Unflappable - 6 Steps To Staying Happy, Centered, Peaceful No Matter What
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THE CHASE AFTER HAPPINESS
“All I want is for you to be happy.”
Did you ever hear your mother say that? Did you ever buy a house, take a trip, get a new job, or fall in love and think you had happiness in the bag—until reality and just plain life settled in?
“Happiness is there for the taking! Go get it!” That’s what American culture tells us, with overwhelming evidence for its apparent truth all around: happy, rich, successful, beautiful folks on TV; well-dressed businesspeople bustling in and out of the glitzy high-rise buildings downtown; luxurious lifestyles portrayed in fashion magazines at the grocery store. Even though your pursuit might not sound so glamorous, this cultural decree defines how most people pursue happiness. But it doesn’t give you the whole story about creating a happy life.
Here’s the thing—the idea that you can catch happiness this way, and have it all the time, is like a mirage: it shimmers in the distance, beckoning you forward but is unable to ever deliver what it promises. Yet we cling to the idea of finding perpetual happiness as if it were a real oasis. We think we’ll finally quench our persistent thirst to enjoy life and feel good.
The problem isn’t that happiness isn’t available to us right now—it’s just not hiding out where we’re looking.
The idea that you can catch happiness this way, and have it all the time, is a mirage.
Is Happiness Even a Worthy Pursuit?
Everyone’s searching for happiness in some way or another. But is it a worthwhile goal or just an indulgence? Should you be embarrassed at wanting it? Can you really be a good person if you focus on being happy? Or does wanting happiness for yourself mean that you’re a selfish slacker, avoiding being a responsible, conscious and engaged global citizen?
The answer is a definite no! It’s not only okay to be happy, but also it’s your birthright—and your gift to share with others. The Dalai Lama says this is the purpose of our existence. Even the United States Declaration of Independence encourages your pursuit of happiness.
When I was four years old, I remember tiptoeing out of my room to the top of the staircase on Christmas morning. As I peeked down into the living room, my eyes landed on the most beautiful doll in the universe, unwrapped, waiting for me under the tree. I was so happy I shook with joy. That was my defining moment. I was convinced my purpose in life was to be happy. How could that not be? It felt soooooooo good. I never forgot that oh-so-excellent feeling. I wanted it again—and again, and again.
When I grew up, I realized that happiness does make the heart overflow and lifts giving to a kingly stature—with so much in your heart, sharing is the only option. Like a cloud that has to rain to relieve the fullness of too much moisture, the human heart has to share happiness to relieve the fullness of too much joy.
What Works (and Doesn’t) with Go-Get-It Happiness
I bet you’ve experienced that fullness of joy too. You may have felt it when you finally got your promotion, bought a house, finished that creative project you’d thought was beyond your reach, or saw your baby take those first steps. You’ve probably also experienced happiness of a lesser degree, like when you got extra cash from selling your couch, finished knitting a sweater, or even after you paid your bills on time.
You work hard to feel good about yourself and make choices you believe are right and good. When you are successful, you feel satisfied, accomplished, proud, joyful, loving, lovable, connected, generous, smart, courageous, and of course, filled with a sense of purpose and meaning.
You knew what would make you feel good, you set out to do it, and it worked. Then that wonderful feeling of happiness arrived. You enjoyed it, savored it, and drank it up.
And then . . . your visit with happiness came to an end.
It’s so delightful to go and get what you want (or make sure you do not get what you don’t want). But when these pleasurable feelings eventually pass—as everything does—you feel anxious, wondering what you did wrong, or pondering where to find happiness again. Happiness in this form doesn’t stay around for long, does it?
But the desire for happiness does stay. So you then try to find something else that will bring it again—a shopping trip, chocolate ice cream, or the excitement of playing the lottery. It doesn’t matter that you consciously know the satisfaction won’t last. You just want to feel good again—as soon as possible.
Happiness Is A Two-Sided Coin
Desiring happiness can also create another problem—deciding what will make you happy. Sounds like it should be pretty easy, right? Money, love, a good job, vacation, world peace, and health care for all! Unfortunately, the go-get-it path to happiness starts to fall apart when you have two seemingly conflicting desires, such as wanting
- both personal happiness and happiness for all
- both solitude and companionship
- both competition and collaboration
Each option offers something you value that contributes to a more fulfilling life—and happiness. But each desire also requires use of your limited resources: your focus, time, energy, and often money. Turns out, it’s not such an easy choice to make.
Take for example your desire for personal happiness. It is natural and built into the human psyche. If you’re going after personal happiness, you might get a massage and then work on your art or play in your garden. Your desire for your own private happiness drives your personality (likes and dislikes) and your decisions (choices). There is nothing bad about it or wrong with it.
The desire for universal happiness is also natural and built into the human heart. You might volunteer at a food bank, help a co-worker, or make a donation to your favorite non-profit. It drives your desire to evolve, become a better person, and make the world a more compassionate and loving place—for you and everyone else. There is certainly nothing bad or wrong about that kind of happiness, either.
But there’s an inner tension about which one to pursue, and how to make a choice. To end the struggle, people will say one is more important, or more right, than the other. But the desire for universal happiness is not any better or more special than the de- sire for personal happiness. And personal happiness is not a lesser endeavor than universal happiness. Caring for your own body, mind, heart, and soul and caring for others compose the two-sided coin of human happiness.
When you learn how to embrace both kinds of happiness, without valuing one over the other, you discover how they work together to get the results they’re each designed to create.
Using Your Personal Resources
Let’s move back for a moment to the problem of your resources— and how to use them. You know you don’t have an unlimited amount of time, energy, focus, or money, so you have to choose how to best use what you have. How do you decide what’s best for you as an individual—and for the collective world at large?
Do you put your focus, time, energy, and money into taking care of yourself and doing what feels good so you can be happy and enjoy your life? Or do you focus on taking care of your responsibilities to others—the kids, the office, your partner, your par- ends, politics, government, war, poverty, hunger, sex trafficking, oil prices, the economy, the environment, retirement, and on and on—with passion and presence, even if it makes you sick and crazy?
If you don’t know how to make this choice and feel good about it, you can end up feeling dissatisfied, unhappy, insecure, anxious, frustrated, lonely, sad, isolated,
and all too often despairing and depressed. Having a happy life is not a simple “go-and-get-it” phenomenon.
So what are you supposed to do? Some folks just flip a coin to decide. But in this book, I’m going to teach you how to consciously make decisions that take into account both your desires and your responsibilities, so you can begin to experience the happiness you seek.
Caring for your own body, mind, heart, and soul and caring for others compose the two-sided coin of human happiness.
My Journey toward Happiness
People always ask about my search for happiness—how Ms. Wholesome from middle America came to find this wisdom. It took a while. I explored a lot of options for happiness: numerous handsome and not so handsome boyfriends, exotic lovers, and long-term relationships; a college education; a career in psychology and a specialty in behavioral change; the hope (and constant search) for the security of marriage and a wealthy husband; recognition through public speaking and teaching; service through community organizing; a retreat from altruism into selling encyclopedias and making money in the corporate world. I sang in a church choir, wrote poetry, read books, drew and painted, traveled around the world (nine times), tried out yoga and Pilates, practiced meditation, followed a guru and joined ashram life, studied cooking and baking, had a cat and a dog, and, believe me, there’s more!
There was nothing bad in these choices—they made my life richer. But they weren’t what I was really looking for.
I was chasing after what I believed was real happiness—joy without sorrow, abundance without scarcity, friends without enemies, acceptance without rejection, trust without doubt, and security without risk—and I was convinced I was right to fight for what I wanted.
I was one motivated girl. I wanted to grab not one, but two handfuls of happiness—just for me—all the time. Still, I didn’t want to be obnoxious about it. I was sincere in my efforts and as kind to others as I knew how to be. I worked hard, paid my bills, and supported myself. I just wanted to get married, have a couple of kids, and be happy. But when I didn’t get that, I struggled with envy. When others had happiness, I was glad for them—though distressed I didn’t have it. I kept on trying to grab what I was sure was rightfully mine.
Each activity brought me a taste of happiness. But it never lasted. While I experienced amazing aspects of life, I remained mostly unhappy (and very dramatic). I was riddled with the misery of existential angst, stressed, and usually embroiled in some kind of demoralizing emotional turmoil. When the little nasties of hatred, sorrow, criticism, and failure inevitably reared their not-so-pretty heads, I felt crushed, unloved, and unsuccessful.
Eventually, I took the demise of my happiness quite personally. I assumed that my flaws were keeping happiness moving on its merry way—as far away from me as possible. My conclusion: perhaps I didn’t deserve to be happy. Sound familiar?
That didn’t stop me from still chasing happiness. I saw it as the silver bullet that would eliminate all my problems—forever. The alternative was to feel like a failure or a lost soul—definitely not my goal!
My Silver Bullet—or So I Thought
Around thirty, I decided that psychotherapy and various New Age offerings had failed me. I started combing the spiritual marketplace wanting to devise a clear spiritual practice that would lead me to continual happiness. I was sure I could find it since all spiritual paths seemed to imply that Nirvana, Bliss, Unconditional Love, and Oneness were reachable goals. I just needed the right approach. I tried on different practices like they were clothing, discarding one after the other when nothing really changed inside.
Then . . . I fell in love with the teachings of a guru from India named Osho.
Osho was not only a mystic but also a philosophy professor. He expounded on Western psychology and the intricacies of the mind in ways I hadn’t encountered before. His insights into human psychology left me in awe, and his discourses on emotions were savvy and astute. Sitting in talks he gave to thousands, I swore he aimed his words directly at me and could see into my heart and soul (even though I wasn’t sure I had either one).
His physical presence knocked me for a blissful loop, and I was enraptured.
I became a disciple and backpacked my way to Osho’s ashram in Pune, India, about a seven-hour train ride from Mumbai. While there, I felt contented and calm. I found relief from my chase after happiness. Osho’s presence gave me a mind-boggling taste of “the peace that passes all understanding.” I felt alive, full of blissful feelings, and seriously hooked.
For the first time in my life, I felt whole. Beyond happy, I succumbed to the notion that Osho was the answer to my problems.
Isn’t happiness the silver bullet that will eliminate all your problems—forever?
Turns out, he was . . . and he wasn’t. Osho was the answer because he taught me an important truth about happiness I had missed. And he wasn’t because I still had to take what I learned and make it my personal experience, which wasn’t always wrapped in joy.
When I returned to my conventional life in Seattle several months later, it was clear my experiences in India had changed me. I was calmer, less dramatic (by a hair), and more able to tolerate discomfort for longer periods of time (a minute and a half now without complaining). I savored the lingering flavor of that peace for eight more years. But again, it didn’t last.
By the time I was forty, not even a drop of tranquility remained. I was gripped by my hatred of discomfort, inconvenience, and unhappiness. My greedy hands reached for whatever brought me the most pleasure—usually sex, potato chips, or chocolate, although not always in that order.
I was swept into refueling my pursuit of happiness. But this time, it was exhausting. Instead of having fleeting moments of happiness, as I’d had before my trip to India, I just found sadness, depression, and lethargy. Desperation became my companion. Now I wanted three handfuls of pleasure—not just two!
I began to realize I wasn’t really in the driver’s seat. My conviction that perpetual happiness was attainable was still very real, and I kept fruitlessly trying to find that place where I would be happy and all my problems would be solved—forever.
Then one day, for no particular reason I can remember, I noticed that almost everyone around me was traveling down the same blind alley I was. We were all confused and gathered at its dead end, commiserating on our bad luck, bad karma, or bad choices, but not knowing anywhere else to go.
I wondered if returning to India would once again get me what I needed. But this time I wanted a spiritual awakening that would stay with me, not one contingent on my guru’s presence that faded away with time.
A Huge Little Insight
Several months later, while living in Pune again, I was perched on a stone wall outside the ashram. My stomach was busy digesting an overindulgence of naan, hot and fresh out of the ashram’s oven. A glorious montage of red, pink, and mauve bougainvillea surrounded me, gracing the dirt road in front of me. Like most roads in India, it was spotted with noisy children playing and middle-aged men seated outside small tea shops, drinking glasses of chai and gesturing wildly as they discussed God and various ways to heaven. The scent of jasmine mixed with the smell of sun-baked cow paddies and roasted peanuts created a slightly pungent breeze.
The exotic smells, each jockeying for dominance, seemed to highlight the confusion churning in my mind. Despite sitting in India, the land of spiritual awakening—with a genuine guru to boot—I felt hurt and a bit betrayed by all the advice I’d received and honestly tried to follow. None of it had really worked, and I had been at it for years. I still wasn’t happy, blissful, peaceful, or wise.
My heart pulsed with an excruciating sadness. I still hadn’t a clue how to be happy, much less what happiness actually was. My soul was slowly starving as I fed it increasingly larger dollops of bitterness and cynicism each passing day. I wasn’t aware that I didn’t have the complete story about finding happiness. And since I had failed at making happiness last, I began to question the very notion of being happy.
I was trying to make sense of these profound questions when I noticed a familiar old beggar I’d encountered every day. He was walking toward me and, as always, he hailed me with his bright, toothless smile. Eyes shining, he extended his hands palms upward, making his daily request for rupees. Despite his lack of teeth, tattered clothes, and what I judged as a demeaning station, his eyes were sparkling with joy, his smile was open and engaging, and his presence emanated peace and calm. As our eyes met, I realized— large, loud, and in neon letters—that for my beggar friend, happiness was obviously not the absence of unhappiness.
Wow! I suddenly realized I defined happiness as the absence of unhappiness. I had defined love as being without hate, joy without sorrow, and security without risk. I realized my way of defining happiness was at the root of my unhappiness. This must be the reason I had failed so miserably to capture happiness and make it my own—permanently!
Happiness, Please - Nothing More
After my epiphany, I spent an hour being ruthlessly honest with myself. I realized that in my chasing after happiness, I was simultaneously fleeing unhappiness at breakneck speed. No matter how silly or stupid it sounds, I realized I had fully expected that I could make all unpleasantness simply stop.
I had been trying to build a life for myself that was without sadness, anxiety, anger....