We all want to be happy. I remember quite vividly that when I was younger all I ever wanted to do was grow up! I associated growing up with all the fun that adults get to have, like working, buying things, having money, living on your own etc. I always assumed that this was what would make me happy, and I assumed all adults were happy. But as I grew up I realised how difficult it was to make money, how you may hate your job and how you sometimes wish you didn’t feel so alone. I started questioning then that if this did not bring happiness to the adults I knew then why did they do it? And why did it seem like I needed to do the same?
Many a time we equate fulfilling our goals with happiness, and though they do lead to momentary happiness, they do not always carry meaning for us. According to Russ Harris, author of the book The Happiness Trap, it is our values that bring meaning to our lives. Our values remain the same but they are also ongoing, for example if your core value is that of independence then you may have goals such as staying away from your parents, or fending for yourself financially. It may even be as subtle as evaluating whether every decision you have made has been made independently. Unless we constantly strive to keep these core values in the forefront, we forget them and behave in ways that might go against them. For a person who values adventure and exploration may still stick with a job that that is rigid and does not allow him the time or energy needed to be adventurous. Going in the opposite direction to our values happens when we confuse needs and anxieties with our values. In this example the person may be hanging onto a boring job because it keeps his anxiety of not having enough money to take care of himself and his family at bay. But in the long run following our anxiety urges leads to suffering that is very gradual but with a huge cumulative effect on ourselves and our families.
When we are made aware of our values we must constantly remind ourselves of them and commit to following them by making short goals to do so. Following our values is particularly difficult and requires courage to say NO to our inner desires and our temptation to avoid anxiety. Victor Frankl, founder of logo therapy talks about reducing suffering by finding meaning in that suffering. In depression, the symptom that most clients face is that they cannot seem to find a reason to live and a meaning for their existence. In anxiety disorders, clients engage in avoidance and other behaviors to reduce their anxiety, without realising that tolerating their anxiety is key to having a meaningful life.
One of the other ways to decrease our hold on our anxieties and needs is to practice meditation by ‘observing the self’. The observing self is the constant part of us that does not change and observes our reaction to our emotions, situations etc. It is like the deepest part of the ocean that is calm and that observes the turbulence on the top of the ocean. It is also like the chessboard that remains constant and unchanging even when the black and white chess pieces keep moving. As we practice meditation the stance we must take is that of the chessboard or the deep ocean where we try to gently observe our thoughts and emotions without reacting to them.
Happiness is difficult to come by, and at times may even create anxiety. For example, if I eat my favourite food, I might experience happiness but then a little while later I might experience guilt for having eaten it. If I win first prize, it makes me happy but it also makes me tense about whether I will be able to do it again. Because of the fickle nature of happiness and its connection to anxiety, it is worthwhile to pursue positive emotions as a whole. Most of us focus only on joy and euphoria, and overlook other positive emotions, such as:
– Surprise (the good kind)
Such emotions are sometimes easier to come by, and are also easier to generate by engaging with targeted activities towards them. For example, if you are trying to create enjoyment, all you need to do is engage in an interest or hobby that you like at that particular time. The great thing about this is that while it creates enjoyment, it also creates interest, awe, joy and contentment as by-products.
Happiness cannot be pursued and it is just like any other emotion… It comes and goes. But what we can do is get better at identifying it and staying with it longer than the few seconds that it lasts.