Thursday, November 20, 2014

The pursuit of happiness (or why there's no such thing as a free lunch)

M. Scott Peck > Quotes > Quotable Quote
M. Scott Peck

“Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult-once we truly understand and accept it-then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.”

In teaching his classes about the power of negotiation, the impact of economic values, and the measure of success, a professor I know almost always includes the expression 'there's no such thing as a free lunch''. I think there's some truth in that - few people in life land butter side up, every time, (and in fact even if they appear to, we don't know for sure what's going on behind the scenes, for everyone is a good actor, and it's a rare person who is honest about about their inner struggles).

For most of us, life, is I think, a series of payoffs - if I take that job, live in that house, choose that course of study/group of friends/parenting style/financial decision.... then the impact will be one, or a number of things. And the really odd thing is that I'm absolutely sure that most of the time, NONE of us think much beyond the here and now - certainly as a young person it is impossible to imagine that the decisions we make at 20 or 25 are going to still have effects on us at 40 or 50 or more. And now at the sharp end of 50, I'd suggest that if compromising something that in the long term won't make a difference (and very little does, in the end), then surely that is an investment not a cost? Part of it is perspective - when something is feeling crappy it's hard to see the good underneath. Often good is only seen in retrospect after all (for don't we all have happy school memories, and soft edges around our youth!) And looking in on the butter-side-up people doesn't help.

So when life throws the bread butter side down, I think it's very easy to feel ripped off. Many is the day when I've thought ''I don't deserve this shit...I'm a good person, I work hard, love fiercely and persevere when many others would run away''.

Maybe there's a difference between been happy and being content. For me, happy is in the now, I can take it out, look at it and say ''does this thing make me happy?". Content is more encompassing - I have to evaluate whether or not on the balance I am content with life (not always easy when you're being pounded with lemons and don't have any vodka). I don't believe for a minute that we should accept being ''unhappy'', and nor should we turn into martyrs, sacrificing our lives for the sake of the ''greater good''. But, as long as we see it as sacrifice, or paying a price it will always feel like the short end of the stick. The trick is figuring out what it is that is making me unhappy in the first place (and in my experience it's not usually the thing we think it is - that's just not how our brains and emotions seem to work together).   Of course being able to see the good over the bad is challenging (if you're driving a crappy car, you see the crappy car, not the joy in not having to walk!) - especially when the apparently well watered grass over the fence seems to offer more attraction that the parched lawn you are currently standing on. And to address being unhappy is scary because it means actually having to look into the ''things'' that seems to stand between ourselves and the deceptively green landscape of what we think ''happy'' might be.

I was married for 16 years, and I'm the first to admit that there were plenty of moments when there was so much gravel on that damn butter I couldn't see the bread underneath. And unfortunately for me, neither could my FDH, who in the end, overwhelmed by his own internal unhappiness, saw me as the source of it, and moved on. (Maybe I was....a post for another time perhaps).

I read yesterday in a blog that ''everything is perfect til it isn't'' - I thought, how true! Dream jobs, dream girls, dream cars - I'm beginning to think there's a reason the word dream is in there....We pursue happiness like it's something concrete - I just need that job, that house, that achievement, that person, and then I will be happy! Oh God, if only it were that easy. It's a cliche to say happiness is a state of mind and not a destination - but I'm beginning to think it's true!

I also think that while it's possible to compartmentalise happiness eg I can be happy with my job/relationship/financial position but have one part of my life that isn't going so well, ultimately it's going to leak over. The question is, do you allow (or even have control over) the happy leaking, or the sad? A couple of years ago I described myself as ''leaking joy'' and I absolutely believe that this led to, and encouraged, good things happening to me and the people around me, and it certainly made the world a brighter place for me to be in. It rubbed off - I could feel people sharing in the joy, celebrating with me. And even in the face of incredible adversity, this joy buoyed me, and those closest to me, through the worst of times. But as life went on, and the leak slowed to a trickle (as of course it does in normality), in crept the insidious virus of discontent, which in the end squashed the happy right out.

Maybe Granny was right, reminding us to count our blessings. But what about the days when those blessings seem few and far between? How do you let go of ''I'm not happy'' and hang on to ''in the balance I'm doing OK'' without turning into a martyr - or being resentful - or worse, feeling like everything comes at a price? I wish I knew. Maybe it really is a matter of being able to stand alone, or sit down on the inside, as I wrote about in my previous blog, and know that actually happiness comes from the inside. In my own hard won experience none of the 'things' that we think will make us feel happy ever do.

To leak joy, that's what we all want, I think. Possibly not sustainable for ever, though, so for me, the trick seems to be being able to see beyond the initial feelings of discontent in the moment. To be brave enough to face them, examine them. To remember that there was, and is joy in there, waiting to get out if only we'll let it, (and, I suspect, feel worthy of it).

To choose, recognise, receive, and give love. Completely. During, beyond and in spite of, happy (or lack thereof). That's all that matters. Funny how my thoughts always end up in the same place.


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