What Happiness IS NOT
First, our potential for happiness is not unlimited. Instead, each individual’s ability to live a happier life is constrained to varying degrees by uncontrollable factors—genetic propensities, upbringing, life circumstances. On the other hand, these limits on your ultimate happiness opportunity do not remotely block your ability to be happier than you are today.
Second, happiness is not about evading and escaping all pain and suffering for as long as possible so as to experience an unchanging plateau of positive emotion. That uninterrupted, dreamlike feeling of total bliss that will last forever—the constant high, the perpetual vacation that is the brass ring of happiness—is a fantasy. Expecting this type of happiness means denying the natural ups and downs and the peaks and valleys that are a part of every life. Living a full life means experiencing a full range of positive and negative emotions. Real life is full of minor inconveniences, major disappointments, and real loss. And, as a result, far from a continuous feeling of bliss—the level of human happiness from moment to moment is actually quite changeable—some say fleeting. Even the happiest among us have their share of problems and feel depressed at times—just as the depressed sometimes experience moments of joy and exhilaration that break through the clouds.
Instead of trying to limit your range of feelings to the upper end of the scale, it is better to confront your inevitable negative feelings head-on—without letting them overwhelm you. In reality, although it is often difficult to acknowledge in moments of loss, negative states can be important and useful: they provide cues to what is valuable and highlight what needs to change. Grief for loss of a loved one is a reminder to cherish other relationships. Frustration with a less-than-perfect job may be a clue that it’s time to change careers. But, even in the inevitable valleys, it is still possible to feel that, overall, in spite of its normal ups and downs, life is basically happy. Often, without the contrast of sorrow and sadness, happiness would not be as sweet.
Third, common sense says that to have more happiness in your life you should strive mightily to change, minimize, or avoid bad events that make you miserable. And, while being less miserable is a certainly a good thing and worth the effort, just because you may have more than your share of misery doesn’t mean you can’t have a lot of happiness as well. The truth is that, even if you have a lot of negative emotion in your life, you are not remotely doomed to a joyless life-if you are willing to work at being happy. Similarly, but sadly, the reverse is also true: even if you have a lot of happiness in your life, you are only moderately protected from sorrow and sadness.
Fourth, your happiness is not conditional upon someone or something else. Examples include the classic “When he or she changes, then I can be happy” trap and the Shangri-La fantasy that “If only I had X, y, and z, then I could be happy.” No one ever has it all. And, no matter what we do have, we will constantly adapt anyway. So don’t wait for some future, magical, perfect moment (which can never be realized) to be happy. Your happiness is largely up to you to determine without conditions.
Fifth, to be happier, you do not need to analyze every detail of your past and understand its influence on you in the present. Although a popular approach and one that has value, it is also often a route to self-absorption and self-pity. We all have a past. And, understanding that past is not an essential determinant of how happy you will be from now on, the six imperatives are.
Sixth, long-lasting happiness is not a matter of being a passive passenger partaking of the pleasures on the perpetual pleasure train. You will eventually adapt to all pleasures. Neither does it call for deferring all action in life while waiting for your specific God to intervene on your behalf. Instead, it requires acting as an agent of change on your life.
Finally, taking the laid-back lifestyle approach instead of the Protestant work ethic won’t work either. Deep inside, humans feel guilty about not striving—we know something is missing. And by choosing a constantly laid-back life, we also miss the many opportunities for happiness that come from working.
Shun the blind pursuit of many of the most popularly accepted ideas of what makes people happy. The pursuit—even the successful pursuit—of more money, success, fame, power, beauty, talent, and material possessions has repeatedly been proven to be a failed road to lasting happiness.
One route to true wisdom is learning from the experiences of others. Heed the real “lessons from the rich and famous” to be derived from life in Hollywood and elsewhere. If the movie, music, and TV stars have anything to teach us, it is their real secret: limitless money, success, fame, power, and talent don’t bring lasting happiness. Just observe the epidemic levels of depression and addiction, the ruined marriages and troubled children afflicting even the most successful of stars. Having external good things in abundance doesn’t insulate anyone from their share—and sometimes more than their share—of misery. Ask yourself if Elvis, Marilyn, Janis, Kurt, River, Michael, and a host of other celebrities died because their money, beauty, talent, success, and fame made them lastingly happy.
Just learning and accepting this one truth can be life-transforming—saving time and money while reducing the anguish of envy—courtesy of the stars. No matter how temptingly enjoyable a life devoted to these false idols may seem, remember: people always adapt.
No matter how much you acquire, you will always adapt and take what you have for granted. This insight can be quite liberating. It allows you to open your eyes and focus your energies and time on implementing the six imperatives for flourishing while freeing you from staying tethered to a blind pursuit of these false roads to happiness—the roads to nowhere.