Happiness is a Metaphor

It seems everyone has heard of at least one apocryphal or even modern sage who has some “secret” to share for achieving your best life. They speak confidently that if you listen carefully, and follow their instructions precisely, you will ultimately find happiness.

It’s absurd.

The goal we are told to seek is flawed. We look for joy and forget the truth that the concept is fleeting. We treat our emotions as if they were tangible goods that could be bought in any marketplace. Then, when we can no longer grasp and hold on to this phantom “feeling,” we flounder in despair.

We struggle, and we fight against the world. We do more of the “right” things. We follow more of the same archaic rules. We continue to rely on the illusion of hope, because we’ve invested so much time and energy toward this single idea that we can’t bring ourselves to admit defeat and change our course. We act as if action and belief are enough to manifest joy and banish pain. We desperately justify and narrate our stories with grand fictions placing ourselves as either heroes or tragic victims. We create myth so that at least in fiction there is a version of happiness that will last the remainder of our lives.

This is the happinesses illusion. We end up blaming our failure to find our unobtainable goal as a defect in ourselves—in our faith, in our character or even in our will. Those “secrets” we were given only led to empty promises, and our unfounded hope binds us to an unpleasant truth.

  • We can do all the right things.
  • We can follow all the rules.
  • We still won’t find lasting happiness or joy.

Somewhere along the way we drew the erroneous conclusion that happiness should be the goal of life. We decided pleasure and joy were the endgame. If we could just achieve this almost sublime state of mind, then we had made it to the “promised land”—the mystical height of the human condition.

This is clearly untrue, but we still blindly support this belief system. Every time we make it our goal and purpose in life to be happy, we set ourselves up for failure. We reinforce this false dynamic with happiness traps.

  • If only I could save up enough money to buy a house, I’d be happy.
  • If only I could finish school…
  • If only I could get this job…

What’s keeping us from being happy with what we have? What’s preventing us from living successful and impactful lives without acquiring something more?

We all understand that happiness feels good. Pleasure is fun and it’s easy to to pursue. Who doesn’t want to have a little more fun in their lives? In contrast, hardships are unpleasant and we will do our best to avoid them. So, we end up choosing the wrong priorities. We stop thinking about how we can can live more impactful and influential lives, and instead we focus on what we can acquire to make our days a little more convenient and less burdensome.

Just because we avoid hardships doesn’t mean we should seek happiness as the end goal. The unfortunate truth is that we’re incapable of being happy 100% of the time. Happiness is a subjective, emotive and ever-adapting response to our environment. Happiness has never been a tangible measurement or a lasting state of mind. We can’t weigh happiness and ensure everyone keeps 5 lbs of joy on them at all times. So, why do we keep acting as if joy were something we can purchase or acquire through hard work?

Emotions are temporary responses to changes in our environment. By definition they cannot be sustained indefinitely. You can’t keep yourself in the throes of jubilation laughing for the rest of your life over the joke you told when you were in the third grade. Happiness is a roller coaster of highs and lows.

  • I can have a rough morning and find true happiness savoring a cup of coffee.
  • I can break my leg and find bliss looking into the eyes of my partner who’s there by my side.
  • I can lose my job and still come home to an enthusiastic, tail-wagging dog who always wants to play and has no concept of his human’s trials.

Happiness is like the rising and setting of the sun. It’s always there if you know both when and where to look for it. Joy is the metaphor we use for reminding ourselves to pause and appreciate the passing of the time.

  • All things come and go.
  • Bad things will eventually end.
  • Good things will ultimately disappear.

We need to make peace with the reality that we’re temporary—just like happiness.

Journeys are neither destinations nor goals

Who said it could not be done? And what great victories has he to his credit which qualify him to judge others?

Napoleon Hill

Today, I propose the start of an experiment in living our best lives. I can’t promise we’ll find lasting happiness, but I know that we can find clarity and purpose.

Each of us has a unique opportunity to own our experience in this world. Rather than be thrown around by chance, we can choose the paths we will walk in this life.

We don’t have control over many things like where we were born, what we look like, or even our intelligence. We do, however, always have personal ownership over how we respond to our circumstances. We could always leave the town we were born in. We can dress our best, even if we’re not supermodels. We will still learn new things, even if we’ll never be geniuses.

  • Do your reactions to your circumstances help or hinder your efforts to build a better life?

No one has the power to control our response to circumstances. We get to decide how we will react to every new experience. In the end, our greatest strength comes from our ability to choose how we respond to the difficulties and limitations in our path.

  • We can’t control the world.
  • We can’t control others.
  • We can’t control nature.

Really, there’s only one thing we can control. We can be mindful of how our perceptions influence our responses. Mindfulness can empower us to make more impactful decisions that will improve our lives even when we lack the ability to control the external conditions which trouble us.

  • The world is both a place of opportunity and oppression depending on who you ask.

Our goal must be to learn how we can overcome the obstacles in our path and find the opportunities hidden from us. If you change nothing in your life today, you only guarantee that nothing in your life will change tomorrow. Is that what any of us want? Why not choose a path of action instead?

  • What does it means to be human?
  • How can we find meaning in this existence?

Create your own path. That’s how you know that this philosophy is more than a trend or a motivational thriller. We’ve been exploring these same ideas across the millennia from every civilization. The same questions on your mind today were being discussed a thousand years ago.

There isn’t an answer written here. There’s only a path presented that you can choose to walk. Here are some final thoughts to help you on your journey.

  1. Question everything.
  2. Trust there’s always a path you have not yet tried.
  3. Don’t give up. Progress only stops when you do. If you lose your way, you can always start again.

It’s okay to feel lost

I set my intention for the day: that this day should be meaningful. Meaningful means, if possible, serve and help others. If not possible, then at least not to harm others. That’s a meaningful day.

Tenzin Gyatso, 14th Dalai Lama

Today was an average day. It was mediocrity and bedlam. It was mundane and unfulfilling. In short, it was a day of reacting to the world and whatever task or disaster landed on my desk. There was no planning involved in any of my actions. I was running through my waking hours on autopilot. This day could have had any date attached to it, and I wouldn’t have been able to distinguish it from any other.

This is not how any of us should live, and at some point, we all come to recognize two important truths.

  1. Our time on this world is limited.
  2. Our life can be taken from us at any moment.

At some point we lost sight of the fact that we are actually in control of how we respond to the world. We may be powerless in the face of death, but our lives can be meaningful. You would think that with this knowledge we would choose to dedicate our short lives toward some lasting communal goal. Instead, we often seem to get trapped in a cruel cycle of consumerism—working more hours to earn more money so that we can buy more things. Our lives become focused on these fleeting moments of pleasure found in the excitement of adding something new to our lives, and we get ensnared in a web of working harder to pay for things we never actually needed.

  • It’s time to stop trying to buy happiness.

It’s true. The world dictates many things that remain outside of our control. That’s okay, because we get to choose how we respond to those challenges. Recognize that you make the choice to surrender that power to others—to the world, governments, religion, schools, employers, television, social media, marketing campaigns, video games, partners and family. You can choose to change your position at any time. You can find meaning in life and leave behind the expectations of others.

I started my day without a plan to improve myself, my situation or my future. Instead, I was a creature of habit and my morning ran as if on autopilot and it soon escaped me. My day became nothing more than a to do list of mindless tasks from dawn to dusk.

  • I awoke to an alarm clock ringing.
  • I jumped in the shower.
  • I gulped down a cup of coffee.
  • I sat in an hour of traffic as I commuted to the office.

When I finally arrived at work, I jumped from one emergency after another as urgent issues hit me up on my mobile phone, email, office line, instant messenger and visitors stopped by my office. My day wasn’t very meaningful, and I think that is an all too common reality for many of us. Our routines make us reactive rather than proactive. We’re constantly “running late” and going through the motions of “getting ready” when we should be setting aside time to invest in ourselves. In the end it can feel meaningless. We’re doing the same things over and over again and we’re getting nowhere.

I’ve found that one of the easiest ways to find purpose and personal direction in life is to shift your focus from yourself to others. We can change our point of focus in an instant. We can stop hiding behind our electronic screens and begin to see the difficulties others face in the world. You’ll be surprised how quickly your actions to help others can make a difference in how you feel about your own life.

I look back at Gyatso’s words and there’s this moment of clarity. It’s like there’s this silent partner in my head who finally jumps up from his desk and says “That’s it! That’s how you do it!”

  • A meaningful existence is framed by our actions toward others.

We cannot serve meaningful lives when our focus is only self-serving. That’s a significant shift from the 21st century obsession with “Success.” The truth is we cannot control what the world throws our way. As long as we learn from our mistakes and choose the best response available to circumstances outside of our control, there’s no point in obsessing over misfortune or failure.

  • It’s okay to fail.
  • It’s fine to mess up.
  • It’s going to be alright if you have a bad day.

All this means is that stuff just happens in life. We have to rise to the occasion and choose to respond better, kinder and wiser to these situations than others may act toward us. If we don’t work on improving our responses to these situations, all we can hope to contribute to the world is more anger, resentment and frustration for the next generation.