Where Happiness Comes From
I’ve looked outside. It’s not there.
Another Saturday has come and gone. I mowed and trimmed the lawn yesterday. I played ping pong with my wife. My kids played with the neighbors’ kids. I had time to rest. Time to work. Time to binge Lucifer on Netflix. I rebuilt my desk for work. I was busy and not so busy. Whatever happened yesterday, I let it be enough. But no matter what happened yesterday, or today, or on any day thereafter, I am keenly aware that if I want to be happy, I must make a choice to be happy.
I could look at Tesla cars all day and want one. But that doesn’t make me happy. I don’t even drive enough nowadays to make a Model 3 a practical consideration. Working from home and leaving my car parked is far more efficient, even if the car I truly desire runs on batteries. So I let what I have be enough.
I’ve wanted solar power on my roof for a long, long time. The prices keep coming down. Solar panel efficiencies continually improve. But the tax credits are a variable that I can’t digest right now. I can’t use the tax credits because I don’t have enough tax liability ($0) to use them. The prices are still too high. The costs will come down when the tax credits that I can’t use, expire. But I’m not spending more than $100 a month on power each month, anyway. So I let what I have be enough. Looking at solar panels doesn’t make me happy.
I’d like to travel more often. COVID has put a damper on our travel plans. Even without COVID, I’m saving for a big trip to Vietnam for my wife so that we can visit her family. She’d like to do a really nice trip that includes travel inside Vietnam. I love their food. I love their fruit. I don’t mind the weather because I can just shave my head to be cool. I don’t think about that too much because dreaming about going back there doesn’t make me happy.
Since I was 27, my life has been one of incremental, gradual, and consistent improvement. I run rings around the man that I was 28 years ago. My mind is not as busy as it used to be. My mind is not so conflicted as it used to be. My mind spends more time in repose than in hustle. In this state, I demonstrate peace to my family and my peers, and they reflect that back at me. A million little decisions have created an environment that makes it easier for me to choose to be happy now.
I’ve been working at this for a long, long time. Saving money, saving time, taking stock of what is in my life, and making a decision to be happy. I look around me and I notice all the reasons that I have to be happy. I have a nice home. I love my neighbors. I live in a nice neighborhood. There is little drama in my day. I have enough for today. Enough space, enough food, gas in the cars, the lights are on, and the basement is still cool on 100 degree days. But no matter what is around me, I still have to make a decision to be happy.
I take notice of people who could have anything they want and still not be happy. Johnny Depp is an actor I admire. But his personal life is full of drama. He can make more money in a year than I will make in a lifetime, but he can’t buy happiness with that money. He still has to make a decision to be happy.
When I see wealthy politicians engage in corruption, I see people who are still looking outside to be happy. When I see traders on Wall Street engage in insider trading, I know that they’ve made a decision not to be happy with that they already have. When I see a golfer at the top his game finally admit to affairs with more than 100 women, I see someone who, for a long time, could not find another reason to be happy. When I see wealthy actors and actresses engage in bribery to get their kids into a prestigious school and go to jail for their crime, I see people who are still looking outside to be happy. When I see stories of how the wealthy party, spending more money on one night at a party than most people will ever see in a lifetime, I know that they are looking outside to be happy.
No amount of status, power, money, or objects of desire will ever make anyone happy until they make up their mind to be happy with what they have. There is simply no power great enough to make someone happy. Not even God. The mind, once set on a course, can decide to be happy or not, under any circumstances.
I have looked at this over and over again. I see it as a great puzzle because I’ve long wondered where happiness comes from. I too used to look at the rich and famous and I wondered how I could have what they have. I lusted after their beauty, their shiny cars, their big beautiful homes, their jet setting lifestyle. I wanted what they had.
But then I noticed that even if they have what they have, all that big, shiny stuff, they still had drama in their lives. They still wanted something that their money could not buy. They stood bemused in a sea of wealth, unable to comprehend why they were standing before judge after committing some crime, confused as their loved ones departed, or unable to understand why they could sit on a pile of nice shiny things and still not know why they were unhappy. Some of them know how to be happy, but we don’t usually see them in the news.
In almost every case I’ve looked at, theirs and mine, it all comes down to a decision. Either I’m enough or I’m not. Either I have enough, or I don’t. Either I’m lovable or I’m not. No one can make these decisions for me. Every moment of satisfaction derives from the decisions I make. There are no exceptions.
I can choose to be unhappy with what I have and engage in the pursuit of more, more, and still more. Or I can take inventory of what I have and let that be enough. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve found comfort in the latter. I can’t tell you how many times I found a little more of something that I wanted hiding under each decision to be happy with what I have right now. I’ve seen this process repeat over and over again.
After many years of making the decision to be happy with what I have, I have attained a state of contentment. Maybe because I’m older now, it’s easier for me to be happy with what I have. Maybe because I’m older now, I’m less confused than I was when I was younger. I don’t really know.
But I do know that looking back in my recent past, I cannot see any reason to be permanently unhappy. Everything that was inconvenient to me, that was temporary. Everything that gave me a reason to be happy, that was temporary. Happiness, therefore, is not a passive experience. It is a stream of decisions to let whatever I have right now, be enough. It is a stream of acknowledgments that what is happening now is temporary. Happiness is not a river of constant joy.
I have noticed lately, a kind of mild euphoria that comes and goes. I just notice that I have enough and let that be. My lawn is nice and green. I let that be enough. I have two aging, but very reliable cars. I let that be enough. I have a home that I plan to live in until I die. I let that be enough. I have a family that I love dearly. I let them be enough. It’s not their job to make me happy anyway. If I give them the power to make me happy, that is my undoing, and far, far too much responsibility for them. When I look around me, at the wondrous gifts that I have in my life now, I experience a sense of joy that I could not have any other way. What way is that?
The way is the decision to be happy. Every moment of every day, I make a decision to be happy. This isn’t to say that I’m pollyanna when something bad happens. I don’t even say that I’m having a bad day, that makes it personal. I just notice that I’m having a challenging day. I notice that whatever is uncomfortable today, is temporary. Unhappiness and happiness are temporary.
Spending three or four hours stuck in an airport waiting for a delayed flight is inconvenient. It is not a reason to be unhappy. Waiting for a package to arrive after delays from the present pandemic is merely inconvenient. It is not a source of unhappiness. Losing the love of your life can be tragic, but humans are designed to keep living even after a tragic loss. We’re made to grieve the loss, but we’re not made to be unhappy forever and ever. The brain can only make endorphins for a certain feeling for so long and then it has to stop and do something else.
So for today, if you’re unhappy, consider the possibility that you have enough for today. And then consider that little abundance as a reason to be happy. You’re not looking outside for comfort, you’re noticing a reason to be comfortable, and then you decide if you’re comfortable or not.
Happiness is never really that far away. A decision to be happy with what we have today could just lead to another. And another. After a few days, you might make a habit of making decisions like that. After a few weeks, you have a nice steady habit. After a few years of making a decision to be happy, you have contentment. Why? Because no other power on earth can stop you from deciding to be happy.