Yesterday I got a call from a client. There were odd noises in the background and his voice was slightly muffled as if his hand were covering the mouth piece of the phone.
"Where are you?" I asked.
"At Caesar's," he said. "I'm trying to find a quiet place to talk."
I started to laugh. I couldn't help it. It sounded like a scene from Analyze This.
"You're in Atlantic City?"
"We're on vacation?"
"And you're calling your therapist from a casino?"
He started laughing, too.
We chatted about the irony of all that for a minute and then we got to the serious business of happiness. He said he'd picked up a book by the Dalai Lama on being happy and that he really wanted to learn how to do that--be happy. I asked him what he'd learned from it so far and he said, struggling to be heard over the bells from an emptying slot machine, "That I have a lot of bad programming."
It would seem--both from popular culture and even the loftier treatises such as the Declaration of Independence--that happiness is the goal of all humanity. The Dalai Lama seems to agree. That's all we want--to be happy. In his new book, The Dalai Lama explores the way our thinking and our attitudes in the West get in the way of our having the thing we want most. And, from the way my client described it, it all sounded true. The way we think--our rigidities, our self-righteousness, our resistance to reality--all these things do keep us from being happy.
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Happiness As Order
For many years, at least since the scientific revolution of Newton, Western Civilization has had its foundation firmly embedded in the rule of Order. That all life moves down a predictable path and in predictable ways. Gravity exerts the same force on a feather as it does on a piano. Things get dropped and they fall. Always. We grow up, go to school, get good jobs, get married, have children and they have children. Always. We do the right thing and the right things happen for us. Always.
Happiness, like gravity, is predictable. Or at least we've been taught that it should be. We can be happy when we have the right car, the right gal, the right job, when things are going our way.
Happiness, defined this way, is a dangerous commodity, though. Because the truth is--as the mystics have always known, but are now being confirmed by quantum physicists--that life is a mess. And at best it's unpredictable. And that happiness, if you base it solely on the things you have, or accomplish, or win, you will lose.
As a psychotherapist, I've learned that there is another problem with pursuing happiness. And it is a logical one. That is if you are pursuing something you are not having it. If you are wanting, you cannot at the same time enjoy being. It is not just a swing of semantics. If we are busy "wanting" we are also putting ourselves in a state of insufficiency, deprivation, and inadequacy. We can respond by either being disappointed or angry. A lot of Americans walk around bouncing between those two states. After all, isn't happiness our right?
The Right to Be Happy?
Actually, no. It's not. We've come to believe that it's our right to be happy. But it's only our pursuit of it that is promoted and hopefully still protected in this country. However, Madison Avenue has turned it around and artfully made it seem that happiness is something everyone not only deserves, but should have and can have if we just buy this new washer/dryer, and if we act fast we can have it for only $599.99. Shipping and handling extra. Or if we just use this new shampoo that will make our hair thick, shiny, and fill us with the sex appeal we are also led to believe will make us so happy.
But none of the products we ever buy ever seem to do the trick. We still walk around unhappy, wanting more, not having enough, not being enough.
I know another young man who became severely depressed after losing some money in the stock market. He had worked tirelessly for many years building a portfolio that he trusted to take care of his retirement and give him happiness one day, when he could finally rest and enjoy it. Unfortunately, the forces-that-be had other plans and when the market tanked, so did he. He had never even gotten a chance to enjoy any of the fruits of his labor. All that work, for nothing. And, like so many others, all he wants is to get better so he can do it again and get busy pursuing security, wealth, admiration. We are always in pursuit.
I won't repeat what the Dalai Lama has said (and many others besides him). There are ways to be happy and the Dalai Lama talks about it at great length. But they have nothing to do with what we've been sold--neither in ideas nor in products. Happiness is being present. That's it. That's the simple answer right there. There are treatises on this topic. But if you want to distill it, there it is. Abraham Lincoln, who was one of the most depressed men to ever lead this country, ironically was also the one who said, "Most people are just about as happy as they decide to be."
And that decision, as one wonderful woman once taught me, is to be where our feet are.
Personally, however, I think there is one more step. And that is a spiritual one. My ultimate question is this: Is the pursuit of happiness a chase we want to be on? Is that the purpose of our lives?
Surprised by Happiness
Again, personally, I don't think so. In the same way that anger is a secondary emotion (usually the result of fear or hurt), happiness is secondary to purposefulness, service, and love. You can't pursue it and have it. In fact, you can't have it at all. You can only be in it. You can't make it your goal. You can't even hope for it. It's all in vain. Happiness comes like a breeze, unseen, seemingly out of nowhere, unexpected. There's no way to hold it or predict it. All we can do is feel it as it moves over and around us and lifts us for that moment. It comes when (and maybe even because) we are busy doing something else that we love, giving something to someone we love, or serving some cause that fulfills the reason for our being here. In my experience, the quickest and surest way to find happiness is to stop looking for it.
Judith Acosta is a licensed psychotherapist, author, and speaker. She is also a classical homeopath based in New Mexico.
She is the author of The Next Osama (2010), co-author of The Worst is Over (2002), the newly released Verbal First Aid (more...