Chasing happiness is like playing a twisted, impossible game of hide and seek. You cover your eyes and count to 20, but when you look for your friend she is impossible to find. You see a lock of her hair behind a tree, only to discover she slipped away. You catch a corner of her jacket underneath the porch, and when you try to grab it it vanishes between your fingers. Chasing happiness is like a dream with no resolution. Only frustration.
The tighter you grasp at happiness, the more elusive it becomes. The harder you search, the better happiness hides. You can chase the next job with a shiny title and more money, expecting happiness to arrive with the next paycheck. And maybe there will moments of pleasure. (After all, a fatter paycheck means you can buy the Big Green Egg you’ve always wanted.) And maybe you’ll feel a bit more respected when you hand out your beveled business card at the next trade show. But these are temporary endorphin highs. The moment it feels like you’ve “made it” is the moment some other thing, some other pursuit, some other discontentment will burrow its way into your soul.
The ego is a feedback addict, you see. It wants adoration from other. It seeks applause and Facebook likes and attaboys and won’t be satiated. Not ever.
You can’t chase happiness because happiness is not outside of you. Happiness can’t be given to you. When you say to someone, “You make me so happy,” what you’re really saying is that he or she is merely reflecting the happiness that already resides within you. Other is not responsible for your contentment. No person, no job, no purchase, no circumstance can bestow it upon you. Chasing them are a fool’s errand.
Of course, it’s easy for me to identify what won’t bring lasting peace and happiness. But what will? Ah, that’s not so easy. It requires the one thing that we in an industrialized, mechanized, Internetized planet are trained to avoid: stillness.
In stillness, there is no yearning. There is no climbing or fixating or hoping. In stillness, there is only a gratitude for the now and a deep acceptance for what is. I like to imagine yearning like a boomerang that goes out as desire and returns as self-awareness. It’s not the lack of a person, place, or thing that is causing discontent. It is the wanting itself, and the misconception that I need whatever temporary fulfillment these objects will bring me.
So, in the spirit of accepting happiness rather than achieving it, here are a few thoughts that may help you settle into stillness. (Notice how I didn’t call them “action items?”)
- Breathe consciously, and realize the awesomeness of that act. How incredible it is that the universe unfolded in a way to give you nostrils and a diaphragm to process oxygen in your lungs and sustain the miracle of life. Breathing is amazing!
- Listen with intention. Have you ever tried to pay attention to the details within the cacophony? In nature, it’s easy to isolate wind-rustled leaves or the verse of a chickadee. Those sounds are peaceful and healing. But even the din of a busy city can provide exciting texture. Footsteps on pavement, pigeons trying to make a point, cheery baristas . . . they all provide opportunities for momentary meditation.
- Do the thing you’re doing. Don’t hurry with the yard work so you can get to watching the game. Don’t long for the next thing while you’re doing your current thing. Be mindful and present in the now, and let your thoughts be still in the moment. The Vietnamese Buddhist Monk Thich Nhat Hanh says it this way: “When you are washing the dishes, washing the dishes must be the most important thing in your life. Just as when you’re drinking tea, drinking tea must be the most important thing in your life.”
- See things with new eyes. What do you glaze over every day? What surroundings have become proverbial wallpaper? Look again, and see them for the first time. There is incredible joy in rediscovery.
- Radical acceptance. It took the Buddha six years of hardship and 49 days of stillness under a Bodhi tree to truly learn this lesson, so I can’t begin to claim that I offer this suggestion from a place of deep, personal experience. But I do know is that when accept what is and release the longing of what should be, happiness just happens. Acceptance is another word for stillness. There is no mental noise. There is no struggle. Only peace.
Chasing anything, by its very definition, is exhausting. Once we realize that happiness begins from a place of stillness rather than achievement, we can finally rest and notice the infinite blissful moments all around us.
Authored by Erik Proulx, filmmaker, writer, meditator, and dad living in Austin, TX.