Be content with what you have
Rejoice in the way things are.
When you realize there is nothing lacking,
The whole world belongs to you.
—Lao Tzu (verse 44 of the Tao Te Ching)
When asked what it is we truly want, most of us will reply, that it is simply “to be happy.” In fact, so many of us share this desire that industries have committed themselves to selling us happiness. We are bombarded with products and lifestyles based on the promise that they will make us happier.
But we aren’t happier. Well, not in the US in any case. According to a Gallup poll, happiness has been on the decline in the US since 2007. Before then, the US was the third happiest among the OECD countries—it now ranks 19th.
Could it be that happiness is just impossible to attain? Have we been searching for happiness in the wrong places? Is it time to in fact drop the pursuit of happiness, and instead replace it with a search for peace?
Happiness has become something of a confusing word. If we ask each other what we think would bring us happiness, chances are most of our answers would be very different. For example, someone craving space may want a bigger home, but another may believe happiness comes by downsizing. A small meal may make someone happy, while another person may require a four-course dinner for a similar level of joy. When we take a deeper look at what we think happiness is, we can see we have defined it as “getting what we want.”
The problem is, what we want is constantly in flux, and what we want are many things. Perhaps we get the new job, but eventually, we will want a pay raise or promotion. Perhaps we will have the relationship of our dreams, but we will also want a vacation, and a new car, and a healthy family. There is always something more. As Daniel Gilbert says in his book, Stumbling On Happiness, “our brains were made for ‘nexting.’”
In searching for happiness, therefore, we are setting ourselves up for an ever-moving target. So here is a different question: How do we feel when we are happy? Calm? Carefree? Light? At peace? Like everything is right? Is it perhaps that feeling that we are searching for above all else?
Unfortunately, we have been trained to believe that this feeling comes from getting what we want. We feel great relief and calm when we book the vacation or get the promotion, for example, so it’s understandable we equate happiness with having our desires met. But, closer to the truth is that peace occurs at that moment because our minds are no longer craving for something other than what is. For an instant, maybe even a few weeks, the mind returns to its natural state of resting in the present moment. It stops “nexting.” This “happiness” we are really searching for, is simply accepting everything exactly as it is. That is being at peace.
How do we achieve this? Well, it won’t be easy. It certainly won’t be fulfilled by anything we can buy. But we can start by becoming aware of the mind’s desires, and by taking a deep breath and reconnecting to where we are right now. It’s the practice of many spiritual teachings, and of mindfulness and meditation practitioners.
The good news is, that “accepting everything exactly as it is” works for everyone, in every situation, all the time. If we switch our search for happiness to a search for peace, we may just get what we truly wanted after all.
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