Lately I hear a lot of people saying things like, “I’m just trying to find happiness,” or “Someday my life will be better and then I’ll be happy.” Clearly happiness is such an important state of mind that even our US Constitution guarantees us a right to pursue it. But few people these days would describe themselves as genuinely happy. Why is happiness so difficult to attain?
A few years ago I had a chance to do some thinking about happiness when I traveled to Honduras with a medical mission team. Before my first trip there I had heard about the difficult living conditions of the poor villagers we would be treating and I expected that those Hondurans would be very unhappy people, brought low by the suffering and misery of life. But I was totally surprised to discover that they were far more joyful than most people I knew back home. In fact they seemed to have gratitude for everything and a calm contentment with life. I left there understanding that happiness has nothing to do with material wealth or possessions and that striving too much to achieve happiness might be the very thing that drives it away.
Have you ever noticed how hard it can be to grab a floating inflatable toy off the water when you are in a swimming pool? Each time you lunge toward it the movement of the water pushes the toy further away from your grasp and you end up chasing it all around the pool. Pursuing happiness has somewhat the same effect: the more you try to grasp it, the more it eludes you.
The Italians have a saying “il dolce far niente,” which means “the sweetness of doing nothing.” They have recognized that life’s true pleasures come not through what we are doing, but through how we are being. The truth is that happiness is not to be found outside of you – happiness arises from within you when you are at peace with yourself and the world around you. The best way to attain happiness is to focus on your inner life first rather than trying to change your outer circumstances. Sit quietly, take some deep breaths, enjoy whatever is occurring in this moment. Allow your own sense of well-being to arise within you and you will begin to see that you can attain a calm feeling of happiness any time, any place by just being still for a moment.
The Sufi teacher Hafiz wrote: “Ever since happiness heard your name, it has been running through the streets trying to find you.” Yes happiness will find you once you stop trying so hard to be happy. Like the toy in the swimming pool, if you stand still and let the water settle around you, happiness will eventually come floating to you. Try it for just a moment or two every day: be calm and quiet and do nothing. Give happiness a chance to find you!
(Dr. Karen Wyatt is the author of the book “What Really Matters: 7 Lessons for Living from the Stories of the Dying.” Check out her website at http://www.karenwyattmd.com for more information.)