Happiness is not something ready made. It comes from your own actions.
14th Dalai Lama
I feel fortunate that at a relatively young age, I came to the realization that I needed to stop searching for happiness and finally just decide to be happy. Its one of the great lies that our society feeds us that we somehow have to go out into the world and pursue happiness, as if it were some kind of attainable good. Whether it be through the acquisition of material goods, settling into a comfortable life, falling in love, or starting a family, our notions of happiness are too often tied to achievement and goal-setting. I argue that happiness is not an end in and of itself. Happiness is often fleeting and oscillates in intensity throughout our lives. Happiness is not something to be acquired. Its ever-present in our hearts and the key to living a joyous life is to harness it to the best of our spirits.
Deciding to be happy is a lot more difficult than deciding to be miserable. It seems counterintuitive considering all we really want is to just be happy. However, its because of our natural disposition toward desiring happiness that an emotional or mental ‘rut’ can seem particularly protracted or difficult. I make an exception for mental illness, including depression, because that’s a different matter altogether. What I’m getting at is that happiness can be a lifestyle choice if we treat it as such. I think I can best illustrate my point with my own journey to happiness.
I think like most people that grew up in the West (and increasingly everywhere else in the world too), my idea of happiness was attached to my idea of success. With success in life, how could I ever truly hope to be happy? It was drilled into me by popular culture, my parents, my teachers, my friends, etc. Go to school, work hard, graduate, get a job, work hard, get married, have kids, grow old. It’s a familiar narrative, and each step seemed to promise some kind of greater happiness. Of course there is joy in reaching these monumental milestones in life. Of course there is joy in love and in family. But I always felt like too much focus was being given to robotically going through these motions rather than relishing them as organic parts of life. Happiness doesn’t come from checking things off your list and proceeding on schedule. Happiness, at the end of the day, is a very personal thing. Its an internal, intimate emotion that can’t be reduced to illusory perceptions of success or custom.
Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.
There’s a great backwardsness to thinking about happiness as an end to be achieved. It’s a tragic state of mind to carry. From my own experience, I can say that its hard to accomplish anything when you leave your heart and mind starved of peace and contentment. To say, “I will be happy when I get into medical school,” or “I will be happy when I find the one,” is really putting the cart before the horse. You can’t get to your desired destination without some gas in the tank. I was a very unhappy person for a long time. I was haunted by a plethora of issues that I could not sort out. Some were in my control and some were not. In high school, I was very sad and lonely. In college, I became angry and brash. Later, I became arrogant and deceitful. The lack of peace in my heart made it impossible for me to be happy, and in turn impossible to achieve meaningful success in my everyday affairs.
Some of my deepest regrets are regarding people that I was supposed to make happy and vice versa. I used to think that I needed a girl in my life that would love me and thus make me happy. For a good while, as an angry young man, I mistreated a handful of people who really loved me and wanted the best for me. I’m blessed to have the gift of instrospection. In time, I managed to find myself and deal with my flaws. I can’t take back some of the worst things I’ve done, but I was able to set myself on the path towards never repeating the same mistakes and it all starts with finding my own happiness and internal peace. Not only is it unfair to burden someone else with my own unresolved issues, but I realized that I would never be able to find my own happiness in another. The only way someone else could amplify the joy in my life is if I first cultivated my personal peace; both spiritual and emotional.
Midway through my university career, I was dealing with serious disciplinary issues and a grave academic situation. I was placed on both behavioural and academic probation. I spent far too much time out of the home, trying to find fleeting moments of pleasure in intoxication. It took some time but I eventually came to understand that I needed to halt my fall deeper down the rabbit hole. I’ve mentioned before that around the time of my sister’s wedding, something clicked in me that changed me forever – and for the better. I learned how to be happy. Since then, I’ve been a stellar student and got accepted into a professional Masters program in September. Since then, I’ve forged stronger and more meaningful bonds with my longtime friends. I haven’t felt the need at all to be with someone to find happiness in my life and the independence has suited me well.
Now and then it’s good to pause in our pursuit of happiness and just be happy.
I don’t want to tell anyone how to find their personal peace because I’m not a preachy person by nature. Personally, I found my peace through faith in God and addressing my emotional weaknesses. I was my own biggest obstacle in the way of being happy. I was honest with myself and stopped blaming anyone else for the problems in my life. I came to know myself better than ever before and made every sincere effort to correct serious misalignments. Religion gave me a truth to hold onto, a way to iron out the wrinkles in my character.
I also know that we can’t always be happy. I’m definitely not always happy. Grief, sorrow, anger, and disappointment are parts of life. The vast majority of happenings in the world are beyond our control. That’s no reason, though, to live a miserable life. And there are definitely many people who live miserable lives. In my mind, if that’s possible – then the opposite must be true. Its possible to live a happy life as well. I think of one of Shaykh Hamza Yusuf’s (an important person in my path to personal peace) oft-used stories for this subject. I’ve heard him talk numerous times about his time in Mauritania – one of the poorest and grief-stricken countries in the world. The remarkable thing, he says, is that he met the richest and happiest people he’s ever known in Mauritania. What they lacked in material wealth they more than made up for in richness of knowledge and joy. Afflictions and bad tidings affect us all, this is the nature of life. How we respond and react to the darker periods of our life says the most about our character.
I choose to live a life of happiness and moral richness. I choose to remain as positive as I can and see the silver lining even in the worst situations. I choose to remain steadfast to a happy demeanour and a hopeful outlook. Between deadlines, work hours, and appointments its easy to sometimes forget about living life. Its easy to lose sight of the fact that we all have the potential to be happy all on our own.
It was only a sunny smile, and little it cost in the giving, but like morning light it scattered the night and made the day worth living.
F. Scott Fitzgerald