One of the primary motivations for creating this site is the prevailing concept that personal development is designed to make you “happy.”
I hate that idea.
Mainly because it’s such a transitory thing. I’ve always mistrusted happiness. As a parent, you see it more clearly, as your children beg you for that one thing that will make them happy. They’re positive that’s what they need, that’s the only thing they need, and if only you were a better parent, you’d get it for them.
One of two things happens: you either get it for them or you don’t. If you get it, you will get a brief burst of gratitude if you are lucky. More likely though you’ll see them consume it and discard it with baffling speed, discarding it along with your brief reign as Best Parent Ever. Then there will come the next thing that they really absolutely have to have, because without it their lives are absolute inutterable unending misery.
If you don’t get it, you will find yourself relegated to the ranks of the Neglectful and Uncaring Parental Units whose cruelty is only matched by their ignorance, because obviously you just don’t understand exactly how essential this object is to any possibility of your child actually achieving happiness.
But a funny thing happens. You see the misery distracted – again, often with astonishing speed – and the child is caught smiling, perhaps even laughing, even though they have been deprived of that one thing that was absolutely essential.
Then they see some other new thing, and the cycle continues.
Is it any wonder, after having raised four daughters, that I am skeptical of anything that claims to bring “happiness”? The thing is, I also believe that we all do this, all the time. It may the latest iPhone, it may be that vacation with your husband, it may be that promotion at work – doesn’t matter, we see something that we think will make us happy, and we do the same thing my kids did. It’s just a bit harder to notice.
So I promise, right here and now, never to promise to make you happy. I haven’t got a clue how that works. This morning, in fact, as I got up from sitting, my partner called from the bed “Are you happy now that you’ve gotten to do your sitting practice?”
The question baffled me. If you’ve tried sitting the way I do, you’ll know why. Sitting is being there, totally unshielded and undistracted from all the shit going on in my head. That is not a happy place. I don’t do the sitting practice to be happy; I do it to be more aware of reality. As Daniel Gilbert mentions in his book “Stumbling Upon Happiness” (affiliate link), the people with the most realistic grasp of odds are those who are depressed. Perhaps a more cheerful way to think of it is an old Buddhist proverb that says “the extent of your suffering is exactly the difference between the way things are and the way you think they should be.”
What I do believe is that being more in touch with reality can make me happier. Not solve my problems, not bring me to some mythical state of bliss, but make everyday stresses just a bit easier to bear. I think that taking small steps – the kinds of things we do in “practice” can make life, and all its stresses, just that much better. Just a little bit.
I may even have a vague glimpse of the concept of all of those little bits of happierness adding up to a very big dose of “happy.” But I can’t be sure that’s not just an illusion, so for now, we’ll just focus on making things “happier” than they were yesterday.
In hard times that might be the only thing we can count on to keep us going, just a bit further. Until we’re not so sadly.