No matter your circumstances, we all run into obstacles that sometimes make it difficult to find happiness. We know it’s out there somewhere, but it eludes our every attempt to rediscover it. However, just because it’s common to feel unhappy sometimes doesn’t mean it has to be normal to live unhappily forever. Below, Joseph Emet–author of FINDING THE BLUE SKY and creator of Positive Psychology–details how to set down the path to happiness and how to stay on it.
What inspired you to write FINDING THE BLUE SKY?
I wanted to tell my own story, my journey toward happiness. Some learn happiness at home from their parents, as part of their upbringing. I didn’t. My home was not a happy place. My first encounter with happiness came from the home of my best friend, my school buddy. I spent as much time as I could there. As I note in the book, some of us are wealthy by birth—we are born into wealthy families. Others become wealthy by dint of hard work. This is also true of happiness; and I belong to the second group. In FINDING THE BLUE SKY I chronicle how I stumbled onto the Buddhist path of mindfulness, which guides us on a path to happiness.
How can we change our ingrained patterns of thinking in order to become happier?
For most of us, our ingrained patterns of thinking are who we are. If there is some deep-rooted negativity there, positivity may at first feel strange – like some sort of a put-on. The first step is to get some perspective, some detachment or distancing from the voice of the brain. Meditation fosters this attitude. In meditation, we learn to listen to the promptings of the brain as some sort of background noise, like the radio. The idea is that the mind is more than the thoughts and the feelings that pass through it, just like the sky is more than the clouds. The sky contains many things—clouds for sure, but also stars, mosquitoes, smog, and most importantly, the sun. In meditation we sit and watch the mind—it is like being a sky-watcher. Meditation is a struggle until this attitude is established. And this attitude is the prelude to change.
The next step is consciously cultivating positive states of mind. For example, the opposite of anger is compassion. We develop compassion by reflecting on the fact that others are just like us. We can develop gratitude by contemplating what is right in our lives, or what went well during the day before we go to bed at night.
What role does mindfulness play in happiness?
Often we think that outside circumstances are the causes of our happiness. If this were true, there would be a straight correlation between factors such as income, a good job, and even good health on the one hand, and a felt sense of happiness on the other – and all sense of mystery surrounding happiness would disappear. But there is no such correlation. Outside factors do play a role, but only up to a point. Once a person is past the threshold of misery and dire need, the role of outside considerations rapidly diminish. Then, ‘inside,’ or mental factors play the larger role. Mindfulness provides a method for investigating these systematically by becoming aware of our thoughts, mental states, and habits of mind.
How do people often prevent their own happiness?
A very big subject! We have many ways of preventing not only our own happiness, but also the happiness of the people around us. We do not recognize that sometimes the best thing to do is to do nothing. We interfere, we try to control, we criticize, we are restless. We buy items we do not need; we do not know when enough is enough and get into debt needlessly; we drink too much or eat too much and suffer the consequences. Perhaps the common factor behind all this is that we fail to self-regulate. An out of control adult, manager, presidential candidate, wife or husband is just as problematic as an out of control teenager – often more so. Serenity meditation helps us to develop a peaceful mind. It is a good antidote to impulsive or emotional acting out. Serenity meditation helps us recognize our restlessness.
You observe that changing our focus from wants to needs will help us achieve well-being. How can we discern between wants and needs?
Simply put, our needs are limited, but our wants are limitless. King Solomon had a thousand wives. Was he prompted by a need or a want? Satisfying our needs makes us contented. Trying to satisfy our wants can make us bankrupt. It can make us stressed as we try to juggle three jobs to earn more money. The worst part is that satisfying wants can still leave us discontented. Presumably, Solomon was still discontented after adding No. 999 to his household. I often think that his reputation for wisdom is a bit exaggerated.
The Buddhist tradition is suspicious of wants. It relabels them as cravings. This gives them a negative flavor, which prompts us to examine them carefully. Awareness of wants can be a meditation theme. You cannot change from a sugary soft drink to a refreshing glass of water unless you have some clarity between a want and a need. Apply meditation to your everyday life. “What are my real needs?” is a good theme for a five-minute meditation before a trip to the shopping center.
How does our contemporary culture promote discontentment?
Buddhist culture discourages comparing ourselves to others, because this may create a feeling of superiority or inferiority. In our culture we make a practice of this with celebrity pages. Those who are genuinely admirable, such as the Dalai Lama, are lumped under the celebrity label together with others who seem to be there just to be envied. Advertising is not much better. There, we have ‘fictional’ celebrities, anonymous cool looking people, driving attractive new cars or wearing attractive clothes. They always have perfect hair and perfect bodies. The thrust of the ad is precisely to create discontent with what we have or what we are. The media people are taking advantage of the old adage that the grass looks greener on the other side. They ruthlessly exaggerate this natural effect with artificial fertilizers, and even spray paint the grass to make it look greener.
What is the most significant change that one can make in order to become happier?
Cultivate the garden of your heart. Each of us has a garden in our heart where roses of gratitude, dahlias of contentment, and irises of joy can grow. You probably have some houseplants. Do you keep poison ivy, crabgrass, and thorns at home? Do not keep them in the garden of your heart either. Those noxious plants correspond to anger, anxiety, and ill-will. Whatever seeds you water and fertilize will grow in the garden of your heart just like they will grow in the backyard. You water those metaphorical seeds by bringing them to mind often, and keeping them in mind.
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