“The Pursuit of Happiness”? Don’t chase it. It chases you.
How much time and effort do we as a species dedicate to the consideration of happiness — and it’s apparent elusiveness? Well… a lot! Most of us seem to think the holy grail of our existence is to pursue it.
And when we watch our nearest and dearest and their efforts to track it down, we seem to have a bullshit meter. As we watch them trying to get richer, thinner, more powerful we often have a conviction that they are looking in the wrong places, don’t we?
But what do we think about our own efforts? Are we looking clearly at the patterns of our own behaviour? Do we know what happiness looks like? If we’re looking for it, we should do, shouldn’t we? And if we do, do we have the right plan for finding it?
Do we even have the right attitude towards the place that happiness should have in our life?
Do we feel we have a “right” to be happy? Do we feel that something is innately “wrong” if we DON’T feel happy? Do we seek to find meaning and reason in our achievements? In our possessions? In our status? In our talents and good looks? In our love relationships? Do we feel a lack if we haven’t achieved, if we possess little, if we think of ourselves as NOT talented, not good looking? Not loved, not in-love?
A lot of questions.
There is a very powerful movement in the world of personal development that emphasises the value of meditation, mindfulness, the emptying of the mind. And it all makes a lot of sense. And if you are an unbelievably well-adjusted individual with no unresolved issues from your past — or, perhaps, the extremity of your present circumstances and responsibilities mean that you’re just surviving from one day to the next — then, yes, these strategies might lead you quickly to nirvana.
There is a wonderful Brazilian expression “não basta matar um leão, tem de se matar um leão a cada dia.” — It is not enough to kill a lion, one has to kill a lion every day. If you’re a young person growing up in the favelas, yup, that might pretty much describe how it goes. Not a lot of time to ponder whether you should swap to a low-carb diet or sign up for an evening class in pilates.
Touch wood, I’m not surviving in the midst of a civil war — I’m not leading a nation to independence — I’m not living in a favela. And I’m afraid I find it tricky to relate to the Dalai Lama or Buddha or Gandhi or Mandela — I’m not a saint, I never will be. I’m guessing most of you reading this are probably somewhere in the same bracket.
I mean it’s all very well to tell us to meditate for four hours a day, stand on our head in a full lotus while thinking of nothing and you can’t eat meat, or nuts, or tomatoes or pretty much anything and, oh by the way, sex might be off limits too.
But, for me, there’s that damn itchy ego that wants to keep me on the ground doing stuff — achieving stuff. And sometimes, the more I try and shut that ego up, the noisier it gets and the itchier and it revs up fit to explode. I’m just not sure most of us are made to be monks and nuns.
So short of living off the odd coriander leaf, sea mist and meditation… what is the answer to the noisy ego and a sensible approach to life and true happiness?
Well, about two thousand years ago Marcus Aurelius came up with this, “Joy for humans lies in proper human work. And proper human work lies in acts of kindness to other human beings. — Disdain for the stirring of the senses, identifying trustworthy impressions… ”
Marcus Aurelius was an extraordinary man — his notes contain the simplest and most profound wisdom. He was also the leader of one of the greatest (and cruelest) empires the world has ever seen, and richer than Croesus. I think you could say he had some of those ego things covered.
But could this be the answer? No need for staring at flickering candles for hours at a time — you can still have a McDonalds, if you must — you might even be allowed to have some sex (phew). We just need to be nice! We just need to go out in the morning and be kind… and that’s it. Maybe?
It’s not a very complicated plan or process, at least. The benefits are immediately tangible to others and, who knows, we might just feel better ourselves.
My instinct is that Marcus Aurelius is right. The answer to happiness is not to pursue it at all. It is to provide acts of kindness to other human beings — even when they don’t deserve it. Perhaps, especially when they don’t deserve it.
Since this is such an eminently simple plan and so incredibly do-able, why the hell don’t more of us DO it, and do it consistently?
Ahhh, now there’s the rub.
The challenge, surely, is to quieten the noises of what is often referred to as the “conditioned self” before we can have this approach to life in a sustained manner. This is the self that struggles with a sense of entitlement, needs approval, battles insecurity (I am not worthy of love), is often co-dependent and desperately needs a sense of control over all things.
Once we quieten those imposters, those would-be prophets of happiness, then we are free to pursue our “proper human work” in peace. Then, perhaps, we stop pursuing happiness and it begins to pursue us.
I’m sure that the proponents of mindfulness, yoga and so on, believe that their meditative processes can provide this “quietening” — this movement away from the “conditioned self”. I am a huge fan of yoga but, in my many many years of attending classes and hanging out with others who have attended them, I have not seen one instance of an individual becoming less egotistical through the practice of wrapping their limbs around each other at impossible angles. I have not seen even the faintest hint of a person being taken out of their constricting addiction to the ego. In fact, dare I say it, I have a distinct impression that many of the most ardent yoga practitioners are inclined to become increasingly self-obsessed the more they tie themselves in knots!
Why? I think, because the profound benefits of meditation are short-lived when the strongest voice in your head is screaming, “You are worthless! Work harder! Achieve more! What kind of human being do you think you are, with all the privilege that you’ve got and what have you succeeded in doing? Bugger all.”
Or, “Why can’t people see how brilliant I am? Why did Geoff get the promotion and not me? This world is so f’ing unfair. If my f’ing father had left me the money that he should have, I wouldn’t be in this ridiculous situation.” And so on.
The strongest story in our life is the one that we tell ourselves about ourselves. It is a story that invariably was handed to us at a young age — nearly always negative — and, astonishingly, we volunteer to carry it with us until, possibly, the day we die.
This is the noise (the story) that can get in the way of a truly fulfilling life. There are some great techniques (tricks) to throw that story away — (check other blogs) I run workshops and mentoring that focus on this. And, finally, writing a book about it now.
In the meantime, nothing to stop us pursuing “proper human work”. We don’t have to kill a lion a day. It’s enough to be kind.
It’s nice to be nice.