Every single one of us wants to be happy, yet very few of us truly are. The pursuit of happiness is prominently featured in our Declaration of Independence, there are many books and theories on happiness, but happiness continues to be elusive prey.
Why is happiness so hard to find? When we find happiness, why is it so hard to keep? When we so assiduously search for happiness, why do we find ourselves mired in anxiety and depression instead?
Life and Happiness
It is not too difficult to figure out that we get happiness by engaging with self and life. We become happy when we engage in or appreciate the beauty that is all around us, a glorious sunset, a poignant song, a majestic building, a kind neighbor, a playful puppy, a beautiful butterfly. We also get happiness through the process of creation and expression, writing a story, dancing to music, making art, interacting with loved ones, helping others. Happiness comes with embracing life through more passive enjoyment (appreciating) or more active participation (doing).
Each of us is different so the experiences that bring life happiness will also be different. The things we enjoy may change as we grow and mature, but that is also part of the beauty of life. As long as we are engaged, I believe that happiness comes naturally, almost effortlessly.
So why then is happiness so elusive? Why do we expend so much effort trying to find it and keep it, only to come up empty handed?
Happily Ever After
Ironically, the problem with happiness comes as a result of our love for it. When we love, we also fear losing or never attaining that which we love. Our love of happiness causes us to fear not finding or keeping it. If we do not tend to this very natural fear, it will grow and drive us to grasp at and possess happiness permanently. We will want the fairytale ending of living happily ever after, being in love and happy every single moment of our lives for eternity.
This hyper-intention of happiness or fairytale ending is unrealistic and can never be reached. In striving for the unattainable, we fail, become discontented, and miss the realistic moments of true happiness in our lives.
When I was young I went about achieving my fairytale ending by following the well-travelled path of school, college and successful career. I had a plan, I was going to execute it, give it my all, and then some. This is what society teaches us is the path to happiness. If we execute this path well when we are young, we will be all set and live happily ever after. Sadly, this is a load of horse pucky. Of course I was not happy. The world is littered with many rich, successful, talented, and famous people who are deeply unhappy even at the pinnacle of their success.
Happiness is not about money, fame, or anything else in the external world. We all know this at some level, studies show this, and yet we insist on disbelieving it and continue treading that same path over and over again. Note that money and fame are not inherently bad or unhealthy. The key here is the motivation for our striving, whether it comes from a place of fear or a place of love.
A fear driven intention for happiness is extreme, outcome based, uncompromising, intolerant, and not in-step with reality. A love driven intention for happiness is tolerant, process based, and engaged in understanding or deep listening.
When happiness comes, we welcome it and bow to it. When it goes, we say thank you in gratitude and let it go. We learn to welcome and enjoy the next emotion(s) that comes along.
When happiness comes, we grasp at it and try to possess it for all time. When it goes, we panic and frantically try to hold-on to it. When we fail, we pretend, deny, become discontented, angry, depressed, and even more afraid that we will not be able to find happiness again. We blame others, reject our other emotions, and ultimately reject ourselves for failing to permanently hold onto happiness.
Happiness and Fear
When we cling to happiness because we fear being unhappy, we end up pushing happiness further and further away. Fear based desires continue to feed our fears and cause us to withdraw from life. In this case, our fear of being unhappy causes us to reject most of our other emotions because they are “not happiness”.
Since we are not in direct control of our emotions, rejecting large swathes of our feelings will cause us to be discontented most of the time. As soon as we are not happy we blame ourselves, project our blame onto those around us, blame Fate, blame God, or blame Life. We run around madly trying to recapture the happiness of past experiences or trying to copy the perceived happy experiences of others. If we are not as happy as before, we get discontented. If we are not as happy as others, we get discontented.
It is difficult to be happy when we are constantly driven by the fear of being unhappy.
Our discontentment and failure to achieve perfect happiness causes us more suffering, which feeds our fear of being unhappy, leading to more mad running around trying to find ever elusive happiness. When we do things to take our mind away from our unhappiness, there is little enjoyment in doing them because there is no love involved, only fear. Fear breeds more fear and so on until we fall into the chronic blahs, including boredom, discontentment, anxiety, and depression.
We start asking, is this all there is to life? The answer is no, because life need not be controlled by our fears.
How to Be Happy
I have found that there are three main ingredients to happiness –
The first step to happiness is through awareness and mindfulness. To be happy, we first need to be aware of all our emotions, which is to say we want them to rise up to consciousness so that we may identify them and process them in a mindful and healthy manner.
Our conditioning or habit is to avoid our fears and other uncomfortable emotions through the use of automatic defense mechanisms (e.g. repression, denial, displacement). However, doing so leads to fear, envy, anger, or some other strong emotion controlling our decisions and behaviors.
With mindfulness training, we reinsert our consciousness back into the decision making process so that we may respond to difficult feelings from a calm center. In this way, we prevent ourselves from getting caught by our thoughts and emotions. With mental discipline we can self-soothe or regulate our responses and behaviors, as well as weaken the grip of fear and other problematic thoughts and feelings.
As we have discussed previously, the secret to happiness is engagement with life. However, our fears cause us to withdraw from life. Therefore, every time fear tells us to withdraw, we carefully reflect on the situation using our new found mindfulness and awareness skills. If there is no real danger involved, then we override and choose to engage instead. By doing what fear tells us not to, we face our fears and slowly weaken the hold that fear has over us. This process is also known as exposure or paradoxical intention in psychological circles. Note that for exposure to “work” it has to be a deliberate decision from us, not a forced decision or action.
For example, when I first started meditation exercises, I developed a fear for meditation. Sitting silently caused many uncomfortable repressed thoughts and emotions to rise to consciousness (awareness) and this scared the daylights out of me. To face my fear of feeling bad, I deliberately decided to continue with meditation through the feelings of fear. Each time I faced this fear, the pattern weakened slightly, then a bit more, and so on until meditation became easier, more comfortable. Through repetition, I built a greater tolerance for fear and a greater understanding of the source of that fear.
From there, I started facing more and more of my fears and in the process I learned more and more about myself. I faced the fears of my childhood, including the fear of fear (hypersensitivity to the physical symptoms of fear) and the fear of abandonment, which resulted in hyper-approval seeking behavior. I faced my internal fears including fear of emotions, fear of self-worth, fear of failure, fear of shifting self-identity. I faced my existential fears including the fear of not having control, fear of duality, fear of illness, aging, and death.
Note that fear is a natural human emotion and it is an intrinsic part of us. As such, it cannot be eradicated or fully trained away. When we mindfully tend to our fears and repeatedly face them, fear will still arise but it will have a lessening effect on us.
Only to the extent that a person exposes themselves over and over again to annihilation and loss can that which is indestructible be found within them. In this daring lie dignity and the spirit of true awakening.
Our life is made up of a series of dualities – gain and loss, success and failure, victory and defeat, happiness and sorrow, pleasure and pain, incredible beauty and deep suffering. It is not possible to have one without the other. Both sides of the duality contribute to the infinite richness of life.
Whether in success or failure, every experience is a learning experience, or an opportunity to gain wisdom. Every experience is a step forward in our journey and the seed for taking the next step. A success today may lead to a failure tomorrow. Similarly, learning from a failure today may lead to successes down the road. If we are mindful and stay engaged with life, we cannot truly fail. It is only when we stop learning or stop trying (withdraw from life) that we get into trouble. However, we can always get back onto the path by simply taking a step in the right direction.
The path to happiness is not a direct or easy one, but it is one that leads to freedom, love, and joy of life.