Why is Happiness so Hard to Find? |
Thirty years ago, I learned some important lessons from a famous motivational speaker. I remember him dressed in his double-breasted suit and Wall Street red power tie, as he delivered his carefully scripted sermon with apocalyptic fervour.
“My friends!! No matter how successful you are or how much money you make, some things will always be impossible! For example, you can't climb a fence that's leaning towards you! You cannot kiss a girl who's leaning away from you!! And you can never make a person do something they don't want to do – especially when it's good for them!!”
The crowd erupted.
Charlie ‘Tremendous' Jones was his name, and he was certainly entertaining; a huge caricature of a man in the very best 80's evangelical style.
Part of me wanted to leave the auditorium (I'm just not a ‘rah-rah' kinda guy), but plenty of his lessons were right on point, so I remained seated.
Most of us had come in pursuit of our most cherished prize – happiness – and making lots of money seemed the quickest way to get there.
Charlie had been brought in to rev us up and to get us thinking the right way – to be of great service, to chase bigger and better problems, and to understand that we can't control much beyond our own thoughts and actions.
That was the big takeaway, and it's something few of us could argue.
But neither Charlie nor the other speakers at that event touched on the questions we should have been asking. And this, I think, is why so many of us may have been cheering on the outside, but were deeply unsettled on the inside.
The Big Disconnect
The problem was, there was a huge chasm between what we were doing and what we were there to attain. And no one liked to talk about it.
We were all so focused on building our little empires and escaping our soul-crushing jobs that we lost sight of (or actively ignored) two fundamental questions:
- Was this HOW we wanted to get there?
- Would this deliver the result we so desperately wanted?
In quiet moments of reflection, few of us would have answered yes to the first question. Fewer still could confirm the second. Such was (is) the nature of multi-level marketing. The education was valuable, but the work and the results it delivered were less than stellar.
That's because how we work towards something is far more important than what we're working towards. Not that I have anything against striving for money. Money is a powerful tool that solves a lot more problems than it creates. I'd love to stumble over a stack of bills every time I leave the bathroom.
But if the way we're earning it doesn't sit comfortably with who we are, it only pushes happiness further down the line.
Striving for happiness in ways that run counter to our values tends to diminish our chance of snaring it. Unless our work resonates with who we are and our natural abilities; if it runs counter to how we like to show up in the world, it'll only become a source of pain.
By doing work that feels right; that doesn't compromise our principles or force us to be someone we're not, our odds of success (happiness) improve dramatically.
Likewise, the moment you stop measuring the value of your work by the money it pays, you'll likely notice happiness sneaks up on you. You might realise you don't need as much money as you thought because your desire to escape has suddenly evaporated.
The Long Game
As a recent convert to social media, I see a lot of content that echoes the missteps of my youth.
I remember my twenties very well. When you're young, dumb and full of energy, your patience is wafer-thin. You want results next Tuesday. But the results you want aren't the results you really want. They're just layers of veneer wrapped around shitty ideals that don't hold up to scrutiny.
I'll give you a simple example. Say you have a client presentation tomorrow, but because your daughter just came down with nasty flu, you've spent most of today shuttling her between GP waiting rooms, the pathologist and the pharmacy.
You're physically and emotionally spent, but the meeting can't be moved. One way or another, an all-nighter in front of the laptop is going to happen; there's just no other way.
What do you do? You could load up on coffee or Red Bulls, or keep a bowl of guarana infused chocolate on your desk, and for or a while, these might work. You might even knock over an hour of frantic work, but pretty soon, you'll crash.
From that moment on, your work will turn to shit. You'll lose sight of the objectives. You'll make poor decisions about what to include in the slide deck. And on the day of the meeting, you'll be strung out, foggy and ineffective. Your client will go elsewhere, and the thing you so desperately wanted will vanish. Poof!
So this is stumbling block number two. Playing for short-term gains never leads to long-term happiness. It doesn't lead to long-term anything.
Instead of loading up on caffeine and sugar, a more effective approach would have been to drink lots of water with lemon juice, graze on fruit and nuts, and take stretching breaks every half hour or so. This would've carried you through and produced a far better outcome.
Likewise, playing to your strengths, staying true to who you are, and offering authentic value in everything you do builds a rock-solid foundation for a magnificent life.
Exercising patience and a macro view of the desired direction (vs specific goals) is a much more sustainable and satisfying approach.
It's like comparing a 10-day chart on the Chinese stock market to a set of clouds moving over a mountain range. One is all jaggedy and unpleasant while the other is smooth and peaceful.
If you want excitement, go play in traffic. In Vietnam. Just don't tie your happiness to short-term activities – caffeine and sugar included.
Decide on your direction of travel, then make steady and deliberate choices towards that horizon. Ignore shiny object syndrome and instead, project yourself and everything you do authentically upon the world. Exercise patience. As Tony Robbins says, “Most people overestimate what they can do in a year, but underestimate what they can achieve in a decade.”
Give yourself that long. You'll be much less anxious, more authentic and as a result, happier, too.
The Here and Now
If you're anywhere near my age, you've heard every platitude under the sun about being present; living in the here and now; appreciating this moment.
I won't bore you with more platitudes. But I do want to suggest something.
Tonight, go outside when it's dark and look for the moon. If you can, get far away from the city lights and find a quiet spot where you can sit and just look up to the heavens for a while.
Stay with me…you're not going to start chanting, I promise.
Now imagine what you're looking at is Earth. Like the Moon, it too is just a ball of rock floating in the infinite blackness of space. It's just one little blue and green marble, suspended in a galaxy containing billions of other marbles of varying colours and sizes.
And our galaxy is one of the billions of other galaxies out there. What are the odds of you being here, on this beautiful and magical little marble?
Almost nothing, that's what.
Yet you fret over the past, and you stew over the future – which you cannot predict because it's only a potential future.
And consider this. Every single person alive on this planet will die within the next 150 years. Everyone.
So why are you in such a rush to get to your imagined future? Why do you live in the past and the future, but spend so little time in the present? What the hell is wrong with you? And me?
I struggle with this all the time and must constantly remind myself how fleeting this life is; how lucky I am.
Almost all of our happiness comes from how we see the world. If everything we see exists in our past (which we cannot change) or our future (which we cannot force nor guarantee), we are denying ourselves our right to happiness in every moment of every day.
What a waste. What an affront to the miracle we're experiencing just by being here.
Only twelve men ever set foot on our lifeless moon. But we're here upon this vibrant and magical place called Earth. Recognise how incredible that is, in all its micro and macro wonderment. For this reason alone, we have every reason to be happy.
Ignore what others think of you – it's none of your business, anyway.
If no one was watching, how differently would you conduct your life? How would you dress? What would you drive? What would you talk about, think about, stress about?
How would your aspirations change? How calm and optimistic would you be?
Have you ever noticed those crazy people wandering around the city, talking to themselves? Have you smiled at the antics of a puppy? How about a three-year-old child? Well, they all share one thing in common.
They don't care what you think of them.
Should you walk around talking to yourself? Maybe. Should you immerse yourself in this moment and wear your emotions proudly for everyone to see? Yes, you should try it for a while. It used to come naturally; before you started worrying what others thought of you.
Because here's the thing. No one really cares what you do – except the ones who truly love you. And they want you to happy, anyway.
No one else gives a damn because they're too busy worrying what everyone thinks of them.
Live your life your way – do what you care about. And don't underestimate yourself. That's other people's job – not yours.
And they're all wrong.
Break the connection between stuff and feelings.
I was at a client's factory the other day. He's a Mercedes-Benz specialist, so I was surprised to see a rough 20-year-old Ford Falcon sitting on the hoist in the workshop. It turns out it was traded by an old client who'd just upgraded the family car to a Benz.
You'd think his wife would be happy, but no. Apparently, she cried when it left their home for the last time – so attached was she to this car. A lot of family memories were attached to it, like an umbilical cord.
I get it. We get attached to our things – so much so that we struggle to decouple the memories from the objects.
But woven into this phenomenon is a subtle and dangerous trap. We begin to define ourselves by our things. And then we strive to get a certain feeling from the next new thing. And then the next one, and the next one.
Before long, we lose our ability to feel happiness or joy unless it's something we can buy. We actually start to believe the best things in life aren't free – although they are cheaper on Black Friday and Boxing Day.
So who created the idea that things will make us happy? Was it our parents? Our school teachers? Our peers?
No, it was none of them. I was driven by large corporations who want your money. The end.
The only reason it's believable – the only reason you think it's ‘just the way it is' – is because everyone has drunk the same Kool-Aid. It's the blinded leading the blind.
Happiness doesn't live in the mall. It doesn't live in the Bentley dealership. It wasn't trademarked by Apple, Ikea, Chanel or Rolex. If you go looking in these places, you won't find it. The ‘relentless pursuit of more' is an unwinnable game. It. will. Not. Bring. Happiness.
If you need further convincing (I certainly did), please save yourself from a life of mindless accumulation. There really is a better way, and it's one of the ultimate shortcuts to happiness. It's called living more with less. It's called ‘loving people and using things – because the opposite never works'. I learned this from one of this century's great thought leaders, Joshua Fields Millburn.
If I can compel you to do anything, please do these two things:
Eliminate all the people and things that diminish happiness.
Modern consumer-based societies teach us that the way to happiness is through acquisition. If we just get enough stuff, or more particularly, the right stuff, we'll be happy. If we have the right job title, the snazziest home, or we follow the right LinkedIn influencers, we'll get there. We'll be successful.
And if we're ‘successful', then surely we'll be happy.
But isn't this backward? Surely if we're happy, we'll then be able to call ourselves successful. I mean, you don't get pregnant by having a baby. You only get a baby by falling pregnant. And if you think you're successful but you're still not happy, you've failed.
We do this with relationships, too. “If I could just find the right man, I'd be happy. Then I'd shape and mould him so he's perfect in every way!” Or, “Why do all the hot women marry douchebags? I'm better than 90% of those guys! If I had a someone like Mila Kunis, I'd be deliriously happy!”
Friends and associates present their own unique problem. Most are collected over a long period, and often through circumstances that collided rather than an intentional choice. Because of this, we tend to hang onto them like kitchen utensils stuffed into the bottom drawer. They don't do anything for us anymore but either we're kind of attached to them (after all, we invested years into them), or we can't be bothered tossing them out.
But here's the thing. If they no longer add value to your life, they're actually weighing you down. They either drain time, energy and inspiration from you or at the very least, they occupy a portion of your daily thoughts – consciously or otherwise.
Get rid of them and see how much lighter and happier you feel.
Do this with material possessions, too. Minimalism is huge today for a very good reason. We're weighed down by a mountain of stuff – things that add nothing to our lives. Things that keep us poor. Things that keep us working to pay them off or maintain them or upgrade them when the new model comes out.
Over time, you'll realise that many of the things you own and much of the company you keep is failing to make you happy. Instead, it's making you anxious, stressed and depressed.
Because when you really get down to it, happiness cannot be acquired. You can't work towards it like a promotion. In the end, happiness is just a set of very simple decisions:
- The decision to accept you cannot control everything.
- The decision to acknowledge that the long way is the shortcut.
- The decision to be grateful for the impossible miracle of living on this blue marble floating in space.
- The decision to play your own game and ignore what others think of you.
- The decision not to buy into the lie that more stuff will make you happy.
- The decision to remove the people and the things holding you down and denying you your right to happiness.
You have as much right to happiness as every other living thing on this planet! Your death will come sooner than you think. It's always a surprise. But it needn't be an unpleasant surprise.
Your time here can be a rich and wondrous experience if you'll just let it. We've all been sold so many lies, and those lies have been perpetuated by people we know and trust because they bought into them, too. These lies are stifling your happiness.
It's time you made the decision. It's your time to be happy. Not next year; not when you pay off your house, and not when you retire, but right now. Today.
When you get down to it, happiness cannot be acquired. You can't work towards it like a promotion. Click To Tweet
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Also published on Medium.