A young waitress serving the Dali Lama at a ski resort sat down at the table and asked him what was the meaning of life. He answered immediately, “The meaning of life is happiness.” He raised his finger, leaning forward, focusing on her as if she were the only person in the world. “Hard question is not, ‘What is meaning of life?’ That is easy question to answer! No, hard question is what make happiness. Money? Big house? Accomplishment? Friends? Or…” He paused. “Compassion and good heart? This is question all human beings must try to answer: What makes true happiness?”
What makes true happiness? That is a good question for all of us to ponder. This question seems to have many different answers depending on whether we are young or old, poor or rich, depressed or feeling upbeat. Does it really depend on our situation or age or does it depend on our attitude and approach to life? If we are focused on gaining material possessions or a great job, does that give us great happiness? Maybe, if we are living in poverty. If this is the way to happiness, how do we reconcile the fact that some of the happiest people are also poor? There are challenges in life due to poverty, chronic pain, discrimination etc. I am not suggesting that these don’t need to be addressed. However, if these challenges are perceived as overwhelming or take over all our focus, we miss the positive things that occur in our lives as well. And many of us in the first world, act as if we have extreme poverty when it is far from the truth. Instead we worry over have the latest gadget or clothes when we have more than enough.
We all need to feel we have a purpose in life. This is what organized religion has provided in the past for many of the baby boomer generation. With the advent of scientific discoveries, the ability to know so many facts at the touch of a button, and the picture of earth sent back from space, we have become an untethered people. We are no longer tied to a geographical spot on the map. Expectations no longer limit us. We expect more and more in everything we do and have. Consumerism is encouraged as a good way to stabilize the economy. We have lost our purpose of life or at least one that came predetermined for us by our elders or our religious leaders. We look to our government to give us a national perspective but even this is divide and not to be trusted. Where can we search for the meaning of true happiness?
How can we adopt the Dali Lama’s suggestion that compassion and a good heart is the road to happiness? Firstly, we need to focus on having compassion for ourselves; not demanding perfection in everything we do but learning from failures and mistakes with an open and generous heart. We can learn to laugh at our foibles at the same time not allowing them to define who we are as a person. Claiming our belovedness as a child of God (or whatever we call the energy that unites all of us and yet is more than just us) can help us to feel secure and worthwhile.
We can greet each day as it is, allowing it to unfold without expectations of how it needs to be in order for us to be happy. Suspending judgment until we truly understand and can empathize with people we interact can allow us to feel compassion and openness in our hearts. We can acknowledge pain with an open heart but not add to it by our thoughts or resistance to the pain. We can sit with our emotions until we are clear about what action we need to take if any.
I believe we can do all of the above. If we practice doing this each day we will grow into compassionate and open people who find happiness if most of our lives. It takes practice and humor when we miss the target but we can learn to rewire our brains towards happiness. Neuroscience is discovering how this occurs. The practice of mindfulness is aiding many people to do just this. Listed below are several good books that have been published on the subject. I have also included a website. We each are in charge of our happiness and can change the attitude with which we approach our situation and the world.
- Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm and Confidence, by Rick Hanson
- Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life, by Thich Nhat Hanh
- The Mindful Way through Anxiety: Break Free from Chronic Worry and Reclaim your Life, by Orsillo, Roemer, and Segal
- The Mindful Way through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness, by William, Teasdale, Segal and Kabat-Zinn