Waiting For That Thing To Make Me Happy
Just in case anyone was wondering, happiness is not a passive experience.
Despite the pandemic, I am about as happy as I have ever been in my life. If anyone told me when I was 22 that I would feel the way I do today, I would not have believed them. But I’m here. I have a life and I’m not really sure what to do except to keep doing what I’m doing. I write this not to gloat or to brag. I write this to demonstrate that happiness as a state of being is within the realm of possibilities. Even during a pandemic.
When I was a young man, I didn’t have a clue about how to be happy. I wanted to be happy, sure. I looked around at all the other people who looked happy. My friends had attractive girlfriends. Or they married their high school sweetheart. I saw people I knew who started businesses and found prosperity there. They were buying houses, starting families and building prosperity. They left me in the dust in terms of the American Dream, that dream that I thought I wanted. The message I got was that something somewhere outside of me was going to make me happy.
But I hadn’t been doing the work. I was selfish, isolated, angry and resentful. For a long time, I was unwilling to take the risks required to prosper, both personally and financially. I did not notice that what I had envied in others was the result of hard work, and even if their lives appeared to be better than mine, I could not see that they still had difficult days.
I was unwilling to commit. I was working temp jobs, had no savings, few friends, and I was renting rooms. I was determined to live with as few commitments as possible. That kind of life was making me tired. I began to notice what was making me tired.
I knew that I needed help. So I sought counseling. My counselor told me that his impression of me was that I was a man who could hardly wait to jump out of his skin. I began the work in earnest to see who I was and who I really wanted to be. My counselor facilitated individual and group therapy. I showed up. He suggested that I go to 12 Step meetings. I showed up again. I wrote many pages of reflection and introspection. I spent a great deal of time learning about me.
One of the first things I noticed was that being angry and resentful is very energy-intensive. When I’m angry, that burns up energy that I might otherwise use to solve problems that I needed to solve. I learned that anger is an inability to accept things as they are. I also learned that it’s really hard to solve personal problems without acceptance.
So I learned to accept things as they are. I used a metaphor to help me through this. A map is a useful metaphor for acceptance. Navigation requires one to determine and accept his location on the map. I found that it is really hard to navigate my path to a place where I want to be if I don’t accept where I am now. The purpose of acceptance then is to have a place to start. Once I accept where I am, then I can consult a map to plot my path to the place where I want to be. In this context, the map as metaphor consists of counselors, friends, mentors and a support network.
I also learned something else about anger. I learned how to let it pass. I learned how to feel that anger well up within me, acknowledge it, and wait until it passes before taking any action that I might regret later. I learned that my anger is often unjustified, and I considered the possibility that I might not be qualified to be able to determine what justified anger looks like.
So I let the anger pass. Then I can decide what I want to do with my circumstances. With practice, I learned that I didn’t need to shoot back with words at anyone who offended me. I took note of the true costs of sarcasm, passive aggression and revenge. I also began to notice the friends and alliances I had lost while living life as a loose cannon.
I found that with acceptance came gratitude. It’s hard to have gratitude if there is no acceptance. Once I started accepting things the way they were, I began to notice all of the things that supported my life. You know, like the air, water, fire, and earth. I began to notice that I had enough for each day. I had a place to sleep, I had food to eat, and work to do. I began to notice that the world wasn’t against me. I realized that if the world were truly against me, then I would be about 1 millimeter thick.
Once I acknowledged the basic life-supporting stuff, I began to notice all the really good stuff in my life. Like sunsets on the pier, dinner with friends at my favorite restaurants, Christmas with family, and that I still had time for myself. I started to notice that I was happier when I noticed what I had than what I didn’t have but I wanted. And my life started to fill up with those things that I already had. I began to make good use of what I had. For much of that time, I had been using this prayer:
Thy will, not mine, be done.
It’s a really short prayer, and I hated it at first. I hated it because my will had been running my life for a long time and it seemed to get the job of survival done pretty well. But I was just surviving, not actually living. My will got me through a lot of stuff, but it wasn’t making me happy.
I remember having this conversation with a friend about prayer. I told him about that little prayer, and he told me about a friend of his who prayed for what he wanted and he often got what he wanted. Yet, despite getting all those things he wanted, he still wasn’t really happy. I began to think on this.
I saw that I had been sticking my will in places where it didn’t belong. I saw that my putative little brain was simply no match for the universe. I saw that I needed to align my will with the universe to the greatest extent possible so that I’m no longer in conflict with the universe. At this point, I have to assume that the universe is benign. I mean, I’m still here, so the universe must need me for something. And I didn’t know what that was. I still don’t, but I keep looking.
I realized that if I was going to pray for anything, I needed that prayer to be as open-ended as humanly possible. I realized that my experience and knowledge could impose unintended constraints on my prayers. I realized that what I wanted isn’t necessarily what I already know about.
Consider the following mental exercise:
On a piece of paper, or in your mind, draw a small circle, like a lower-case letter “o”. Inside that small circle is everything you know. Now draw a bigger circle around that small circle. Inside that bigger circle is everything you know you don’t know. And outside of that bigger circle is everything you don’t know that you don’t know. I learned that what I really want might be out there, beyond what I know. This is what I mean by keeping my prayers open. I want my prayers to be bigger than my consciousness, thy will not mine, be done.
I also realized that I must keep myself, my will, aligned with the universe. That little prayer above is nice, but I ran into another, more articulate version of it:
God, please grant me knowledge of your will for me and the power to carry that out.
I write that prayer every day in the morning, at the end of my Morning Page. In my Morning Page, I write whatever is on my mind to just purge. I also take stock of how my life is going on in my Morning Page. I even see seeds of articles in my morning pages. I write a morning page so that I can say whatever I need to say. So that I can spare the people around me of an awkward weave of what is on my mind into conversations with other people throughout the remainder of the day. By the time I’m done with my Morning Page, I’ve already said everything that I wanted to say, and I’m now receptive to listening to other people. I am ready to be of service to them.
I also write a gratitude list every morning. The purpose of that exercise is to remind myself that I already have enough. I remind myself that I don’t need to acquire much more than I need. And that leaves me with more time to be with my family, to relax and enjoy what I already have.
So I don’t pray for what I want. I can get into all kinds of trouble doing that. Instead, I pray for knowledge of how I can be of service to the universe. I focus on what I have, and I enjoy all of that for the moments when they come. I have also found that if I’m grateful for what I have, I tend to be receptive to the gifts in life. When my mind is in gratitude, I notice more opportunities for fun, enjoyment, and prosperity.
Wash, rinse, repeat. For ten thousand days.
I’ve found that repeating these habits over time leads to greater prosperity and peace over time. I’m not rich, or wealthy. But I’m not poor, either. I just have enough for the day. I surrendered my anger for peace, found ways to be of service to others, and found gratitude for everything that I had, even when I was poor. For more than a decade now, I’ve been focused on and found gratitude for what I have. Even when I’ve suffered losses and setbacks, as the annual flooding of the Nile, abundance kept coming back because I was focused on what I had, not what I lacked.
Happiness didn’t find me. I made a choice to be happy with what I had. I made that choice every day, sometimes every hour, or every minute, if that is what it would take to get me through a difficult day. I’ve tried the other way and found it wanting, and I’m not going back. I found a path to happiness that works for me. It might work for you, too.