The Truth About Happiness

We seek it here, we seek it there. We seek happiness everywhere.

Yet it eludes us. All of our activities — our pursuit of fame and fortune, our quest for meaningful relationships, our drive to build or change things — are directed searches for this ephemeral state. We get there, but we can never heave a lasting sigh of relief because the feeling is gone almost immediately.

Can happiness be a permanent member of our household rather than an occasional and erratic visitor?

Think on this parable from psychotherapist and Jesuit priest Anthony de Mello:

“A group of tourists sits in a bus that is passing through gorgeously beautiful country; lakes and mountains and green fields and rivers. But the shades of the bus are pulled down. They do not have the slightest idea of what lies beyond the windows of the bus. And all the time of their journey is spent in squabbling over who will have the seat of honor in the bus, who will be applauded, who will be well considered. And so they remain till the journey’s end.”

Too many of us are like those tourists, engaged in petty power struggles while the true beauty of life lies all round us, unobserved and unappreciated.

I see this all the time in the seminars I conduct. I have the participants call out things that would make them happy, and I write them on a flip chart. The list grows to 50 or 100 items in minutes.

Wealth is a common desire. Not run-of-the-mill, garden-variety wealth but a fabulous fortune. A trophy spouse is also popular, though people rarely label it as such. Instead the ideal spouse is described as extraordinarily good-looking and, as a self-justifying afterthought, intelligent to boot.

Lots of other items come up, too, including travel, good health, great sex, friends, loving relatives, and interesting work.

The truth is, none of those things is necessary for happiness. None of them.

This is an extremely important point. Because all of those things are dependent on outside circumstances that will never be in your control. And doesn’t that make the quest for them an extremely frail reed to lean on?

Don’t confuse true happiness and soul-satisfying joy with the temporary satisfaction you get when you gratify your ego. Your happiness is not dependent on your wealth, your intelligence, or your abilities. Your happiness is not even contingent on your continued good health or having loving friends, relatives, or significant others.

In fact, happiness is already a part of your nature. There is nothing you have to get in order to be happy. All you have to do is allow your inner happiness to surface.

When I get to this point in my seminars, I generally have a revolution on my hands. How can people be happy if they live in extreme poverty? Or if they are afflicted with a painful disease? Or if they have no friends or loved ones? Or if they’re in any other hypothetical situation along those lines?

Yet the statement holds. There is nothing you have to get in order to be happy.

One question remains. If happiness is our nature, why do we not experience it more often? Why are our lives filled with angst and sorrow?

The answer is simple: We have constructed mental models for ourselves in which happiness comes as a result of getting something — money, power, fame, etc. In the reality that we have created and that we live in, our achievements define us. We are “better” if we are “successful.”

The media reinforces those beliefs, subtly painting pictures of what successful and happy people have and look like. Your parents reinforced them too, imprinting on your mind that what they found valuable was what you should value. In all probability, they got their beliefs from their parents and accepted them without question. Your friends, relatives, teachers, classmates, and coaches all played a role. So did the movies and TV programs you watched, the books and magazines you read, the music you listened to, and what you observed in the world around you.

They all contributed to your mental model. And they succeeded because you did not question the beliefs and values they presented to you. But now, in your quest for happiness and freedom, you must question them.

When you want something — and you get it — there is a brief moment when you are content, when you are not your habitual wanting self. And in that moment, you experience the happiness that is always a part of you. You are content. And full. But the very next moment, some other desire raises its ugly head and you are off on another fruitless quest for happiness. It is a never-ending cycle.

The problem is that you do not realize why you experience that moment of happiness. You do not recognize that it is because, at that moment, you are free from want. The happiness springs from an acceptance of the Universe as it is. It is your innate nature bubbling forth in the absence of the bonds you put on it with your incessant demands.

Instead, you attribute the happiness you briefly felt to the acquisition of whatever it was that you got. And so you try to get the next thing, and the next thing, and the next thing.

If you go barreling through life, desperately doing things to make yourself “happy,” happiness will elude you. It is like a puppy that runs away when you try to entice it to come to you. But as soon as you ignore it and start reading your newspaper, you feel its cold nose in your hand.

It really does work that way. You are bound by the things you own as long as you need them emotionally. The moment you sever this psychological link, you will experience freedom, a marvelous sense of liberation that cannot be described.

Think back to your life 10 years ago. You had a list of wants at that time, things you thought would bring you lasting happiness. Odds are, you now have many of them. Have they made you happier than you were back then? Probably not.

Pick any item you currently desire. Now imagine yourself as a 95-year-old person about to leave this world. From that perspective, does having that item really matter? Again, probably not.

Enjoy, truly enjoy, what you have. Strive for what you do not have but want. But strive joyfully, knowing that the pleasure is in the doing, not in the getting. If you succeed, wonderful. If you do not, still wonderful.

C. NewcastleDr. Rao received his Ph.D. in Marketing from the Graduate School of Business, Columbia University. He has an M. Phil. in Marketing from the same school in addition to an M.B.A. from the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. His undergraduate training was in Physics at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi University.

He conceived the pioneering course Creativity and Personal Mastery. This is the only business school course that has its own alumni association and it has been extensively covered in the media including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the London Times, the Independent, Time, the Financial Times, Fortune, the Guardian, Business Week and dozens of other publications.