No, this is not going to be yet another article on New Year’s resolutions. I’m pretty sick of those, actually—I mean, most of us know what it takes to get healthy, we just have issues with motivation or stamina. It was in reviewing an end-of-year article, though, that I ran across this idea: Happiness also requires discipline. My initial reaction was to be a little offended; I mean, happiness just “happens” right? It’s part of being human and just bubbles up from inside somewhere, right? Well, yes and no. The more I thought about this, the more I realized that there is something to this notion. How easy is it to just keep moving forward in our lives, doing the mundane stuff that makes up most moments of most days? It’s not that happiness is somehow a chore, but it requires noticing what is actually happening. How often do we forget to do that?
Then there is the question of having a meaningful life. This does not imply happiness necessarily. One could be doing really meaningful, useful work….and be miserable doing it. I think a lot of us get hung up on feeling a bit like martyrs, doing “good work” and really not liking it at all. Or simply being so busy doing it that all the joy is gone.
So why does happiness take discipline? I think it’s because we have to be paying attention….and we don’t do that well at all! Even when we make an effort to notice, I think we rarely actually savor the moment. How often do we say “wow, that’s a pretty sunrise” and in seconds, we’re moving on to the next thing? When was the last time you consciously paused, noticing the lightness in your heart, committing that feeling to memory?
How much do we really value happiness? Think about what gets rewarded in our society: making money, doing “good work”, working hard. I’ve never heard someone say admiringly “yeah, he’s a bum, but he’s really happy”. In Bhutan, the government uses a measure of Gross National Happiness to set policy; this takes into account not just productivity, but sense of purpose and spirituality, among other things. (I found the actual questionnaire they use here http://tinyurl.com/mdt8tcl. For the record, there is some question as to how much the country is focusing on this in the past year, but it’s still a fascinating idea).
If one were to spend more time noticing and cultivating happiness, I think we automatically would become healthier as well. Time spent noticing happiness would teach us to slow down, which calms down our constant fight-and-flight behavior. Cultivating the feeling of happiness would remind us what truly feels good long term vs what feels good in the moment….so we might eat better, sleep more, and move in a way that is helpful to our bodies. It might even teach us to stop complaining about stuff that doesn’t really matter. And maybe, just maybe, it would remind us that working harder just to maintain all the “stuff” we’ve acquired (the big house, the boat, etc) doesn’t ever help us enjoy it.
Yes, sure, you’re busy. We all are. It doesn’t make slowing down impossible. Challenging, yes, but not impossible. If it actually does feel impossible, then I suggest that you look closely at how you spend your time. Where are you spending time and energy that doesn’t contribute to your happiness? Why can’t you find 15 minutes to notice your world each day? What are you avoiding?