Real Happiness Is There For
The Taking From
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One reason we have so much trouble attaining
happiness is that we don't even know what it is! We keep trying to annihilate
anxiety and other disturbances in the belief that eliminating the negatives
from our lives will leave us in some pure positive state.
But happiness has more to do with
broadening your perspective, says Mark Epstein, M.D., a psychiatrist who is
fusing Eastern and Western ways of thinking about happiness and why we find the
concept so elusive.
It's a matter of inner development, he
insists. We're never going to find it in technological advancements no matter
how many toys and gadgets we own. In short, he suggests that we clean
up our mental environment so that real happiness can be uncovered --
because it's right in front of us if we want it.
Americans have a peculiar relationship with
happiness. On the one hand, we consider happiness a right, and we are eager for
it. We do everything in our power to try to possess it, particularly in the
material form. On the other hand, we tend to denigrate the pursuit of happiness
as something as shallow or superficial, something akin to taking up scuba
diving or woodcarving.
But the pursuit of happiness is not a
superficial endeavor. On the contrary, it is a fundamental drive as basic as
those of sex, aggression or security.
Materialistic comforts by themselves have
not lead to lasting happiness. Having reached that conclusion, however, we do
not often see another way, and retreat into our comforts, barricading ourselves
from what appears to be a hostile and threatening world.
Acquiring and protecting, we continue to
crave a happiness that seems both deserved and out of reach.
Our first mistake, says Dr. Epstein, is
trying to wipe out all sources of displeasure in search of a perennial state of
well being that, for most of us in our deepest fantasies, resembles nothing so
much as a prolonged erotic reverie. This approach to happiness derives from our
earliest experiences in the world.
When our intense emotional states of
pleasure and gratification were inevitably interrupted by absence and
frustration, we experienced equally intense states of rage or anxiety. So our
first response is to try and preserve feelings of satisfaction and well-being
and avoid the unpleasing ones.
But we'd be better off acknowledging that
happiness and sadness are two sides of one coin. Those who make pleasure
possible are also the greatest source of our suffering.
The search for happiness in pleasure is
like chasing our own shadow, although we can see it, we never quite get out
hands around it. We continue to grasp at the objects that have previously
disappointed us. We tell ourselves, this time it will be different, this time
it will work out. We think only of manipulating the external worlds, without
stopping to examine ourselves.
Why are we so intent on avoiding everything
but pleasure? But as long as we continue trying to eliminate all displeasure
and preserve only feelings of gratification, no lasting happiness is possible,
Dr. Epstein insists.
At the core of our unhappiness is our
inability to observe ourselves properly. We are too often prisoners of our own
perspective, unable to appreciate the many perspectives of those around us.
It is our unawareness of our own brilliance
that keeps us from feeling happy. We insistently project our interpretation of
things onto everything we see and do. But this way of perceiving blinds us from
the joy that is already in our lives.
We'd have a better shot at happiness by
coaxing the mind to deal with frustration in a new way -- experiencing life
more as an interested observer rather than a victim asking why is this
happening to me?
Of course, we all have needs, observes Dr.
Epstein. But when our thinking becomes fixated on obtaining what we feel we
must have in order to be content, we open up a bottomless box. Happiness
becomes some far-off thing completely different from our lives at the moment.
Life is always filled with unavoidable
disappointments and letdowns. Everything we cherish comes in a two-for-one
package deal of change and eventual loss. When we can learn to accept our
situation for what it is, rather than struggling to make our lives fit an
idealized mold of what we think happiness is, then we can begin to experience
In other words, it's impossible to savor
the sweet pleasures of life without tasting the sour. Trying to split the two
off from each other only mires us deeper in our own dissatisfaction. By letting
go of a view of the world with ourselves as the center, we begin to appreciate
what Einstein proved: that the world and all reality, as well as all points of
view, including our own, are relative. That happiness has more to do with
acceptance than gratification, and it becomes available to us.
True happiness is the ability to take all
the insults of life as a vehicle of real contentment. Pleasure and displeasure
can then be appreciated for the ways in which they are inextricably linked.
Happiness, then, is the confidence that pain and disappointment can be
tolerated, that love will prove stronger than aggression. It is the release
from attachment to pleasant feelings, and faith and the capacity of awareness
to guide us through inevitable letdowns and pain. We don't have to look very
far to find happiness; it is in every one of us, now.