“Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.” –Henry David Thoreau
“Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for God has already approved what you do. Always be clothed in [red], and always anoint your head with oil. Enjoy life with your [lover] all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun—all your meaningless days.” –Ecclesiastes 7-10
I knew a man once who earnestly believed that money was the key to happiness. He worked very hard, and sacrificed all other relationships, so that his work was successful. And it was, for a time. But that meant he had nothing else. So when the people he cared about left him, he was surprised and confused. He had a nice house and a nice car. He took care of his kids. He was nice to people. What was he missing? Why wasn’t all of this enough? Why did no one love him the way he needed to be loved?
He didn’t know how to be happy. He didn’t know how to search inside himself. He didn’t know that he was worth a whole lot more than his bank account. When he prayed to God, he asked for things to happen for him, rather than to learn and grow and be healed so that he wouldn’t make the same mistakes.
And he didn’t know that love and relationships matter a hell of a lot more than what’s in your bank account.
So the same bad things kept happening to him, because he was too stubborn to acknowledge he might not be seeing the whole picture, that there might be more to the story.
A lot of us are addicted to fear and pain, and happiness is a distant concept, something we don’t think we deserve, or something we can only daydream about, or something we think comes after something else is achieved. So we make choice after choice that we think is “right,” and convince ourselves of some narrative in our minds, or operate from some deep-seeded beliefs we’re not even aware of, and happiness eludes us, or we’re left daydreaming about a different life, rather than taking any action that is going to actually set into motion what might heal us and make us whole.
Long-term happiness does not arrive in a package. It is not something you receive for services rendered. It does not miraculously appear once a daydream becomes reality, because living in reality and living in a daydream are very different. In a daydream, we have a large measure of control. We decide on the plot and the events. We can really boost up our own egos. Living in reality, on the other hand, is about complete surrender to the actual moment. It is being awake and alive, and not knowing what is going to happen, and actually enjoying the unknown. It is about creation, appreciating that in each moment, something exists that never before existed.
So happiness is not the same as being satisfied, even though the two states have similarities. Satisfied is what happens after a full meal, perhaps, sitting back, feeling satiated for a time. Satisfied is what happens when you set a goal and accomplish it, and can pat yourself on the back, check the box, mark as complete. That’s nice to do, sometimes.
But happiness is feeling your toes on the sand. Happiness is dipping your feet in the ocean, feeling the fullness of experience the way a child does, without any added storytelling or assumptions. Happiness is the acknowledgement of all that you don’t know, embracing the mystery and chance of life, and acknowledging that within that mystery and unknowingness is perfection and beauty.
We all have those moments. The more you open to an interior life, the more of them you have. It doesn’t mean that you never have a painful emotion, or episodes of doubt and fear. It just means you feel things fully, that nothing gets repressed and bottled up and stuck. It means you’re actually alive, instead of numb, instead of robotic or dead.
A lot of people are robotic and dead. They don’t know how to get unstuck, or they don’t want to. The fear of living differently is just too overwhelming. It requires, as Wisdom teachers say, a “death to self.” It requires a death to the story we tell ourselves about who we are and how we got here. It requires a lack of defense. It is a dive into unknowingness, a willingness to find a different way.
I knew another man who was deeply hurt in love. The people who were supposed to love him and be there for him the most were people who left. The story he told himself was that he was kind, and undeserving of this treatment. And perhaps he was. But underneath that feeling of undeserving, was the belief that he was deserving of it all, that something about him inherently warranted that treatment. And so he welcomed pain and suffering, because that is what he knew well, and he shut out any possibility for new love or growth. The fear of more heartbreak was just too great. He gave his life away.
We spend a ridiculous amount of time asking children when they’re young what they want to “be” when they grow up, assuming that “being” relates in any way to work. In America, we define ourselves by our work, and that’s sad. But what we should want our kids to be is happy, and we need to model that for them within ourselves. We need to show them what happiness looks like. It does not mean a fancy car and a nice house and particular vacation destinations. All of those things are wonderful, and not to be taken for granted. But being happy is about the fullness of life. It is about color and flavor, about opening up to the unknown. It is having an adventurous spirit, a willingness to learn and grow. When we are happy, we sing. We celebrate. We laugh. We are honest about our emotions. We admit when we’re sad or angry, and know that it will pass. We don’t stifle ourselves. Our lives are a balance of fun and wonder and a healthy level of discretion.
Happiness is possible. It can happen. But not if we’re stuck to an old, tired, habitual story of who we are and what our life is. It can’t happen when we hand our life away to someone else to run it, when we feel stuck in our every day. And, as Paramahansa Yogananda (my favorite yogi) says, it can’t happen if you have no belief in a higher power, no belief in a divine order, no willingness to work with that substance to learn and grow. True happiness can’t happen, anyway. You might look happy. You might look pretty. But deep inside, you’re always left ungrounded, numb, or steeped in toilsome wondering.