When You’re Happy And You (Don’t) Know It…
… well, clap your hands if you must, but then read on once you’re done. What follows is only a tip of the iceberg, but there’s enough in here to put an insomniac to sleep, or cause a judgmental undead to sit up bolt upright in outrage from its relaxed buried position, or at least unsuccessfully attempt to do so anyway.
I was asked to share some of my thoughts on what kind of happiness can be beneficial when Life — the universal one — throws a spanner in the works of the life — the private one — that you had carefully planned for yourself, and you are left wondering what happens next.
The following is an attempt to string together bits and pieces of some private scribblings I’ve engaged in while having similar ponderings in the past.
Read at your own risk, if you have time and patience enough to do so, if you can stay awake through the whole thing, if you are not someone who has already reached the pinnacle of the emotion being written about, and therefore finds oneself compelled to disagree if something doesn’t exactly fit the one-size-fits-all model, and if you are not someone who is driven to the point of insanity by metaphors of even the most innocuous nature.
Happiness is such a tricky concept to write about. It can be just as relative as any other, in the sense that the reason behind one person’s ecstasy can spell utter heartbreak for another. Yet we keep chasing behind it, because it is often touted as the greatest pursuit of life.
But if it is not an absolute concept, if it cannot be pinned down as something specific, then is there even any point in chasing after it? How does one go about capturing that which cannot be held captive by our limited sensory perception?
The answers to the above questions are as further apart from one another as they would be if they sprang to life and boarded two oppositely headed beams of light.
The answer to the first question is both Yes and No, simply because it is a relative concept, and the answer to the second… well, let’s just say that we can spend our entire lifetimes searching for the perfect example of happiness, but it might end up proving to be more elusive than a mirage.
So, the ideal path to being happy lies not as much in trying to be so, or to get to a place of happiness as if it were a set target, rather in recognizing that happiness is synonymous to the path we find ourselves on. I realize that this is also a very commonly used statement, but what warrants special attention is the fact that everyone’s path is different.
Some might run neck and neck with those of others, some might have points of convergence, and then some might be polar opposites — so the focus needs to be shifted from a certain point in future, to being mindful of the profusion of points that make up your present path.
So let’s say we recognize this, acknowledge it as truth, and get started on our merry journeys, observing everything around us and taking it all in, but then reach a point where something seems to be wrong.
You look at yourself, and realize that while you were busy entrusting the Universe with your happiness, the Universe, in all its wisdom, had been busy setting up these tests to make sure you can actually implement all that you’ve been observing along the way, and not just being theoretically wise, but practically so as well.
Cosmic pop quiz — that’s what these are. Exciting? Sure. Challenging? You bet. Fun? Well, not always. Necessary? That’s for you to find out. My personal compass points to the word absolutely on that one.
What do we do? Do we get startled at the suddenness of this, and either stay rooted to the spot, pondering the unfairness of it all and a complete lack of warning, or run back to a previous point that, in our opinion, seems like a safe point to begin again — one that we know was definitely prior to whatever it is we are being tested on first happened?
Good luck with that. And when you have discovered time travel, please share, because the course of humanity can be changed if we knew, but then again, maybe not, given our not-so-envious collective track record as the most highly evolved species in more ways than one.
How about putting our respective memories to the test at this juncture instead of choosing to fantasize about the two equally improbable options above?
What am I getting at? Simply this: unless you’ve been hermetically sealed in a bubble, and then left on a deserted island, with no contact whatsoever with even the local flora — in case the only fauna gracing the island is you, which is highly unlikely since there’s always the microfauna that we don’t see — you’d have experienced several things to be grateful for, especially if you did a good enough job observing everything, and not just what you wanted to exclusively focus on, while traveling on your path thus far.
So this would be a good time to start thinking about all of the moments and things, both animate and inanimate, that fill us with gratitude — the possibilities are endless.
A few examples would be: a simple Thank You in return for a random act of kindness; a brief moment of pause where you noticed something so beautiful that it left you breathless; a smile on someone’s face; happy tears; a loved one’s voice over the telephone lines that can instantly soothe a heartache and longing; a joke or a funny moment — even if it is one that made sense to no one but you, sometimes these can be the funniest ones; a realization of how lucky you are to even be able to have that realization — not all of your fellow humans can say that; noticing your everyday activities and marveling at the complexity of your body — regardless of anything hurtful you might have heard about it from someone who doesn’t occupy your body, and regardless of anything along similar lines that even you might think of it; appreciating nature’s bounty and how it is shared so selflessly with whoever needs its healing power, in spite of all the wanton destruction we put our environment through; the trust one notices among different species, humans included, when an unlikely bond is formed; other humans and sentient beings doing good to and for one another; etc.
I am sure there are many more that I missed in my list above, maybe even some important ones that I unwittingly overlooked, but I am yet to scale those echelons of insanity where I would attempt to tabulate an exhaustive list. I reiterate: it is endless.
Yet if you were to insist on having me pick a personal favorite, it would have to be a sense of gratitude for being able to feel grateful in the first place.
Let us focus on what to do when we find ourselves forced to take a break on our paths of happiness. This break is a period of your greatest transition — from one of innocent and pure happiness to a fearless variety — one that can be likened to iron transforming into steel.
To take it a step further, you can compare this transition of your happiness, from a trust-based one to a self-assured one, with the transition of an iron will to a steely resolve.
Post-transition, only close friends and kindred spirits will be the first to notice the difference and this new version of you, and they will also be the ones who won’t readily misinterpret your newfound self-confidence as arrogance.
On the contrary, kindred spirits are mutually benefited from each other’s courage-based happiness in the grand scheme of things, so it can even end up making you a trendsetter of sorts when it comes to leading by example, by personifying happiness and being the mirror for all others in the same boat as you.
This is not an easy process by any means, not even remotely so. It can actually be extremely unsettling for most of us to find ourselves smack in the middle of uncertainty and groundlessness, where none or most of our carefully laid out plans don’t even apply anymore… where settling for no way out seems to be the easiest way out.
And here is where the true objective of these particular cosmic pop quizzes becomes obvious to an introspective mind, and that is: to teach us the virtues of patience and the futility of trying to control your destiny.
Some might say that if you are driven enough, you can definitely be in charge and make things go exactly the way you’d like them to. While this might hold true for some folks, it is not the whole truth, for the simple reason that there are more factors than just one’s hard work to bring about a desired outcome.
Luck, however much one would like to despise that term as an escapist’s or procrastinator’s best excuse, is definitely a factor. You don’t have to use the word luck per se, in order to describe what it stands for — instead, you could use kismet, chance, opportunity, perfect moment, or even fate, to name a few.
Where you end up finding yourself at any given moment is a blend of different factors that have worked together to land you in that moment.
In some cases, one or more of these factors play a dominant role — for instance, the driven-to-success-by-hard-work-alone group of people have their tenacity and determination playing the dominant role; however, even in their cases, there had to be at least one more factor, perhaps even a subtle one that easily evaded, and still continues to evade, detection.
The discomfort of having your plans disrupted can have different effects on different people, and the degree within the same given effect can vary widely as well from one person to another. But counting the number of things you can be grateful for will help you with going past sadness — and just like in a GPS, you will recalculate in case you miss a turn or an exit in your predetermined route.
If you resist what came up, however unexpected and uncomfortable it might be, you could think of a Chinese finger trap to help illustrate how the resistance will make this sudden roadblock seem to appear even more insurmountable and hard to accept than it really is.
Instead, in order to go through or go past any obstacle in your path, you need to trust your intuition and go with the flow. Never stop, and don’t even think about giving up. Keep pegging away at it, even if the rate of progress seems painfully slow. Believe me, you’ll make progress, so just be patient, hang in there, and keep at it.
In the words of the incredibly inspirational late Dr. Randy Pausch, “The brick walls aren’t there to keep us out, the brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something.”
As a kid, I used to be fascinated by how a stream of water, as long as it had the slightest bit of forward or downhill momentum, would go past an impervious rock or find its way through a whole bundle of solid sticks placed in its path, irrespective of the volume of water and the size of the obstacle.
And more often than not, after going past said obstacle, the individual streams would merge right back, eventually resuming on its original path as if nothing ever happened. Does that imply that nothing hindered it? Of course not, though the end of it would seem that way — and appear completely unaffected — to a second observer who was not privy to the obstacle the stream had to overcome before it got to him.
The other aspect of happiness, besides the inner one that arises from being accepting of all that arises, is a derived happiness that comes from being of service to others, owing to the innate shared connection that we all possess.
As Rabindranath Tagore, one of India’s greatest sons, perfectly summarized it: “I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.”
The practice of Karma Yoga — a path of selfless service and committing to others’ happiness without getting ensnared in the trappings of expecting anything in return, even the direct result of your service — can be a source of great happiness if you can train your mind, unless it naturally comes to you to begin with, to be content with just having your basic needs met and dedicating the rest of all you have to offer — mind, body and soul — to serve others.
It can also be a very effective instrument to channel any discontentment arising from having your original plans go awry due to unforeseen circumstances — the initial point that I talked about above.
In fact, all instances of helping others, big and small — both through your presence and actions when others need it, as well as through random acts of kindness when others are least expecting it — can be intensely gratifying experiences.
Once you know how to use acceptance, a never-give-up attitude, and your inner GPS to chart new routes, the enhanced clarity you gain through the painful experience will make you look at the apparent hardship from a different perspective.
There are always two sides to a coin, and for those of us like me, who are not satisfied by a one-or-the-other black-or-white approach, and prefer the understanding that is derived from a respectful agnosticism or uncertainty provided by the grey area in between any two extremes, we can always balance on the narrow edge of the coin separating its two sides.
Approach it with a sense of curiosity, and the precariousness of remaining on the thin edge will eventually transform from seeming inanity to a challenge that you’ll grow to appreciate with time, I assure you.
When you reach that last phase — a phase that lasts forever, every moment will be one in which you will embrace uncertainty as if you were meeting your soul mate after a long time, as if you were a branch of the stream from the example above reuniting with the other branches to be your original whole stream self again, and that addictive and heady sensation will reveal the meaning of true happiness.
Some cases take longer than others, but it is my sincere hope that you can discover the happiness — the very same one that you don’t know of, the one that is hitherto unknown to you, and lying in wait for you to detect it — in your life by respecting both the dark and the light aspects of everything that happens, and treating them as being equally necessary for your mental and spiritual evolution.
Caveat: The above has been based on my personal experience in life so far, and I value experience as the greatest teacher — a better provider of life lessons than most other sources combined together. However, I — just like all of you who have been patient enough in reading the above — am still learning. It is a neverending process, and it is a unique and fun activity.
So if what I wrote above does not sound like something you agree with, then let me assure you that your different viewpoint is just as valid as mine. And if you think it is more valid, then I find that to be just as acceptable. I will never claim to be a know-it-all, though I do aspire to be a share-it-all when it comes to the lessons I have learnt.
And to be better able to do so, I have the following two daily reminders for myself — and if you think they apply to you, then that’s great; if not, it might be helpful to have a couple of daily reminders of your choice:
(a) No pain, no gain: there is much truth to this pithy saying. Those who have experienced pain in any form will know what I am talking about, and those who haven’t… well, please don’t resist it when you are faced with any. Accept it, live through it, and you’ll find brand new sources of happiness that are accessible to most but realized by only a few.
(b) A calm sea does not make a skilled sailor: I’d rather be happy with the new skills I keep discovering in myself that I never knew I possessed or had the ability to cultivate, by being patient, than live an untested life, by moving from one easy way out to the next, without initially pausing to think if there is any way at all to put those hard-earned skills above to good use.