Home > Playing in Life's Ballpark > #9 — On Finding Happiness: “So, where do I look?”

#9 — On Finding Happiness: “So, where do I look?”

I’m often struck by how many of the things we learn about life when we are young turn out to be contrary to how things really are.  As a young boy I was taught to believe in fairies and elves and things that I later learned were based on superstition.  When I lost a tooth, I was told that if I put it under my pillow at night, the “Good Fairy” would come and get the discarded tooth and leave me something in its place.  That first morning, after I found a quarter, I wondered fleetingly how many teeth it would take so I could afford to buy myself a baseball glove.  I think a lot of people have had similar experiences during their early years as they were exposed to seemingly innocent fables.  Perhaps the most popular image representing fairy tales and children’s stories is “Prince Charming” riding off on his horse into the sunset with the “Fair Maiden” to the familiar refrain: “They lived happily ever after.” 

The message here for the young is that if you do things right, your happiness will be assured and you won’t have to lift a finger.  Yet the consequences for those who adopt this belief can be severe.  Each year I see people in my practice who are disappointed and resentful, sometimes even bitter.  They have done everything they were supposed to do — work hard, follow the rules, help others — and they are still waiting to live happily ever after.  Only somehow life has failed to cooperate. 

In this perpetuation of innocence, I have seen middle-aged women who are still doggedly waiting for Prince Charming to show up, perhaps not on a horse but driving a Rolls or a Bentley.  When this “right one comes along,” they expect to be gathered up and adored for the rest of their blissful lives.  Of course, constantly scanning the horizon for that “right one” is a little like trying to scour the oceans in search of the right fish for dinner.  You wind up missing out on a lot that would do just fine.

I have also seen men of varying ages who have left one relationship after another, in each case complaining, “Relationships shouldn’t be this hard” or “It shouldn’t take this much work.”  Yet these same men are perfectly comfortable sitting in front of a TV football game and asserting after a violent play, “No pain, no gain!”  Somehow they haven’t caught on to the reality that relationships are living things that require tending.  I sometimes wonder if they would simply throw a handful of seeds into the backyard in the spring that then expect to harvest a luxurious crop in the fall without putting in any effort in between.

Underneath these naive expectations there is a set of widely held but false beliefs about happiness.  The first of these is that happiness is a feeling, when it is actually a condition based on a judgment or conclusion.  This is not a new notion, of course.  Aristotle once referred to happiness as “a state of activity.”  If we are comfortable and satisfied with where we are and what we are experiencing, we conclude — “Yes, I’m happy.”  Yet somehow, perhaps through a sense of entitlement, people seem to hang on to the idea that happiness is an emotional experience. 

Each year a number of people enter my office complaining that they are depressed.  Many have been prescribed medication, which they expect will somehow make their lives better.  Most have also been told that they need therapy, although they are not sure why.  After a few visits, some of these people decide that they don’t need therapy because they are feeling better.  Naturally, I simply wish them well and watch them leave.  After a while, many of them return, complaining that “my medicine stopped working.”  When I inquire as to how they know this, they respond sternly, “I’m just not feeling happy,” as if they are being denied something to which they are entitled.  When I ask what they plan to do about their situation, they often become nonplussed, mumbling that they had expected me to tell them what to do.  Naturally, they are not at all pleased when I inform them that it is not my job to solve their problems for them any more than it is the trainer’s job to lift the weights for the athlete.  Moreover, I explain that being happy is something we determine upon reflecting on our life situation.  In other words, happiness comes from the way we live, not from taking a pill!

Since my explanation implies that some amount of effort is required, most people respond with disbelief.  This resistance reveals a second false belief about happiness, namely that it comes to us rather than from us.  Once again, the opposite is true; for if I am expecting to live happily ever after without putting in any effort, then I become one of life’s victims rather than one of its architects.  I might just as easily conclude that if I simply sit under the right tree long enough, happiness will fall on me like rain.  In reality, being in a situation in which I judge that I am happy is not something I am likely to find, and certainly not sustain, by chance.  If I am to be happy, I must arrange it for myself. 

My own quest for happiness (see Blog #2) took me through many of life’s dark alleys and dead ends, and my own lessons about happiness were often hard earned.  I watched people I knew achieve “success” (and to some extent did so myself) in the form of property, position, and often corporate power.  None of this made me happy, and none of the people I saw seemed happy, because no matter how much they had, they always seemed to need more.  Eventually, I came to recognize a third false belief about happiness — that the more you have, the happier you will be.  In reality, happiness comes not from having but from doing, and the doing almost inevitably involves some form of giving. 

Before becoming a therapist, I volunteered in a mentoring program at an inner city high school.  By donating a small amount of time and attention, I gained rewards in the form of satisfaction and understanding that I could never buy and that have helped me immeasurably in my therapy work.  And so I learned that happiness comes from getting out of our heads and into our lives.  By reaching out, by trying to do for others, we can shift our focus away from our own discontent and look instead at ways we can create happiness.  And the more we create, the more we will benefit.  After all, we only get to keep what we are willing to give away.  As the Chinese proverb says:

“If you want happiness for an hour, take a nap.
If you want happiness for a day, go fishing.
If you want happiness for a year, inherit a fortune.
If you want happiness for a lifetime, help someone else.”

  1. December 13, 2011 at 3:17 am

    Your wisdom is most valuable. This post is so very true and it is refreshing to be reminded in such an erudite way! Martha

  2. December 13, 2011 at 7:51 pm

    Don, I find this blog to be most accurate and I think many people need to read this. They need to be aware that they can make changes in their lives to lead to a better well-being.

  3. December 21, 2011 at 10:54 pm

    Don, I agree, however I also believe that happiness lies in the attitude with which we do what ever it is that we do. Approaching the actions with some degree of thoughtfulness and being mindful of myself, I find that I am happy with what I do and the results will be what they will be. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays my friend.

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