If we accept the fact that true, more enduring happiness just doesn’t appear in our lives by chance how can we make it happen? Can we really fill the 1,440 minutes we have in a day with eating tasty foods, having orgasms and other pleasant sensory experiences? What is there left to try as we exercise one of our “unalienable rights”, “the pursuit of happiness”, as asserted by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence?
Well, it turns out there is a lot to try. Life provides us with those opportunities, we just have to recognize them.
Several years ago, I had an epiphany regarding the origin of the happiness. The epiphany occurred in a very unlikely circumstance and is described in detail in Chapters 3 and 4 of my book, The Pursuit of the Personal Renaissance Experience – Finding Opportunities for Happiness in the Ever-Present Now. The description is the same in the original and the current editions of the book. When you read those two chapters you will be fully acquainted with my understanding of the happiness phenomenon. In this and subsequent blogs, I will expound on the key elements.
The first thing is that deep happiness for an individual can only occur as a result of that person’s actions. So I am not talking about being happy for someone else because they got better after an illness or they achieved some desired goal. Nor am I talking about being happy when the team you support wins the championship. (Generally, that euphoria lasts for a few hours and then is replaced by the anxiety of worrying about whether they can win next year.)
Deeper happiness for the individual occurs in the active pursuit of a goal. There is an action and you, the individual, are the actor. You are in control of the process that drives you towards a goal. But it is absolutely critical that the goal is important to you. If the goal is important, the exercise of the process leading to the goal will have meaning. Rather than use a description of the epiphany in my book, let me illustrate this element with a story told by Jim DeForest, a Christian, who was at an informal dinner bringing together leaders of several different faiths one evening 50 years ago in Paris:
I am reminded sometimes of an evening with Vietnamese friends in a cramped apartment in the outskirts of Paris in the early 1970s. At the heart of the community was the poet and monk, Thich Nhat Hanh. An interesting discussion was going on in the living room, but I had been given the task that evening of doing the washing up. The pots, pans, and dishes seemed to reach halfway to the ceiling on the counter of the sink in that closet-sized kitchen. I felt really annoyed. I was stuck with an infinity of dirty dishes while a great conversation was happening just out of earshot in the living room.
Somehow Nhat Hanh picked up on my irritation. Suddenly he was standing next to me. “Jim,” he asked, “what is the best way to wash the dishes?” I knew I was suddenly facing one of those very tricky Zen questions. I tried to think what would be a good Zen answer, but all I could come up with was, “You should wash the dishes to get them clean.” “No,” said Nhat Hanh. “You should wash the dishes to wash the dishes.” I’ve been mulling over that answer ever since—more than three decades of mulling. But what he said next was instantly helpful: “You should wash each dish as if it were the baby Jesus.”
One other thing you should know is that Thich Nhat Hanh told the same story about himself. When he was a young monk in training and found himself disgruntled while looking at that same tall stack of dirty dishes, he was approached by his superior and was told to wash each dish as if it were the baby Buddha.
The process of washing dishes changed in both scenarios because of the instant injection of meaning for the outcome of the process for the individuals involved. But the situation had to be framed differently for the two different people for maximum effect in each case.
There will be more on why certain actions carry more intrinsic meaning than others in a latter blog. We will also have to tackle the difficult question of how meaning is created when we find ourselves in situations where there doesn’t seem to be any positive meaning. That will come a bit later.