The dictionary defines the word happiness as, "The state of being happy." A simple point. Psychology Today adds that happiness, "Encompasses living a good life-that is, with a sense of meaning and deep satisfaction." So that begs the question: "How do we arrive at the state of being happy and live a good life?" This is the quintessential question that I've been trying to solve ever since I came into this world.
Mom and Dad
My parents did their job. They raised and took care of me. Without them I wouldn't be the person I am today. They've taught me many things. But, they never taught me how to be happy. Everyday they wanted me to do something in life that would make me happy, but they didn't tell me what this was or how to find it.
When we define happiness, we tend to gravitate towards external circumstance. Something that reinforces our belief an external stimulus is necessary to make us happy. It could be career, social approval, or a spouse. Maybe it is travelling the world, making a lot of money, or helping other people.
As good as it sounds, it's actually a trap. A trap the external creates. Find something external and hope it makes you happy. Unfortunately, it is a fundamental delusion. Yes, it will seem to work at times, but it is fickle.
I don't blame my parents for not teaching me this. I think they really did want me to be happy. Every parent wants their child to be happy. Or should. I know they couldn’t teach me. Because happiness is something I have to understand. I need to be happy with myself. Not against others. I need to realize happiness comes from myself, internally. Not from the external circumstance.
The human DNA is encoded to compete. Their purpose is to survive and replicate. We are built to be competitive. This is the essence of our subconscious mind.
As children, we are pigeonholed into the same corridor of competition and validation. Both formal and informal forms of education teaches us to compete against others. People went out their way to teach me things that really didn't matter, and it was important to measure my comprehension via a test. At first, they were convincing. And I learned to participate really well.
But none of the same people taught me how to be happy.
Maybe they couldn't teach me. Perhaps, they didn't know how.
Society does a very good job putting systems to reinforce our competitive nature by creating jobs, sport competitions, media, ways of generating wealth, lustful products. Sadly, these are just games that only pulls the mind to participate.
To conform with society we need some of this competitive drive. Without it, we would be wondering around the empty grassland, without tools, foraging nuts and berries. In fact, the only reason you are here today is because your parents out-competed their peers.
Indeed, modern society has given us the tools we need to survive. The problem is we let our instinct go berserk. Our mind goes out of control. And it does what it knows how to do, by creating this competitive realm where they need not exist.
The bigger issue though is no one can teach you how to be happy. No one really cares about your happiness except you. No one can share their happiness with yours. It's all alone and in your mind. Fortunately, when people do things to make you happy, it is actually their desire to be happy. And perhaps, the way to reduce their suffering.
Story: Heinrich Boll
A very handsome businessman was sitting by the beach in a small Japanese village. As he sat, he saw a Japanese fisherman rowing a small boat towards the shore having caught quite few hefty fish. The businessman was impressed and asked the fisherman, "How long does it take you to catch so many fish?"
The fisherman replied, "Oh, just a short while."
The businessman felt astonished and asked, "Then why don't you stay longer at sea and catch even more?"
"This is enough for my family," the fisherman said.
And the businessman asked, "So, what's your day like? Do you do anything else for the rest of the day?"
"Well, I usually wake-up early in the morning, go out to sea to catch some fish, then go back and play with my kids. After that I take my kids to school. I take a nap with my wife in the afternoon before my kids come back. When evening comes, I help my kids do their homework and cook with my wife. After dinner, I play with my kids before putting them to bed," replied the fisherman.
Of course the businessman offered his expertise to the fisherman, "I can help you become a more successful person. You should spend more time at sea to catch more fish. When you have saved enough money, you could buy a bigger boat and catch even more fish. And after that you will be able to buy more boats and set-up your own company. By then, you will have moved out of this village. You can put your kids to a better school so that they too, will be successful."
The fisherman asks, "And after that?"
"After that," the business man laughs. "You can live in a big house. Have plenty of cars. You will be rich and live like a king."
The fisherman continues, "And after that?"
The business man says, "Then you can finally retire. You can move to a small house by a lake. Have a small boat, and go fishing with your kids. Have a nice nap with your wife in the afternoon, and when evening comes you can spend time cooking with your wife and play with your kids. You will have all the time in the world."
The fisherman was puzzled, "Isn't that what I'm doing now?"
This is why many people don't feel enough. They lament that if they only had more, then they would be satisfied. But in the end, what are you after?
Sometimes the outcome you so desired in the first place, may in fact be in front of you today, if you look deep enough.
You Can't Win
Sometimes circumstance puts us on the edge. But there many things in life we simply need to accept. By this I do not mean that we don't have the will or courage to try and do well, but there will always be someone better. Someone who is smarter, faster, stronger, wealthier. And even though you've managed to be the best at something, you will not be the best at everything.
A friend of mine tried to explain this to me: "When you are at the top 1% of something, the rules change. Because you have to match the competition. What happens when you go from $30,000 to $3 million? You start thinking big mansions and fancy sports cars. You compare yourself to your millionaire peers. Clipping coupons and scrimping discounted coach seats isn't who you are comparing yourself to anymore. The guideposts moved. You're playing a different game."
I've noticed that some of the happiest people have taught themselves to opt out of the hedonic hamster wheel. They learned that there is no competition to be happy. They realize that comparison and jealousy will only make matters worse. They don't treat success as something ecstatic. Instead, it is only a by-product of happiness.
On the contrary, we cannot simply just let go of this completely, just as we can’t have total freedom or happiness. We will keep engaging ourselves to be competitive because that is what we do. But living a good live as Dr. Paul Schwager says, "Is about progress not perfection," and it is simply a state of mind.
Henry David Thoreau once said, "Happiness is like a butterfly, the more you chase it, the more it will evade you, but if you notice the other things around you, it will gently come and sit on your shoulder."
In any moments time, you always have a choice. The choice to slowly disengage from the hedonic treadmill. To start caring a little less about winning. They don’t matter all that much. It may feel lonely and empty at first, but paradoxically this is where our contentment lies. Some call this idealistic. Perhaps. But then what is life if not an ideal?