Of course you do! It’s a basic human desire – maybe the most basic human desire. And we live in a country in which happiness – or at least the pursuit of it – is enshrined in our very constitution. We enter our careers and our livelihoods in order to provide for ourselves and our families so we can be happy. We send our kids to the best schools so that they may have a chance at even greater happiness than us. We do so much in the name of happiness.
And yet don’t we find that too often it is out of reach? That just when we think we’ve reached the point in our lives we should be settling into happiness, our efforts dry up, something comes along to derail us, or we realize that there is just one more thing we need to achieve or acquire?
Have you ever wondered why is this? Have you ever stopped running and stepped off the racetrack that is our modern life to reflect on why happiness always seems either fleeting or just beyond our grasp?
I want you to take a moment and do a little exercise: try to come up with a list of times in your life when you felt deeply happy. Go all the way back into your childhood.
Okay, are you ready?
There are the times when you aced a test or a golf hole, when you received an accolade or an award or finally got that promotion, when you closed on a home or bought a new car, but I suspect that if you were honest with yourself, this is not the list you came up with. Most of the time when I ask people to come up with this list, the deeper and more thoughtful answers point to moments of deep connection outside of us: the time of our marriage or honeymoon when we committed to share lives; when we were present at the birth of our children; when we saw happiness manifesting in another, particularly if we could share in it. I have a particular memory about buying a Christmas present for my Dad a few years ago which was completely unexpected and which resonated with a place deep inside him.
I think this experience points to a counter cultural truth that happiness sought for its own sake can never be found; that achievements or possessions acquired on the path to happiness acquire meaning in their own right – we become attached to them – and cannot give us lasting happiness; that deeper happiness arises in moments of connection when our ego starts to step aside, moments when we are working for the benefit of others and not ourselves.
The spirit of giving and of kindness to others is enshrined in each of the world’s great faith traditions in their individual versions of the Golden Rule, which exists not just as a code of behavior for the sake of others, but as a mode of behavior recommended for the cultivation of our own happiness. Above even that, though, the world’s great faith traditions are all founded on a principle that is enshrined in the Twelve Step program, a principle not just of acknowledging there is a higher power, but of recognizing that in its face we as individual human beings are powerless and are best served by surrendering to It, or turning our will and lives over to It. The irony that has been discovered by mystics and lay practitioners over the millennia is that this kind of surrender results in unconditional love and true happiness.
- In Hinduism surrender is recognized in the Bhagavad Gita as undertaking all of our worldly actions as we did before, but surrendering the fruit of those actions;
- In Buddhism the practice of non-attachment applies not just to material possessions, but also to our actions and the results of our actions; and importantly this is not a practice of nihilism, but rather of simply not taking these things personally;
- In Judaism the practice of Tikun Olam – healing the world – lies at the heart of daily life and is a profound way of surrendering actions to that higher power;
- In Islam frequent recitation of the phrase Bismillah – in the name of Allah – allows the believer to remember not so much that we do not act for our own benefit, but that it is foolish to think we can ever control outcomes when all comes from God anyway;
- And the Christian grounding in love – for example in Matthew 25:40 (…whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me) – is one not just of surrender of the results of actions for the benefit of others, but surrender to the divine.
This path of surrender of our achievements is counter-cultural and it sounds intimidating, but if we want to be truly happy it’s important we move our lives in this direction. And it’s easy to try it out by taking the first steps without looking or feeling weird! We just need to start looking at the things we do and to wondering why we do them. If we see that at their heart they are for our benefit – even if the benefit is indirect, for example founded on the principle of “paying it forward” or “giving back” which are often accompanied by a transactional perspective that we’ll receive good in return – then we can start to work not so much on changing our livelihood and behaviors, but simply on recognizing our motives and on starting to move away from them. There are many mindfulness tools that can help cultivate this awareness (for example I have created a short ten week eCourse to which you can subscribe here which includes simple practice exercises), and I think you’ll find they are surprisingly accessible.
True happiness is found in the face of a child laughing un-self-consciously; wouldn’t it be precious to forget our selves and our ambitions – even ambitions to happiness – in this manner?
I am very excited about “A New Business Mindset,” a project that includes writings, courses, presentations and a podcast/radio show. If you’d like to learn more about this project and find out how to get involved, visit the “A New Business Mindset” page of my website or sign up for the mailing list