"Happiness is a place within, from which love, wonder, laughter and joy can erupt easily and without judgement. The question for me, then, is how do we build this place inside us?"
I’ve spent a few weeks trying to write this, and it’s been extremely hard. Happiness is an ethereal, deeply personal thing, and I’ve worried about being flippant and superficial, making myself vulnerable by being too personal, sounding preachy, or most disconcerting of all, getting it wrong!
So here’s a disclaimer: this is a personal reflection, an exercise in exploring the lessons I have learned in the past decade that I think I would have benefited from knowing throughout my twenties. I began by talking about money, and will continue writing posts in this style throughout the year. It’s really for me, but I hope some others might find it useful.
This is a long post, more of an essay, so for those of you who are simply curious to know what I think so you can cast judgement and continue with your day, here is the short version:
- The pursuit of happiness is a fallacy: happiness is a practice, not an endeavour, and as such happiness can only come from within
- Finding love and compassion for oneself and others is the surest way to be happy and to spread happiness
- One well-trodden path to love and compassion is through mindfulness which leads to a heightened, non-judgemental awareness and understanding of self.
If that makes you curious, read on!
What is Happiness?
Happiness is hard to define in words, and many better writers than me have crafted beautiful descriptions which you can find by searching for quotes about happiness online. What strikes me when reading these lists is that almost all of the most famous quotes talk about internal rather than external, or physical things.
There are some basic external conditions that I concede should be met before happiness is a realistic prospect, but I would argue that they are more extreme than most people would assume. Freedom from fear (of persecution or violence for example), enough food to eat, somewhere dry to sleep, and a few other basic things such as these are probably a prerequisite, but we all know that there are plenty of wealthy people who are unhappy, and I have met many poor, sick, or unfortunate people who are undoubtedly still happy.
Marketing is Evil
Advertisers, obviously, lie to us every day about what will make us happy. Their sophisticated, ruthless exploitation of our desire to be happy is what has driven us to our recent excesses of materialism and consumerism, with all of the negative personal, social, and environmental consequences that go hand in hand with this mindlessness.
If you have shiny hair, flat abs, a fancy car, lots of money, a good tan (in the West) or white skin (in the East), and the latest phone, then people will like you and you will feel happy. None of this stuff gives us real happiness of course. Like everyone else I love getting a new toy to play with but that pleasure soon fades and I’m left with a desire for new things to give me that pleasure once more. If you took my toys away from me would my deeper sense of happiness be diminished, even if I’m now frustrated that I can’t perform a task as easily or I’m now slightly more uncomfortable? No. Ergo the toy did not make me happier, and arguably made me less happy by increasing my dependence on stuff and the pleasure of consumerism.
I was never really that into stuff (although I have certainly acquired my fair share of crap over the years and have an unusually large collection of camera bags) but I was taken in by this idea of the pursuit of happiness through the pursuit of experience. There is something elemental about setting off to explore the world and find ourselves that is deeply ingrained into the psyche many of us, but I now recognise how much advertising goes into creating this modern market for travel and the idea of living life to the full. In my pursuit of experiences I have travelled and travelled and travelled and tried studying various subjects and testing various substances and dipped my toe into the waters of dozens of careers, pursuits and hobbies.
All the while I was searching for something but I don’t think I really knew what it was. Sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously, I thought that if I see the world, help people, save the planet, run far and fast, get adrenaline highs, be in the outdoors, have great sex, and generally pursue this idea of living life to the full, then I’d be happy. I don’t mean to discredit the pursuit and enjoyment of any of those things: the point is that, while I have had an interesting life so far that has given me lots of memories and good stories, the pursuit of experiences – of pleasures, pains, hardships and ecstasies – has proven not to be the path to happiness.
Here’s A Recent Example
I spent two weeks climbing in Tonsai, South Thailand, earlier this year. The scenery is beautiful beyond words and the climbing is some of the best in the world. Naturally, beautiful places attract the beautiful people (I have a theory about this that I will write about later) and one of the best climbing spots in the world is of course going to attract some of the best climbers. So I spent 2 weeks surrounded by beautiful people strutting around, laughing and generally acting as though they existed in a never ending music video, and amazing climbers who also happen to look awesome and tend to be really cool friendly people at the same time.
My jealousy of both groups, fuelled no doubt by my own insecurities, really affected my enjoyment of that trip. I sneered at the model types who I was sure must be vain and shallow, and idolised the climber types who I felt inferior to, all the while wishing I could look or be like both. I still had a great time (despite getting Tonsai Tummy and spending a few days getting to know my toilet rather intimately), but it’s obvious from this story that the pursuit of experiences that I enjoy will not make me happy on their own. Happiness has to come from somewhere else, and when I’m happy, I enjoy everything I do so much more.
So What’s The Answer?
That happiness has to be pursued is the fallacy that I now recognise. I would probably say that happiness is a place within, from which love, wonder, laughter and joy can erupt easily and without judgement. The question for me, then, is how do we build this place inside us?
Of course I don’t know the answer for sure, but right now I think that the path to happiness is through love, and a deep expression of love is compassion, and that it is difficult to give love or compassion to others without first giving them to yourself. To love yourself is to be compassionate, accepting, and forgiving to your own self. The best way of practising this kind of behaviour seems to be developing a state of mindful awareness of self – or mindfulness – and the way to grow your ability to be mindful is through daily meditation.
Blimey! Just got a bit new agey on you there didn’t I! Don’t panic, stick with me for a while longer.
Mindfulness is just about developing a deep sense of self-awareness, and learning to recognise how our minds can affect our moods and control our behaviour, by watching our thoughts and the way they jump about. Through this activity you begin to see the mind, your mind, as something that is separate to you, something to be smiled at ruefully when it starts getting worried about deadlines, or bringing up humiliating memories: instead of getting stressed or miserable you can simply observe and watch as these thoughts float away harmlessly. After a while this awareness penetrates your daily life. If you become angry, for example, you can quickly recognise that you’re angry, note that this anger is not you but is simply a reaction, an emotion. Inevitably this leads to a curiosity about what caused that anger and whether it was a helpful reaction, and to paraphrase Mark Williams, author of the best selling book on Mindfulness, it is incredibly difficult to be angry when you’re curious!
I believe all of this is true, but I also feel conflicted when I remember how happy I have been when I’ve been drunk with friends, sleeping under the stars, jumping into rivers, achieving seemingly impossible goals, and many, many other very real, very external things. How do I reconcile these experiences with this idea that happiness comes from within?
Tending to the Garden of Life
My analogy is that of a flower bed, allotment, or a garden forest. In this world the earth is the soul and the plants are our lives – our actions and activities, emotions, feelings, relationships, habits, values, desires, beliefs, knowledge… everything that makes us who we are. If the earth is poor in nutrients, or poisoned in some way or another, little will grow and what does grow will be stunted and weak and often undesirable.
Meditation is a potent (and organic and fair trade, obviously!) fertiliser that enriches the earth and allows all manner of life to grow and flourish. Mindfulness is the aware, conscientious gardener who plants and waters only what she wants to grow, and carefully weeds out the things that she doesn’t. It’s the practice of spending time in the garden, getting to know it, learning to identify the different plants, their properties and their needs.
It’s a daily habit that is sometimes enjoyable, sometimes hard work, but the reward is, I believe, a deeper, more true, and resilient sense of happiness. This well fertilised, carefully tended Garden Forest is the place within from which love, wonder, laughter and joy can erupt easily and without judgement.
So What’s the Lesson?
I’m sure that if I had practised mindfulness through my twenties I would not only have done more of the things that make me happy (through a better awareness of what those things actually are), I would also have been more present and therefore enjoyed those special moments under the stars, crossing the finishing line, or just being with friends, even more than I did the first time round.
I’m a pretty happy person, but using this analogy and looking back over my twenties, I’m sure I would be happier now if I’d planted and grown more relationships, weeded out the many dispiriting and time consuming habits that I now find very hard to break (like reading the news), and spent even more time being in and learning about nature and the outdoors.
So, younger me, don’t do anything differently: travel, drink, sleep around, do dumb things, be passionate, get angry, waste money, do whatever you want, but practice mindful meditation at least once a day, preferably twice, and know yourself better. You might find you no longer need to look so hard for whatever it is you’re trying to find.
When I was in grade school, they told me to write down what I wanted to be when I grew up.
I wrote down happy.
They told me I didn’t understand the assignment,
I told them they didn’t understand life