The Pursuit of Happiness
I came across a recent study from the University of Chicago that found only 14% of Americans say they are happy. This is down from 31% who said they were happy in 2018, and it reveals that more Americans are unhappier today than they have been in nearly fifty years. The study was conducted in late May of this year, and it draws on nearly a half century of research from the General Social Survey, which has collected this type of data at least every other year since 1972.
There is no denying that 2020 has been a challenging year to say the least, as we have had to deal with the Cornoavirus pandemic, economic uncertainty, political polarization, and civil unrest. It's interesting to note that the surveys for this aforementioned study were completed before the death of George Floyd sparked widespread protests and conversations about race and police brutality. With this in mind, it is safe to assume that the the percentage for happiness could now be even lower than 14%.
I have always found it interesting that the "pursuit of happiness" is a human right which is formally recognized in some countries. I have a friend from England who always gets great delight from teasing me about the phrase in our Declaration of Independence that says we have a right to the pursuit of happiness. I wonder if he has a point? With only 14% of us reportedly happy, it makes me question if we are pursuing the wrong things. Or perhaps we have the wrong approach.
To a large extent, I believe that our "pursuit" of happiness is often the very thing that makes us unhappy. Happiness is not a destination. It is not like once we get there, we will forever remain happy. I think the more we consciously decide to strive to be happy, the more unhappy we become. Happiness is like a dog chasing his own tail. He never gets it.
From a mindfulness perspective, instead of pursuing happiness, we should pursue meaningfulness. We spend most of our time reliving the past or worrying about the future. In fact, it is estimated that our minds spend about 47% of our waking hours wandering. The ability to focus and find meaningfulness in the present moment is the key to our contentment. By doing this, we are more apt to find fulfillment and eventually, happiness will emerge as a byproduct instead of an unattainable destination.
A few tips on how you and the children in your life can get out of the unwinnable game of trying to pursue happiness:
Spend less time on social media. Everyone posts their "best life" on social media. We then have a tendency to compare our lives with these fairy tales. It breeds unhappiness. Think about it. Most people are not posting their setbacks on Facebook. Why compare your real life to their highlight reels?
Make the present moment your destination. Stop making the state of happiness your destination. Realize that real life is always happening in the present moment. The past is dead, and the future is fantasy. Learn from the past, and plan for the future. However, let go a bit and get swallowed up in each and every present moment. This is where real life unfolds. Get into the habit of bringing your mind back to the present moment when it wanders. The present moment hold so much meaningfulness for us to find. We just have to be open to it.
Gratitude. Get out of the mindset of scarcity, and get into the mindset of abundance. Advertisers try to send us the message that we aren't enough, so we will buy their products. News outlets try to get us hooked into their mediums by using fear-based tactics. Don't buy into this nonsense. You do not need anything to be complete. You are not lacking. Focus on what you have, instead of what you think you need. Start keeping a daily gratitude list. At the end of every day, make a list of what you are most grateful about in your life. Over time, this will transform your outlook on life.
Do for other people. Doing nice things for other people is a win-win. It's a win for them, because you are helping them out. It's a win for you, because doing kind things for others makes us feel good. Spreading kindness in contagious. Furthermore, showing compassion for others takes our minds off of ourselves. This is a good thing.
Is this useful? Start thinking about your thinking more. Your goal here is to put a some space between you and your thoughts. Do this by becoming the "observer of your thoughts." If you find your self going down the rabbit hole of compulsive over-thinking or worrying, ask yourself "is this useful"? If it is not useful, let it go. This takes time and practice. Adopt this phrase as one of your mantras. Over time, it will help break your endless loop of negative self- chatter.
Don't confuse pleasure for happiness. Pleasure is fleeting. There is nothing wrong with enjoying some of life's pleasures. However, use moderation in your pursuit of pleasures. Basing your life or your self-worth on the attainment of pleasures will leave you feeling empty over time. Real joy comes from connecting with others and finding deep meaning in the simple things of life.
Life has an ebb and flow. Life is nothing more than a series of ups and downs. Approach life with equanimity. Don't get too high or too low. Expect the unexpected and go with the flow. As Jon Kabat-Zinn says, "You can't stop the waves, but you can learn to surf."
The Law of Impermanence. The only constant is life is change. We live in a world where everything changes constantly. We cause suffering to ourselves when we try to cling to people, places, and things too much. Sometimes when we focus too much on wanting things or situations to be different than they are, we increase our pain exponentially. We can decrease our suffering by remembering to control what we can and learn to let go of what we cannot.
Instant Gratification is a joy killer. We live in an accelerated culture where everything is available to us at the mere push of a button. We have forgotten what is means to have to wait for something. We get impatient, even angry, when we don't get what we want when we want it. Start slowing down a bit. Build in some time during the day when you are simply "being" and not doing. Let your mind rest. Stillness and silence is where joy, wonder, and creativity are born. As a byproduct, doing this will build up your patience.
Happiness is a skill. Realize that happiness is a skill, not a destination. By internalizing this, and doing the things in this list, we all stand a better chance of being more self-fulfilled.
Greg Graber, the author of Slow Your Roll- Mindfulness for Fast Times, teaches mindfulness to schools, top sports teams, and various organizations around the world. Graber, a frequent keynote speaker, currently serves as the Director of SEL & Mindfulness at Lausanne Collegiate School. He may be contacted through his website: www.greggraber.com