I used the word “happiness” in the title because it’s catchy, but happiness is an elusive concept. Instead, I’ll talk about contentment, which I think of as one kind of happiness. Specifically, to me, contentment is the general feeling of being well, for no particular reason. Unlike the kind of happiness that comes from being given a shiny gift, contentment can, and does, last a longer time, and has fewer dependencies on the external world. Recently, I’ve been feeling content more often and for long durations than ever in my life, despite the numerous challenges I face in being mostly homeless, unemployed and single, so I’d like to share some realizations that have helped me get there.
- The path to contentment is subtractive, not additive. I believe that the state of contentment is achieved when we are free of all negative feelings, whether it be pain, anger, sadness, fear, guilt, shame, etc. As such, the path to contentment isn’t to add things to our lives, but rather to eliminate the sources of unhappiness. In some rare cases, you may need to add to your life to eliminate negative feelings. For instance, if the main cause of your pain is hunger, you need food. But, I believe there are only relatively few things that we truly need: water, food, warmth, hope and arguably, human contact. Everything else is icing on the cake, and like icing, might be as harmful as it is good, if not more so. If I am unhappy, I examine my life and my surroundings to identify the sources of my unhappiness. Then, I find ways to resolve the unhappiness, usually by addressing the issue at its source. The next step, of course, is to learn ways to resolve those issues. While there’s no single solution that’ll work in all cases, I found the next few points to be very helpful…
- Accept the world, yourself, and others as is, without expectation. I found that frustration and anger often arise when there is a gap between the universe as is, and as one believes it ought to be. I used to get mad at myself, because I felt like I wasn’t who I ought to be. This stopped when I learned to accept myself for who I am. I used to get mad or frustrated at other people, because I wanted or expected them to be or behave a certain way. This stopped when I learned to accept people for who they are, or at least came to accept that people are infinitely complex, are unique in ways that I may not even understand, and have better things to do than to behave as I expect them to.
- You can always walk away. Don’t like your job? You can walk away. Don’t like your boy/girlfriend? You can walk away. Is someone being annoying or hurtful? You can walk away. Does your apartment suck? You can walk away. Of course, walking away may have consequences, and should be a last resort. But it’s an option nonetheless, and simply knowing that that’s an option might help you feel better.
- Nobody can give you something you can’t give yourself. I used to look to others to give me love and validation. I needed those around me to tell me that I deserved to live, and that I was a good person. And if I was feeling particularly low, I needed someone right then and there. Of course, this lead to a lot of unhappiness because none of my friends or girlfriends have the time or inclination to be my 24×7 Ryo Support Service. So, instead, I learned to love and accept myself. This happened, for me, at least, when I realized that…
- Everybody deserves to live and be in this world. Yes, even me. And you. I used to think that I was only worth as much as my contribution to society, and that I had to do something great to be a worthy person. I have since rejected that notion. Even the CEO in a shiny suit and the star athlete on TV deserve to live, just as much as the stinky bum on the street.
- It is ok to feel bad sometimes. Life isn’t always good. In fact, it sucks a lot of times, or at least, it’s impossible to be happy all the time. I used to get depressed simply because I wasn’t happy. I felt like something was wrong with me or my life, and that made me sad. But then, I thought about my life, and realized that it was ok to feel a little sad. I’d just gotten out of a relationship. I didn’t know where I was sleeping that night. Of course I was a little sad! Ironically, just realizing that made me feel much, much better.
- It’ll be ok. If you find yourself or others worrying about some intractable life problem, and you don’t know the answer, just tell them (or yourself) that it’ll be ok. Life’s hard, but in most cases, it still some how works out. The only time life doesn’t work out is when you die, and well, then you’ll be too dead to worry.
- You have to want to be happy to be happy. If you read the above points and went “bah, humbug”, ask yourself, do you actually want to be happy? I didn’t. I used to think that I could become a better person if I punished myself. I didn’t think I deserved to be happy. Then, I realized it wasn’t working. I was still making the same mistakes, and feeling bad about it. So I decided to try something different, and treat myself with love and compassion instead. I think that worked better. And even if it didn’t and I’m the same flawed person I used to be, I might as well be a flawed person who feels good rather than one who doesn’t.