2013-02-08

Notice What You Like

If Thomas Jefferson was right that “pursuit of happiness” is an unalienable right, then what are we to do with that right? Pursuing happiness for its own sake is generally counterproductive. Happiness eludes us when we aim at it, and it often sneaks up on us with big, warm hug when we’re paying attention to something else.

Focusing on what I want is a path of unhappiness. Do I want a bigger house, fancier gadgets? Do I want solar panels for my roof, and an all-electric car? Do I want the nation’s elected leaders populated with people who think like I do? Whatever I want, that’s where the source of my suffering will be. That’s even true if the focus of my desire is “happiness.”

Fortunately, intentionally cultivating an openness to life’s joy is not the same thing as a grasping desire for something called happiness. We can undertake to orient ourselves toward happiness without thinking of it as a thing that we want. The reigning metaphor in the one case is opening to what’s there – and in the other case, it’s acquiring something we don’t have.

Attention to opening to what’s there makes a difference. For example, one week my internet service provider was down. I couldn’t get my e-mail at home. This was very irritating. (I mentioned to a member of my congregation I was annoyed at my provider. He raised an eyebrow and said, “A minister annoyed at his provider.”)

Then the next week the e-mail went down again, but I was a lot less irritated. Why? It turns out that in the meantime I was reading a book by the Dalai Lama about being happy. Several hours of reading about it has oriented my neural pathways toward happiness – which is to say, away from “I want, I want, I want.”

And it is, just as Voltaire found it to be, good for my health. ("I've decided to be happy because it is good for my health." -Voltaire)

A day later, though, unless I specifically take a moment, and a deep breath and intentionally tell myself to remember what the Dalai Lama was saying, I’m again prone to being annoyed with my provider. The demands of the universe can be so unreasonable!

Apparently, we aren’t really designed to be happy. The mildly unhappy among our hunter-gatherer ancestors had a better chance of surviving and reproducing. They needed to be focused on dangers and problems. We have inherited that tendency. The trick is to find ways to override the circuitry of anxiety and stress when that circuitry doesn’t happen to be functional for us.

The growing legions of spiritual advisors who books fill bookstore shelves these days speak often of “mindfulness.” They mean paying attention to everything that’s going on in you and around you while it’s happening. Start by noticing what you like. Be more present to what you’re enjoying while you’re enjoying it.
“You can spend an evening with friends and only realize once you get home that you had a good time.” (Cristophe Andre, click here)
You can eat a pizza, not noticing what a great pizza it is. Things you enjoy are the places to look first if you’re having a hard time finding your happiness. Try pausing to say to yourself, “This is a nice moment. I’m having a good time. Right now, I’m happy.”

Happiness really is a warm puppy – when you bring awareness to the enjoyment. Those of you who are parents of children: next time you hug your kid, you can bring yourself to a fuller level of presence to that moment by noting to yourself, “I really like this.” Of course you do. Are you noticing? The Mindfulness habit begins by being conscious of when you’re having fun – when you’re enjoying something.

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This is part 2 of 6 of "Happy."
Next: Part 3: "Reality vs. 'Should Be'"
Previous: Part 1: "Having Everything You Want"