while.
But I think what we really mean when we say we want to be happy is something a little more long-term. We want a general glow to be a default state, don’t we? To feel pretty much OK with the world pretty much all the time, not just after a bowl of crunchy nut cornflakes and then back to the usual grump until our morning Facebook post starts pinging with likes and we get a burst of ‘happy’ again. For a while.
Happiness is ethereal and not easy to quantify; it’s also fleeting, beholden to hedonic adaption, the whims of others, external factors. Lasting, consistent happiness is a side effect of a life well lived.
I think the kind of happy we are after looks more like contentment; not worrying so much. Carrying a sense of tranquillity about our day and having the tools to brush aside the obstacles we face, or as I like to call them, the opportunities.
Buddha taught that enlightenment was an end to suffering. He didn’t mean physical pain but the angst of the disquieted mind. Buddhist enlightenment is just tranquillity; peace of mind. Not dissimilar in many ways to the ancient Greek and Roman Stoic philosophers who taught that a life well lived was simple, close to nature, accepting whatever comes our way (amor fati – loving your fate) and living in the moment.
In Japan, the concept of Ikigai coalesces with Victor Frankl’s philosophy that a well-balanced life full of meaning (a meaning that is inside everyone, even if it needs some unearthing) is the secret to a happy life.
The Icelandic (one of the happiest peoples on Earth) have a saying – Petta Reddast – which roughly means, it will all turn out ok and this reminds me of the laid back Thai phrase, Mai pen lai (or Rai in the South) – which kind of means, no worries, or, let it go.
Separated by thousands of years and thousands of miles; the happiest people on Earth, those with the greatest sense of tranquillity, the most peace of mind all have a few core philosophies of life in common. Most importantly they don’t seem to chase happiness like we chase the next mobile phone or a social media confidence vote.
I’m most consistently content not when I’m chasing a distant goal but when I’m regularly doing things that I enjoy with people I love or using meaningful solitude to learn, grow, create or just be.
I’m working on a much bigger piece on this topic, happiness as a side effect, and these are my actual notes, verbatim. It’ll probably mean more to me than to you at this stage but so you get the gist…
Connection – Your community, your tribe, focusing on fountains not drains
Solitude – Meaningful (as in, not with your phone), unplug, self-love, nature, reflection
Movement – Strength, body/mind connection, yoga, walking, being outside
Mindfulness – Meditation, awareness, finding your anchors
Meaning – Finding your raison d’être, Victor Frankl’s idea of real purpose – to survive
Gratitude – You cannot be grateful and angry at the same time
Compassion – Buddhism. If you can’t be kind to yourself, be kind to someone else
Simplify – Walden (in solitude?), Thoreau, minimise your wants
Perspective – Stoicism – our life is what our thoughts make it. And don’t mustabate
Happiness isn’t in one complex place (like your phone), it’s in lots of simple places. And the coolest discovery I’ve made about happiness is that it’s not at the end of a goal, it’s already inside; you already have everything you need, no matter how little you have.
This even bleeds a little into my parenting. There’s a parenting mantra we often trot out: “I just want them to be happy and healthy”. Of course we do. But I’ve lowered the bar here; I just want them to be healthy, content humans. I mean, How many content adult humans do you know? I’d take that.
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