Happiness is a funny word. Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.” This reminds me of the saying, “If you have to ask how much it costs, you can’t afford it.” I think Ralph was feeling a little bankrupt the day he said that.
I do agree with a good portion of what Emerson is proposing. It’s great to be useful, honorable, and compassionate. Even better to make a positive difference in the world. The cherry on top would have been to add “purpose” and “fulfillment” but that’s a lot of words for an Instagram meme.
But if we can’t at least be a little happy while we’re working so damn hard to change the world then what’s the point?
For the better part of 43 years, I wasn’t very happy either. That’s probably the reason why I resonated with that quote so much more a few years ago than I do now. But after a rather profound and life-altering experience sitting in silent meditation – 10 days in a row for 12 hours a day – my perspective on happiness has changed considerably.
The Buddha tells us that pain is inevitable but suffering is optional. Then notes that suffering is the result of two things: craving and aversion. If we could just stop craving what we don’t have or moving away from the situation we’re currently in, we’d effectively be happy all the time.
The reason for this is that happiness only exists in the present moment. Our feelings only exist in the here and now. A memory is in the past but if we feel something when we think of that memory, that feeling is only accessible in the present.
But happiness is also a tricky master so I’d like to offer up some context.
External (Perceived) Happiness
This is the type of happiness we get from possessing things and having experiences. We buy a new toy and it makes us happy for a while. But when that happiness wears off we need to buy a bigger toy.
But what if we can’t afford the bigger toy? Then we need to change our current situation to meet our new and increasing desires. A desire to change our situation (i.e. get a side hustle, find a new job or escape to the Bahamas) are all forms of aversion. Not being willing to sit with our present experience only delays those feelings. It does not make them go away.
This is where entrepreneurs often get tripped up. All the things we’ve been told that would make us happy – like building a business and making lots of money – are in many ways socially acceptable aversions to our current reality.
In no way am I saying entrepreneurship or capitalism is inherently broken. In fact, I think it’s a wonderful system. Mahatma Gandhi said, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” I think that pretty well sums up our current incarnation of capitalism.
The minute we can’t find a toy that meets our needs or we’re stuck in a situation we can’t get out of unhappiness seeps in through all our cracks. The “I’m not rich enough crack”, the “I’m not attractive enough crack”, the “I’m not smart enough crack”, ad infinitum.
Internal (Perceived) Happiness
Internal happiness is the happiness that comes from the inside out rather than the outside in. The nice thing about internal happiness is we do have a bit more control over this variety. I think of internal happiness coming from our physical, mental, emotional bodies.
Granted, we can’t control our internal states as often as we’d like. We occasionally have too many glasses of wine or too many cupcakes. And sometimes the shit hits the fan and we’re diagnosed with a life-threatening illness or have to live through a global pandemic. But generally speaking, if we shift the focus from external to internal methods, our ability to develop and maintain a higher happiness set point starts to get easier.
Masters of Perceived Happiness
We Westerners have gotten pretty damn good at generating perceived happiness. Our brains are master strategists and tell us exactly the right moment we need to begin looking for our next dose of dopamine. Just like a drug addict, our brain knows when the last hit is wearing off and starts to rally the search party.
P.S. This is why the best time to sell a mattress is at 2 AM. You rarely buy a mattress when you’re asleep. You buy it when you’re in a pattern of aversion…to sleep that is.
So what our brains do is very masterfully stitch together these moments of pleasure into a ragtag quilt of perceived happiness. And when we can compress enough of these moments into a month, year or decade, we “think” we’re happy…but we’re also really frickin’ tired. It takes a lot of effort to sew that fast.
The problem with perceived happiness is that it’s finite and impermanent. Our bodies only last so long. We get old. Joints start to creak. We lose our hair. We put on a few pounds. The good looks we sported in college start to slowly creep away.
Nothing in this life is permanent. Quite literally nothing. Stop for a moment and think of one thing that has been or will forever be. These days, you could even put our ozone layer and the sun in the impermanent category.
True happiness is the deepest and most profound form of happiness one can possess. This is the happiness that we find and cultivate at the spiritual level. It’s the happiness we were innately born with but have mostly forgotten.
Through a path of self-discovery, awareness, and consciousness we begin to find that we’re perfect and we’re right on time. We don’t need to do anything or have anything go to be truly happy. The universe made us complete and whole from the moment of our conception.
So many people have told us we need to possess things and have experiences to be happy. But the real juice is when you remember that all the happiness you would ever need you’ve already got.
A Happiness Thought Experiment
If I offered you a box full of one million dollars, my hunch it is you’d be happy…at least for a little while. Now you’re probably saying to yourself, “Naw, I know that money can’t buy happiness so it wouldn’t make me happy.” I’ll happily call bullshit on that. I cognitively know it wouldn’t make me happy but having a million dollars would no doubt make me happy for a while.
But why does it make us happy? What’s actually in those dollar bills that creates happiness. There’s no happiness imbued within those cotton fibers or the box they came in. So…why so happy, Mr. Clam?
I’ll tell you why. Because for a little while that money ceases all your desires. It hits the proverbial pause button on craving and aversion. For a few minutes, your subconscious mind says, “I don’t need anything; I’ve got all I’ll ever need right here.” And when you stop desiring, your True happiness has an opportunity to rise to the surface like the bubbles in a bottle of Topo Chico.
True Happiness resides within us all and it’s the only thing that is both ever-present and permanent. There’s an unlimited supply once you tap into it. The only reason we can’t have it all the time is our craving and desire.
I Wasn’t Broken After All
I couldn’t tell you the exact moment it happened but I have a hunch it was either on day three or day eight of my silent meditation retreat that my belief that I was broke was quite literally taken away from me.
If you’ve lived your entire life in a dark cave – having never stepped outside – you have no idea that light even exists. The thought that I was broken was sort of like that. I had been carrying around this thought for 43 years and didn’t even know it; because I had never experienced its opposite; that I was, in fact, ok.
To this day, I don’t know how it happened but in a single moment, I had my first experience of being whole and unbroken. And since that very moment, I’ve sort of felt sorry for Ralph Waldo Emerson. I wish he would have taken the time to sit with Vipassana.
Rest assured, I’m going through one of the most challenging periods of my adult life right now. I’m being shown more and more of my own shadow every week and it’s frickin’ hard. There are many days where I can’t wait for my head to hit the pillow because I just need a break. But my worst day today is still happier than my best day pre-August 2020.
If you’d like to chat about raising your happiness set-point shoot me a message. When you step on the path, all roads lead to Rome. Some people find it in meditation, some people find it in sacred medicine, you might find it hugging a tree or taking a quiet walk down a winding trail. Just remember, it’s always there, we just have to press pause on our thinking mind long enough to feel it.