Recently I was speaking with a friend about what makes a happy life, and like many people, he didn’t know what made him happy. I didn’t find his answer surprising, except he then said that he didn’t really need to be happy. He viewed striving for happiness as potential failure – too much effort, with too much risk. He continued that if you asked the average person what happiness was, and what made them happy, that they wouldn’t know the answer, and what was wrong with that? Not everyone could do what they wanted in life, and contentment was safer.
As I listened to him speak, I recognised him use the same words for happiness that I had always used – reaching happiness, finding happiness, doing something that makes me happy. I’ve been searching for happiness most of my life. I’ve looked for it in travelling, drugs, sex, careers, moving countries and, like most 20-somethings, relationships. I’ve searched for it, strived for it, and without even realising, devoted most of my life to achieving it.
But here’s what I have learnt – happiness isn’t something that can be achieved. Happiness isn’t a moment, and it doesn’t live in the individual dramas of our lives. It is not a place we reach or something we find, but rather a way in which we live. Happiness is the summation of our willingness to grow, our acceptance and embrace of the present moment, our honour for our deepest callings and our gratitude for everything, even that which hurts.
It sounds clichéd, and we’ve all heard the quotes of happiness being the journey, not the destination. On an intellectual level I always believed this, though it is only recently that I have come to understand it.
There is a difference between happiness and joy, and I truly believe that our lives can always be happy, even if we are not always joyful. A happy life should have frequent and consistent moments of joy, those times when our face lights up with excitement and passion, but some pain is unavoidable. Whether we respond to the pain with resistance however, or recognise it as part of our becoming, is what measures our relationship to happiness.
Several years ago I wrote a piece on the Huffington Post in which I spoke about a moment of awakening. I realised that my life was not singular or alone, and that our purpose came not from serving ourselves but from connecting to something greater than us, whether that be God, nature, or simply humanity. Our happiness comes from the same place; not an event, a person or even an achievement, but a connection to the deepest parts of ourselves, and that which is eternal – the present moment.
Maybe we struggle with the question of what makes us happy because we haven’t learned what it means to live in a happy way; to make choices that empower and support us, to cultivate compassion, to act courageously in the face of our fear and to feel, fully and wholly whatever we are experiencing, whether that be anger, sadness or joy.
We live in a society that tells us that happiness is outside of us. Brands like Coca-Cola suggest we ‘open happiness’, and magazines offer five tips for a happier life, as if enlightenment will come from the next kale smoothie. It is no wonder that contentment is seen as easier than happiness, and we live in search of something elusive. I’m learning though that if we change our understanding of happiness to a way of living instead of a place to reach, maybe it isn’t so elusive after all. Maybe it’s here, right now, in my every day choices and my embrace of what is.
I’m grateful to be joining a 10-day trip to Bhutan this November, the only country which measures Gross National Happiness over Gross Domestic Product, and in the lead up I’m spending some time reflecting on the idea of happiness. I’m curious about what you think makes a happy life. Do you agree with the above or would you change something? Let me know in the comments or send me an email to firstname.lastname@example.org