We all want to be happy. But instead of directly pursuing happiness, most of us pin the goal of happiness on the attainment of other goals. A loving wife, a great career, a bigger house etc. etc.
While it’s unrealistic to say there’s no relationship between the attainment of specific life goals and happiness, it is fair to say that the relationship is overstated. Studies have shown baseline levels of happiness are resistant to changes in external circumstances. People who win the lottery, while experiencing short-term euphoria, soon return to their previous levels of happiness (or unhappiness). And people who are left paraplegic after an accident, although experiencing more negative emotions in the short term, soon return to their baseline levels.
If you’ve been around the block you’ll probably have had the experience of pinning your happiness on the attainment of specific life goals, only to then achieve those life goals and discover that they actually didn’t make you happy in the way you expected. There may be some exceptions – studies suggest that building a healthy, happy marriage does permanently increase happiness levels, but this could be because happiness is part of the explicit goal of a ‘happy marriage.’
One of the reasons people don’t explicitly and directly focus on happiness as a goal is because they don’t know what steps to take to achieve it. So here is my best effort at articulating, in four (unfortunately not-so-easy) steps, the path to greater happiness.
1. Get rid of distraction
And I don’t mean turning off your cell phone for a couple of hours every day.
I mean ALL distraction. Even the distraction you’re not currently aware of as distraction. In fact, particularly distraction you’re not currently aware of as distraction.
- Thoughts that distract you from other thoughts (e.g. judgment instead of curiosity)
- Emotions that distract you from other emotions (e.g. anger instead of sadness)
- Actions that distract you from experience (e.g. busyness instead of present, moment-to-moment awareness)
To get rid of distraction means to live every moment in its entirety, fully embracing everything there is for you in that moment, good and bad.
It is to burn up every moment so all that’s left is ash.
2. Get rid of delusion
Get rid of distraction and delusion will surely follow.
So long as you’re distracted, you’re not seeing the world as it really is.
I used to think there was no such thing as seeing the world as it really is. We’re always seeing it from a perspective, and that perspective is usually our own.
But when you avoid distraction, including the distraction of thought, you experience the world as it really is – unmediated by sign systems, including language.
As a result the delusion of ‘I’ and ‘them,’ along with all other binary distinctions, falls away.
You no longer see yourself as a separate entity, set apart from the world. Nor do you see yourself as the most important person in your world. You are the world, just as the world is you. (Even this language doesn’t capture the reality, it simply points to it.)
3. Get rid of clinging
Once you no longer see yourself as a discrete entity, set apart from the world, you no longer cling to the idea that your happiness is anything other than the happiness you are capable of experiencing in THIS moment.
Instead of clinging to happiness – past, present, and future – you are happy in THIS moment.
This is not some weird, mystical BS. This is a proven fact (see this TED talk by Mark Killingsworth).
Clinging to moments takes you out of THIS moment – and out of any potential happiness there is to be had in this moment.
And if there is no happiness in this moment, then there is no happiness for you right now. And life is a series of THIS moments. So if you’re not happy in THIS moment, when will you be happy?
So long as you are clinging to prior experiences of happiness and trying to recreate them in this moment, you are distancing yourself from the unique possibilities and opportunities for happiness in this moment.
So long as you are clinging to future experiences of happiness and trying to pre-create them in this moment, you are distancing yourself from the unique possibilities and opportunities for happiness in this moment.
Getting rid of clinging means you can be fully present in this moment, and now this moment, and now this moment … with all that these moments have to offer.
4. Get rid of craving
When you commit to experiencing all there is to experience in each passing moment, you no longer crave anything outside that moment.
You will not say:
“Once I [fill in the blank] I will be happy”
“I was happy when [fill in the blank]”
You will be happy now, and want other people to be happy now too.
Happiness will no longer be something you situate ‘out there,’ but something ‘in here,’ always already available to you.
That’s not to say you can’t achieve extraordinary things. It’s not to say you can’t have goals, aspirations, or passions. It simply means you recognize those goals, aspirations and passions as real for you in THIS moment. And maybe also subsequent moments. But always in THIS moment.
So there you have it. How to be happy in 4 (unfortunately not-so-easy) steps.
Why are they not so easy? Because
- Almost everything in our culture encourages the distraction-delusion-clinging-craving approach to happiness.
- The being-in-the-moment approach to happiness needs to be practised. It isn’t something that can be rationally understood and then simply implemented based on that rational understanding. Just as understanding that running 6km a day is likely to lead to greater happiness is not enough to actually achieve greater happiness, so the understanding that being present in the moment is likely to lead to greater happiness is not enough to actually achieve it. You need to practise being in the moment, over and over again, to realize the benefits. Just as you need to run, over and over again, day after day, to realize its benefits.
- You will remain unconvinced that the distraction-delusion-clinging-craving approach to happiness is not the best approach until you have had enough personal experience to conclude this for yourself. If you have said to yourself, “Once I [fill in the blank] then I will be happy” and you have then achieved your goal, only to discover that it didn’t make you happy in the way that you expected, then you may be willing to try an alternative approach. Or not. Some people repeat the cycle over and over and over again, endlessly chasing an illusory happiness. But the wise person will take a cold hard look at their actions and the results of their actions, and conclude that there may be a better way. And then take the time to experiment.
There is nothing in this 4-step approach that you need to accept on faith. You can try it for yourself and see what happens.
If you would like me to support you in that process, it would be my pleasure to do so.