Happiness is like a butterfly; the more you chase it, the more it will elude you; but if you turn your attention to other things, it will come and sit softly on your shoulder. – Henry Thoreau
We have become confused about happiness and it is making us unhappy.
Let me put it another way: it is not the purpose of your life to be happy. However, if you believe that it is and make being happy your objective, you will make yourself unhappy.
Evolution has provided us with a basic guiding force, a drive that is shared by every sentient being: we naturally have an aversion to suffering and we are attracted to happiness. These are guiding drives, not objectives. They have evolved to keep us alive.
For example, real hunger is a kind of suffering (a suffering few have experienced in our society). The uncomfortable feeling makes me search for food. Once I find food and eat it, I feel more at ease, happier. The basic drive motivates me to move from hunger (evolutionary speaking, an undesirable state) to satiation (a much more desirable state) and I feel happier. Happiness is not the objective; eating enough to survive is the objective. Suffering and happiness help me get there. This is equally true for me as it is for my dog and all of the other animals on our farm and in the forest. Suffering and happiness are simply there to get us to move and to do whatever we have to do to survive. For example, I am walking in the forest at night; it is cold and raining, I am soaked, I feel uncomfortable; I feel anxious about the wolves and the bears that I might encounter and may do me harm. The anxiety makes me more alert, better able to avoid danger. Finally, I reach home where I am safe, warm and fed. Naturally I feel happy.
Suffering or discomfort moves us to action. Happiness tells us that we have enough, that we have “arrived”.
If we understand this then we will understand the shallowness and uselessness of making happiness the objective of your life.
Chasing after happiness will leave you feeling overwhelmed and anxious. I once read a very simple formula for happiness:
Happiness = Reality – Expectations
By letting go of any expectation of happiness, when it arrives then − like the butterfly landing on your shoulder − it will always bring joy,
So, what to do?
Firstly, forget about looking for happiness. If you really want to be happy, the first thing you must do it to let go of trying to be happy. Stop worrying about if you are “happy enough”. Instead, appreciate the great gift of simply being here alive, conscious with the ability to appreciate. Develop an attitude of equanimity; live a wholesome life. This means welcoming every sort of experience − both good and bad; difficult and easy; comfort and discomfort. Turn your attention outwards. To paraphrase the words of John F. Kennedy:
“Ask not what the world can do for you; ask what you can do for the world”.
Find yourself a worthy cause, something bigger than yourself. And dedicate yourself to it. Having a purpose is much more important than happiness. Purpose brings with it greater happiness and greater resilience. Whatever you choose, it should be of benefit to others; it should help others. It definitely should be something that does no harm to others. It might be helping with caring for the sick, caring for the elderly, helping those in poverty; looking after the children so that someone can have a break; volunteering in your community; working to reduce climate change.
Make your community better, make your society better.
Donating money is good; donating effort is much better. It is easy to have compassionate feeling towards “humanity” but what is really needed is compassion towards that complicated creature, the human being which can be much trickier.
This might sound a bit sombre − all that focusing on the pain of others and the suffering of the world. Directly helping others connects you and makes you happier. When you work to contribute to the well-being of others, you will also improve your own well-being. Hence, if you want to be happy, focus on others and not on yourself.
You’ll have more chances of achieving happiness when it is the by-product and not the purpose of your actions.
Do not neglect to take care of yourself with such practices as meditation, mindfulness, gratitude, compassion, forgiveness. If you do not take care of yourself, you will not be in any condition to take care of others. We all make a difference in this life; taking care of yourself, whilst also turning your attention outwards to help others will help you make the best difference you can.
May your life be full of butterflies.