The Pursuit of Happiness

January 18th, 2011

If you were given the choice between a lottery ticket and a set of water skis, which would you take? If you took the lottery ticket and won, you could buy all the water skis you could ever want, travel the world and ski in every lake you find. On the other hand, if you didn’t win the lottery you would be left with nothing. So you may be better off taking the water skis. Of course, if you took the water skis, you would run the risk of suffering an awful accident and becoming a paraplegic, so maybe the lottery ticket would be the safer bet. Dilemmas! Dilemmas!

You live with constant choices like this. What will make you happier? This job or that? This partner or that? This location or that? This amount of money or that? What if happiness doesn’t come as a money back guarantee with these choices?

Recent research questions our assumptions about what brings happiness. It suggests that one year after winning the lottery, people are no happier than they were before they won. So maybe the lottery ticket is not the better choice. Then again, some researchers suggest that one year after becoming a paraplegic, people are no less happy than they were before the event. In other words assuming one person won the lottery and another person became a paraplegic on the same day and at that time they were equally happy, chances are that one year later they would still be equally happy.

Your small sense of self craves external validation. Society and the media play right into this delusion and convince you that events and possessions make you happy or unhappy. Certainly when people move from living at a survival level, where only their basic needs are being met, to having a roof over their heads and a steady income, the increase in happiness grows with the income. But studies show that beyond about $70,000 per year, happiness levels begin to plateau. Multiplying your assets from $70,000 to 70 million dollars does not necessarily multiply your happiness. Money might make misery easier to live with, as Mark Twain said, but it can’t buy happiness.

It’s true in relationships as well. The day your fiancé leaves you at the altar will likely feel like the worst day of your life. Talk to some people who have been through this experience a year later, and they will feel that it was the best thing that could have happened. We tend to magnify the significance of events, when in reality they are unlikely to have a lasting impression on our sense of fulfillment in life.

There is a famous Jewish tale about happiness. King Solomon, who was extremely wealthy, wanted to teach one of his palace officials a lesson in humility. He sent him out on a wild goose chase to find a magical ring. Solomon told the official, “If a happy man looks at the ring, he becomes sad, and if a sad man looks at it, he becomes happy.”

The official spent months in search of the magical ring. Finally he asked a merchant in Jerusalem, “Have you by any chance heard of a magic ring that makes the happy wearer forget his joy and the broken-hearted wearer forget his sorrows?”

He watched the merchant take a plain gold ring from his carpet and engrave something on it. When the official read the words on the ring, his face broke out in a wide smile. He went back to Solomon

“Well, my friend,” said Solomon, “have you found what I sent you for?” To his surprise, the official held up a small gold ring and declared, “Here it is, your majesty!” As soon as Solomon read the inscription, the smile left his face. The jeweler had written three Hebrew letters on the gold band: gimel, zayin, yud, which began the words “Gam zeh ya’avor” — “This too shall pass.” At that moment Solomon realized that all his wisdom, wealth and power were fleeting things, and one day could all be gone.

If only we could take more of a “this too shall pass” approach to life, we would suffer so much less. No event is an end point. No incident is the last word on life. One of the ways you can pursue happiness is to allow life to ebb and flow all around you, and not hold on to any event or possession too tightly. Whatever you are going through right now is not the end of the story. There’s always more. There will be mysterious twists and turns that you can’t even predict.

So what is real happiness? The World Database of Happiness keeps track of how people appreciate life. Their survey asks two questions. The first is, “Are you happy right now?” The second goes a little deeper and asks, “All things considered, are you satisfied in life? Are you content?” It’s this second question that gets at the heart of the issue.

All things considered, taking a broad view of life, are you satisfied? Are you content? I don’t mean in this moment, or even this day, but overall. Even if you feel that money is tight or circumstances are running against you right now, are you content? Jesus said, “Happy are the poor in spirit.” The word in Greek is makarios. Makarios is used in Greek literature to describe the bliss of the gods who were not affected by the changes of life. Another translation of this verse could be, “Oh the unending bliss of the poor in spirit.” The poor in spirit are content because they have come within an inch of losing all hope. Because they know how it feels to be on the edge of spiritual devastation, they hold only loosely to things, and perspectives. Those who trust that all things come and go at the right time are content and at peace

The same applies to those who mourn. Oh the bliss of those who mourn, because they go deep within themselves to embrace and heal the sadness. It’s because they’ve embraced sadness that they know what it is to embrace gladness. Oh the bliss of those who mourn because they know that emotions are fleeting and changeable.

A spiritual teacher was once asked by his students, “Why are you so happy? You are surrounded by suffering and loss, so why are you happy?” The teacher picked up a crystal glass and said, “I love this glass. I love the way it sounds when I touch it. I love the way it glistens in the sun. And yet one day, no doubt, my elbow will knock it off of the table and it will break. I love this glass because I know that it’s already broken.”

All things considered, are you satisfied? Are you content? True happiness is realized in the broken places of life. Your life glistens in the sun and chimes with the sound of acceptance. It’s beautiful even with the cracks. When you have come to terms with your brokenness, you don’t need to pretend you are anything other than you who you are in each moment. When you have accepted that each situation is what it needs to be, you stop resisting reality. As the Tao te Ching says, “If you realize that all things change, there is nothing you will try to hold on to.” Stop striving to preserve meaningful moments by putting them in a bottle. Stop trying to make your possession immortal by storing them on a shelf. Let life come and go around you with humble curiosity and open ended wonder for this too shall pass.

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  1. Vickie Clock says:

    There is a wonderful Taoist parable about a man and a horse. I’ll try to paraphrase it here. Please accept some mis-quoting the tale.

    A young man’s beloved horse runs away – he sees it as a huge disappointment and tragedy, but his father, a simple farmer, tells him and all the town’s people who shake their heads at the loss that one never knows if it is a blessing or a curse. The run away horse returns with a beautiful stallion which the young son immediately takes a liking to and sets about to tame the horse. The townspeople smile and nod as the young man proudly proclaims him good fortune. His father cautions him not to take this good fortune as the ultimate truth. During his first ride in the countryside the beautiful spirited stallion throws his young rider leaving him crippled with a broken leg. He mourns his injury and curses the wild stallion. His father cautions him again- don’t be too quick to find fault in this event- it may be a blessing in disguise. The story goes on to describe a war between competing despots bringing soldiers to collect all able-bodied young men to serve in the army. The young man is spared induction as is his elderly father. Both go on to live and work their humble farm while dozens of young men in the village go off to be killed in the war.

    What the parable teaches us is that in disaster may come triumph and in triumph may come despair. Look to the possibilities within each trouble and the touble within each success. One can find wisdom buried there.

    I teach this parable to my 11th graders. Each time I am reminded that I need to heed it’s truth; yet again and again I find myself forgetting… There really are no great lessons learned in our successes. They are gained through our deepest darkest moments when we can see no light or triumph ahead. Remember the old farmer’s caution if you will…


    V Clock

  2. Janet Pal says:

    You’re so wise! The paragraph that begins with “If only we could take more of a “this too shall pass” approach to life, we would suffer so much less…” really spoke to me. I AM very happy/content overall and I KNOW that beautiful possessions/moments are best not held too tightly, but it is those not-so-beautiful moments that trip me up and have me wishing that people/places/things were other than what they are… and that’s when my stress level goes off the charts. Silly me! Perhaps I should print out that paragraph and tape it….hmmm….everywhere!

  3. Carl Van Krimpen says:

    I bought a set of water skis once, but I returned them:  I couldn’t find a lake with a hill on it!

  4. lesly says:

    There is a phrase that has been prominent in my life lately, which sounds to be an enigma, but to me, speaks volumes of truth as to the best way to approach life.  It is “hold on, let go.”  Sometimes in life we must do both simultaneously.

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