Aristotle said, “Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim, and end of human existence.” I used to think to achieve this: I had to do things that made me happy. I was searching for things that I could add to my life, like seasoning salt. This day doesn’t feel that happy, so, add some drinks, some friends, and presto—I got happy!
What happened was that I was distracting myself with things that made me forget what I should be doing. And it made me less self-aware. I stopped thinking about why I was feeling a certain way. I was entertaining myself, but I wasn’t happier. I guess you can’t get happiness by chasing after it.
As a computer programmer, I like to think about things logically: cause and effect. Put something in and get an output. If this, then that. Simple. Add things to the mix, and they result in something that we can measure and track. How in the world can I do that with happiness? Enter Ralph Waldo Emerson:
“The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”
I have realized that happiness is a side-effect, and one that’s not necessarily intuitive. I can’t always track how it happens; it just appears out of nowhere like a ghost and disappears just as fast. I wanted to find a way to guarantee it, to create it. It wasn’t until I looked at the things that created happiness as a side-effect, that I realized that the times in my life I’ve found happiness are when I’m serving others and being useful, honorable, and compassionate. When I’m kind to others, I walk away feeling a real sense of happiness. That’s deep. Like the other day, I helped this guy buy a new suit of Arabic clothes.
I had some ridiculously good Pakistani food last night, and my friend “BK” was telling me a story about a guy who was unhappy with his job and where he worked. He spoke to the HR person who helped him realize that he was good at his job, and that he loved the job that he was doing. The source of his unhappiness was that his career was plagued with gossip, time-wasting, and backstabbing office politics.
She challenged the guy to walk around the office while carrying a full glass of water. The only requirement was that he had to walk around the office three times without spilling a drop. If he did spill, he’d have to start the challenge over. It didn’t take long, but the guy succeeded and made it around the office three times. He made it past all his co-workers who whispered and wondered what the heck was going on, but he did not pay any attention to them.
When he got back to the HR person, she asked him, “How did you feel? Did you get caught up in the back-biting office politics and gossip?” He responded, “No, of course not, I focused on the task of getting around the office with the water, not on the other stuff.” He paused for a second and looked across at the smiling HR person and said, “Oh, I get it–thank you, I needed that.” He finally understood that his problem wasn’t all the bad behavior he was observing; what he learned was that if he stayed focused on his task and his job, then none of that other stuff would matter.
Back to life, our lives, to be exact. Maybe you don’t need to carry a glass filled with water around your office, but what’s the task that can help you change the way you see reality and get you into a positive place?
Recently, I’ve been living in Saudi Arabia and have had a chance to reset some of my habits and create some new ones. Going to the Middle East wasn’t something that I was doing for my happiness; it was much more business than anything else. And I knew being away from my family was definitely going to make me unhappy. So I needed to arm myself with some things to do to make myself happier. If I am going to have to be away from the people I love, I at least should bring back something that I have achieved. I should come back better.
I’d read somewhere to start each morning by writing three things I was grateful for in a journal each day and to see what happens. So I started doing that, and at first, I found it to be easy, and it became transactional. Wake up, go down to the hotel’s mezzanine level, drink three cups of coffee, eat a big breakfast, write down three things I was grateful for and then go to the university where I was teaching.
What I didn’t expect was it to work. And I realized that some mornings I’d become filled with emotion and really internalize the feelings of gratitude–those were the days that I felt the most significant effect. I learned that not only did I have to write down and think about what I was grateful for, but I also had to feel the emotions that go along with it. I had to feel the gratitude and be thankful for it all at the same time. I couldn’t fake it or just be frivolous about it.
So that’s it, that’s my secret.
If you want to really find happiness in your life, you should try to start your day with gratitude. You have to feel the emotions and bask in the healing energy that is created when you do it. It’s not a magic trick, but when you do it right, the effects are magical. You’ll sing your way into the office, and your day will be better. Give it a shot; you’ll be grateful you did.