Looking for Happiness in all the Wrong Places

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For the millions of people looking for happiness, there is a question that my former mentor teacher used to ask that challenged me to think about how I was teaching. He was kind of a pitiful old man who had lost his parents, been divorced, and had a heart attack all in the space of a few years. Despite all of that, you could tell that he was a good man who really cared about the kids he taught. He was just tired and beat down by life.

In every meeting we had, he’d ask the same question: “Is today the day?” I think he was trying to be sarcastic, and I never understood what he was getting at (and never asked him). I just know that that question made an impression on me. It challenged me, and I didn’t really know why. Looking back, I think the question was making me think about how I viewed the potential of any given day. In the movie, In Time, the main character (played by Justin Timberlake) repeatedly said: “You can do a lot in a day.”

The movie was an exaggerated allegory for how we trade time for money. Except in this case, their money was literally their time. If you didn’t do something in a day to earn enough time, you were killed instantly the minute your clock hit zero. The movie is a stark reminder that how we choose to spend our time determines whether we are alive or dead. So many of us walk around dead inside, looking for something external to bring us happy. Today, I want to challenge you with one thought: Is today the day?

Looking for Happiness in the Stuff We Own

I’m currently in a phase of my life where I’m focusing on shrinking the amount of my possessions and considering how I’m spending my money. I’ve spent the past few years spending money freely, buying things, and going the places I’ve wanted. I was blessed with a period of extra income where I didn’t really have to think about where my money was going because I had plenty of it.

In the past year, however, I’ve entered into a season of “famine” in my finances, and it has been forcing me to consider how I’ve been spending my money. I’ve always lived a life of semi-minimalism, but for a while I was able to enjoy not thinking about it too much. I know that many of my readers live paycheck to paycheck, and you know what it is to be hard up for money. I remember the days when I had to get seriously creative with my meals because I only had so much to spend on food. It seems that everybody gets a finger on my money before I even see it, and there was a time when I was only taking home 40% of what I earned. That is a frustrating place to be.

My point is that, during those times of lean finances, I found myself anxious and worried. I found myself constantly worrying about what I was going to do if an emergency happened. I was one bad day away from being completely screwed financially. At one point in my life, I was living with a constant negative bank balance. As the paycheck came into my account, it brought the account back to a positive balance, but it was nowhere near what I needed to cover my bills. So, I’d plunge headfirst back to a negative balance, being absolutely raped and pillaged by the overdraft charges.

I noticed that when I had money, I was happy. When I didn’t have money, I was constantly on edge. It’s interesting that we allow something like that to dominate our feelings. Being in dire financial straights can be stressful, but it does not have to rob you of your happiness. Consider this: despite what your bank balance says, you can learn to be grateful for what you have. But you have to practice gratitude daily. You have to shift your focus from what you don’t have to what you do have. In all the financial hardships of my life, I’ve never gone hungry. I’ve always had enough to get me from day to day. And that is a powerful thing to think about.

Looking for Happiness in the People we Love

From a psychological point of view, there is a fundamental internal need that is met from our social interactions with people. There’s a fascinating video about isolation from the guy who runs the Vsauce channel on YouTube. If you have a half hour or so, give it a watch:

The gist of the video is that shutting ourselves off from people entirely (and any social stimulation like movies, books, etc.) can have a huge effect on our mind. It can disorient us. It can cause us to go crazy. At the end of the day, we need people.

However, I would argue that we don’t need people to BE HAPPY. We need social interaction to not go crazy, but social interaction itself does not lead to happiness (if that makes sense). There are so many people, however, who hitch their happiness to certain people in their lives. If something were to ever happen to those people, they would be completely lost and broken. We see this all the time with death and divorce.

What if I told you, however, that those people do not create happiness within you. They take the happiness you create and they amplify it. Like a microphone. If you aren’t a happy person, no amount of social interaction is going to make you happy.

Looking for Happiness in Religious Experience

Some of you believe in God. Some of you don’t. Religion is a hot-bed topic, and I imagine what I’m about to write is going to ruffle some feathers among my religious readers. I want you to keep in mind that I believe in God, and that I am a spiritual person. I go to church every week. Granted, I believe quite differently from your typical church-going person. At any given moment, I’d say I disagree with the preacher about half the time he is preaching. I don’t hang on every word from the bible (but do read it regularly and use it for spiritual and personal growth). And I *gasp* love to read writings from Buddhist authors and study other religions.

I go through that spiel so that I don’t alienate pretty much everybody reading this. To the religious and christian people out there, I go to church and believe many of the same things you do. To my atheist readers, I’m not a crazy fundamentalist. I fall somewhere in the middle, and I am perfectly comfortable with that.

That said, I see many people trying to hinge their happiness on religion and God. I just watched a video from one of my religious friends on Facebook. The video was basically saying that we can’t find happiness without God and that Jesus is the only thing that will fulfill us. As a religious person who goes to church and reads the bible regularly, I beg to differ. That’s insane. And I think God would agree.

If you believe in God and that God wants you to be happy, then you believe that he created you to be an autonomous being. What that means is that you’ve been given the ability to create whatever experience you choose to create, with or without God’s help. That’s the definition of free will. If you weren’t able to do that, then you’d be in a very unhealthy co-dependent relationship with God. God would be sort of like your drunken step father who punishes you every time you try to get away from him.

What if I told you that the meaning of God, the bible, salvation, and/or religious experience is NOT to create happiness, but, again, to AMPLIFY it? The comfort we gather from things like faith, hope, and love are meant to guide us in how we relate to people and how we relate to God. They aren’t magic happy sticks that zap us with fluffy feel good feelings.

So, where the heck do we look for happiness?

I’d like to take a moment to talk about where to look for happiness. The simple truth is that happiness already exists within you. Even if you are on the brink of suicide, there is a place inside of you that you could go right now and find happiness. What happens is that we tend to pile all of our problems on top of it. We lose touch with it. We stray from the core of what makes us happy and then we wonder why we can’t find it.

The core of happiness, that place inside of you, is that emotional “muscle” that allows you to synthesize the world in a way that brings you joy. It consists of having hope that things will turn out okay. It consists of having a child-like wonder at the things that exist around you. It exists in your ability to unite your dreams to the present moment.

You’re the wizard! You are the man behind the curtain. Do you ever notice how a child does not have to ask what to do to make them happy? Have you ever heard a child talk about how miserable they are? What’s the difference between the grown up version of you and the child-like version of you? The answer: the child-like version of you did not have a bunch of stories on what does and does not create happiness!

Your default state is happiness. That is, until something comes along and distracts you from it. As a child you dealt with this by crying until the adults in your life met the needs that were distracting you from happiness. The adult you is looking for happiness in money, love, and religion not realizing that those things are only tools to help you meet fundamental needs that distract you from your already default state of happiness. If you don’t meet those needs, they will lead you from happiness. But those things will never create happiness that does not already exist in you.

So, I ask you one question: Is today the day? Is today the day that you remember that happiness exists under all those layers of bitterness, grief, and depression? Is today the day that you decide to go back to your default, child-like mode of happiness? You can do a lot in a day. So, why not get started?