6 September 2012, 09:01
I’ve been thinking a lot about this idea that we should all be chasing happiness; that it should be some kind of desired end goal.
We’ve been beaten over the head with this concept for the last few years. Books like The Happiness Project, Stumbling On Happiness & The How Of Happiness litter the bookcases of young, adventurous whippersnappers, promising a life of delight within their pages.
Do these books make people any happier? Sure, they can… If you read them carefully & apply their suggestions to your daily life. But so many of us just read the words without taking action, then wonder why our lives aren’t any different!
We all want to read a magical sentence that will whisk away our worries. There is no such thing. The only way you can change your life is by putting in the work.
The problem with constantly seeking happiness is that happiness is an amorphous thing. It is totally intangible. It can’t really be defined, & we all have different ideas of what it means to be happy. For some people, it is financial security. For others, it is freedom & adventure. For some, it is being in love & having a family. For others, it is being completely independent. Happiness just happens, & while there are certainly ways to encourage it, even cultivate it, sometimes it simply jumps into your existence at an unexpected moment.
In some ways, the more we concentrate on “trying to be happy”, the further away it seems. When you obsess over the fact that you don’t have it yet, it makes the gap feel even bigger.
Sometimes that makes us feel guilty for not feeling happy. The truth is that we’re designed to feel a massive range of emotions, & they can all teach us something. When we deny the reality of how we feel, we lose an opportunity to learn or grow.
Are we focussing on the wrong thing? I read somewhere that when we choose to pursue adventure instead of happiness, we will often find that happiness is an unexpected side-effect. Happiness is a wonderful offshoot of seeking adventure & strolling down the road less travelled.
Yes, this has worked for me. There is bliss in starting fresh. You experience pleasure when you see something with new eyes. There is lightheartedness in travelling the world alone, ecstasy in dancing with strangers.
But sometimes it’s those so-called uninteresting moments that can bring the most happiness. Judge me if you like, but I love cleaning the apartment & working in a tidy space. It may not be glamorous, but I’m so happy sitting next to my husband, watching a movie while the snow falls outside. Of course, exploring a foreign city is fantastic, but I also love listening to music & dancing in my underwear!
When you’re just starting out in your career, the pursuit of money & acclaim might be enough to sustain your happiness. When you’re a freshly-minted adult, the search for the perfect man might make you smile. But once you have a home, a job, or love, just like Maslow said, we start to need more.
Some people go on to find meaning, & consequently, joy. But some people get stuck in those old routines of their past. They think that chasing paper will make them happy — after all, it worked before! Or they get caught up in jumping from one lover to another, or accumulating new toys.
We all know by now that acquiring new things doesn’t make us any happier. Whether we choose to act on that knowledge, however, is another story.
Happiness is within reach for all of us. It can be as easy as choosing a new thought, or as difficult as restructuring your life. Small steps do work wonders: I have seen my life transformed by simply making gratitude a major part of my everyday existence.
Sometimes, though, I wonder if this pursuit of happiness — & all the busywork involved in that — is simply an effective way of distracting yourself from thinking about what is really going on in your life.
Yes, of course, there are little things that can make us happy (& I love to write about them!). But filling your life with a succession of happy diversions probably won’t make your life any more joyful.
When you go deeper than happiness, you find something so much more fulfilling: contentment, a sense of purpose, intense joy. My feelings of happiness, ultimately, stem from the knowledge that I am here for a reason. I have a mission, I have a purpose. My life feels meaningful.
That’s what makes the difference.
I could wear sparkly shoes every day, but if — at the heart of it all — I wasn’t living my truth, I wouldn’t be much happier. I could make my bed every morning, as per Gretchen Rubin’s suggestion, but if my job felt meaningless & empty, it wouldn’t improve my life in any real way.
The people I know who are really happy — genuinely, truly, deeply happy — are the people who have found meaning in their life. They wake up every day with a sense of purpose.
The common thread between people for whom happiness is fleeting? They don’t know what they’re here for.
It’s easy to say to someone, “You need to find your purpose”. I’m sure, for some people, their purpose just bonks them on the head one day, like Newton & his apple. But for others, that discovery is part of a process.
In my case, my path of learning to love myself is what brought me here. Radical self love — even though I didn’t call it that at the time! — allowed me to get out of my own way so I could see more clearly.
For years, I’ve been analysing everything I felt, assessing my feelings, & healing what I could. Those are the things that helped me discover my purpose.
It’s easy to dilly-dally around the periphery, thinking that if you do a bunch of little things, like making your bed every morning, they will eventually add up to happiness with a capital H. It’s tempting to think that we can do these things instead of doing the real work, but this is procrastination at best. We all have to sort out our shit!
Trust: It’s not fun to work on your issues. No one enjoys it. It’s not what any of us would do if we were given the choice. But it is an essential part of growth & self-actualisation.
If you’re unhappy, don’t just choke it down. Use it as an opportunity to uncover the real reasons behind your distress. The truth is that you probably know what’s missing or not working, you just may not want to admit it to yourself. Or perhaps you’re not ready to do anything about it yet.
When you are ready to work on it, your life will explode outwards like a blossom.
This is not to say that you’ll be unhappy until you find out your purpose in life. Of course not! There is still so much happiness all around. If you are still waiting to discover your purpose, know that it’s not far away. You don’t have to go to Italy, India or Indonesia to find it!
There are clues. You know those moments where you feel that everything is right, moments when seemingly random things line up & the synchronicity is too incredible to be coincidence? Those moments are pointing you in the right direction. Those are hints, signs, signals.
On Monday, I had lunch with my dear friend Angel, & we spoke about finding your purpose. Angel is one of the few people I’ve met who is super-clear on her purpose, & the work that she does. Angel is an incredible intuitive tarot reader with a dazzling gift.
She said, “People always say, ‘Do what you love & the money will follow’, but that’s not true! I like to lie around in the bath & paint my toenails but no one is going to pay me to do that.”
“There’s some truth to that saying,” I replied, “but it’s not the whole story. I love what I do, but it’s challenging. It’s difficult. It’s not a walk in the park. That’s the difference between writing &, say, snuggling with my dogs. My work pushes me, it tests me. That’s why I get paid to do it. The same goes for you. You love it, but it makes demands on you. It stimulates you, it inspires you.”
“That’s true,” she said. “When you find the work you really love, you could do it for 8 hours & not want to stop at the end of the day. You are always going deeper, there is always more to discover, & you’re delighted to do it.”
The search for happiness sounds promising & delicious, but ultimately I think it can distract us from something larger: the search for meaning.
How can you discover your purpose? Steve Pavlina would tell you to get a piece of paper, write, “What is my true purpose in life?” at the top, & then start writing answers. When you write something that makes you cry, you know you’ve discovered it.
Tina Su would encourage you to ask yourself a selection of questions — If you had to teach something, what would you teach? What would you regret not fully doing, being or having in your life? — to sort through & nail down your truth.
Or perhaps, like the rest of us, it will be something that comes to you slowly. Maybe it will unfurl like a flower, reveal itself to you coyly.
You might find it easier to discover your purpose if you take it less seriously. Approach it with a light heart. Know that your purpose today might be different to your purpose in ten years time. You don’t have to commit to it forever; it will evolve & change as you do.
Your purpose doesn’t have to be grand or world-shaking thing, either. We are not all destined to cure AIDS & prevent the extinction of rare animals, even though that would be amazing!
Maybe your purpose is to become a great teacher so that your students will have a better life than you did. Maybe your purpose is to inspire other women to leave abusive relationships. Maybe it’s to embrace art & beauty, or write a book that uplifts others. Maybe it’s simply to love whoever is around to be loved.
Seeking happiness is about taking, but seeking purpose is about giving. Sure, you smile when you cash a cheque, but you feel contentment all the way down to your toes when you help someone else. That’s what it’s all about — for me, at least.