Say no to striving - you don’t need it.
We’ve all heard claims that happiness is the key to success, or health or a good sex life or whatever. Many books I’ve seen over the years have talked about what to do so you can be happy. In short, the philosophy is that A+B = happiness. In the absence of another approach, I believed this one. After years of diligent effort and certainty that this was the way to go, I realized it wasn’t working, but I didn’t know why. I questioned my approach - maybe I was doing something wrong. No, I was doing all the right stuff. Then I questioned my commitment - maybe I didn’t truly believe I could be happy. No, I was happier while conditions were right, and then things would change and I’d be unhappy again. Constantly trying to get the conditions right fed my desire for control, but it didn’t make me happier.
I now have some experience which confirms that A+B does not = happiness. That’s just not how it works. Why? Because true happiness is not an outcome, it’s the source. By its very nature, it is not quantifiable or achievable. So, if that’s true, then how do you get from stressed out and dissatisfied to a state of happiness? My answer: Stop striving! How do you do that? Like anything, it’s a process!
Life is uncertain
I recently saw a meme that said “I’m constantly torn between if it’s meant to be it will be and if you want it go and get it.” I was confused by this. What’s the tear? If it’s meant to be doesn’t mean that you can hang around hoping that what you want will fall into your lap while you’re watching Netflix. The objects of our desires don’t magically appear. I changed the order of the sentences and it suddenly made more sense. If you want it go and get it; if it’s meant to be it will be. Now it says get to work and detach from the outcome. This is still pretty challenging because there is a reason you do what you do; you can’t just forget about it! Everything would seem meaningless if you just forgot about your ‘why’. But there’s a difference between working hard for the express purpose of achieving the outcome, and planning the work and working the plan.
In the case of working to achieve an outcome you are trying to create the conditions for your happiness, but if the condition is not met, you’ll be disappointed. There are lots of resources that boil success down to hard work and focusing on the goal, but this implies that if you don’t reach your goal then you either lost focus or didn’t work hard enough. This is self-blame. Nothing good comes from blaming yourself, and doing so complete disregards the fact that things beyond our control happen ALL THE TIME. The reality is that there are no guarantees.
In the case of planning the work and working the plan, the focus is on what you are doing now. Your work is not a means to an end, it’s an end in itself. You still decide what you want and go for it, but once you create the plan to get there, you just do the work. You can look up from what you are doing, evaluate your progress from time to time, you can tweak the plan or even change your mind, but the focus is on what you’re doing right now.
Futility vs Mystery
Some might think acknowledging that everything is uncertain adds an element of futility to life, but I disagree. Uncertainty, though admittedly challenging to live with, can add mystery and stimulate curiosity. In uncertain situations I still stress. The more important the thing that hangs in the balance, the more stress I experience. Sometimes you just have to wait for the situation to play out, but in these instances, it’s really hard to stay out of it. The more I want the situation resolved, the greater my desire to interfere. But it seems that when the intensity generates enough discomfort, I remember that I can think differently.
So many events have led to this exact moment! In remembering this I can see how remarkable life is. I am better able focus on the curiosity about the outcome instead of the stress of not knowing. Looking back I can see that life has always worked out; the struggles and painful outcomes of life have perfectly redirected me to where I am today. In my stress I am blind to this, but I eventually remember, which generates a bit of faith that it will, in fact, work out.
Earlier I mentioned true happiness, which is not to imply a false happiness but rather a different or deeper quality of happiness. Contentment might be a better word. It’s the sort of happiness that doesn’t come and go easily as life cycles through favourable and unfavourable conditions; it’s an underlying ease that means you can feel pretty good about yourself and your life even when things turn to shit for a while. What is this state and where can you find it?
In a 2013 article published by the Atlantic, Emily Esfahani Smith states that in the three months leading up to her article, Amazon released more than 1000 books on happiness. Clearly, a lot of people are looking for answers! I’m sure some of the books are good, and I’m not claiming to have THE answer, but I know what works for me, it’s contrary to conventional thinking, and this article gets to the crux of it.
Esfahani Smith opens the article by stating, “People who are happy but have little-to-no sense of meaning in their lives have the same gene expression patterns as people who are enduring chronic adversity.” Researchers identified that the effect of chronic adversity is that our “bodies go into threat mode. This triggers the activation of a stress-related gene pattern that has two features: an increase in the activity of proinflammatory genes and a decrease in the activity of genes involved in anti-viral responses.” In short, if you have a sense of meaning, your body stays healthier, and if not, you get a double whammy of increased inflammation and decreased immunity.
1. Gene expression patterns basically determine which genes have detectable characteristics. For example, a person may carrying the genetic conditions for arthritis, but may never actually suffer from it.
2. In the study, meaning is defined as the “orientation to something bigger than the self.”
The article goes further to identify that “for many people, a sense of meaning and happiness in life overlap; many people score jointly high (or jointly low) on the happiness and meaning measures in the study.” However, they noticed that it was possible to have either a sense of meaning or happiness – this is where it got really interesting. There is a “beneficial gene expression pattern associated with meaningfulness. People whose levels of happiness and meaning line up, and people who have a strong sense of meaning but are not necessarily happy, showed a deactivation of the adversity stress response.”
So, there you have some science on the value of finding meaning, but no instructions on how to find it. If you don’t have a sense of meaning, you might be feeling resigned to feeling empty or dissatisfied. Some people have it, some don’t, and that’s just how it is, right? No. You can learn it. How do I know that? Well, I learned it.
I have everything I thought would make me happy
Society places so much focus on being happy but, in our striving, we often miss the mark. We fill our social media feeds with smiling selfies and evidence adventurous activities, as though seeming content is a substitute for actual contentment, or perhaps there’s shame in not being content, so we hide the fact that we’re clueless about how to find it. We seem happy, we have all the things that we thought would make us happy, but somehow something is missing. Many of us can feel the underlying dissatisfaction, but can’t figure out where it’s coming from, so we dismiss it.
If you try to talk about it, you will likely be faced with comments like, “you should be happy,” followed by a list of reasons that are obvious to the speaker. There are two layers of subtext in this that I can identify. The first is, “Think about those who are less fortunate than you; they would be happy to have what you have, so you should be happy too.” The second is, “I’m sharing the list of things I tell myself, so you can tell yourself. It doesn’t actually work, but at least you’ll be busy trying to do something.” Perhaps there are other ways to interpret this sort of reaction, but it’s still deflection, which feels horrible.
We strive because the messages we are bombarded with tell us that life needs to better than it is. How it is isn’t good enough. After years of striving, a lot of self-inquiry and some meditation, I started to wonder what would happen if I stepped out of the endless quest for more. What if my life is good enough? What if the sign that everything is okay right now is simply the fact that I am actually okay right now? I might have some very legitimate stresses in life which, in conjunction with a bit of uncertainty make it feel like the walls are crashing in… but they aren’t; not yet anyway, so in this instant I am okay, and in all honesty, the next few breaths are pretty certain, so there’s a little bit of space that can be acknowledged. I did that for a long time, all the while thinking, “a few seconds is not enough. I need more.” And then the question arose, “How?” I had no idea how to find more of that space, but with the question came the curiosity to find out, and sometimes, just asking a powerful question sets the cosmic tumblers in motion, which aligns the resources to be there for you when you need them. This is the only way I can explain the process of figuring something out that I had no skills to figure out, but did anyway. The essence of what I figured out is to slow down, listen and let go, but here are some details.
I realized that the I’ll-be-happy-when method of getting through life meant that I was never happy. If the root of feeling dissatisfied is a sense of disconnect from meaning then, in that, there is no way to be happy because there is a lack of something. Happiness or contentment cannot be found amidst the feeling of inadequacy, so it makes sense to deal with the feeling.
I started asking myself how to do that and came up with the idea that I needed to surrender. Surrender didn’t come so much from an act of will as it did from total exhaustion, a feeling of futility and a sense that I didn’t know what the f—k I was doing. So, with these less-than-dignified feelings peppered with a bit of profanity, I figured that if things weren’t going to work out the way I intended, then maybe I shouldn’t try so hard. I concluded that if my efforts were going to look good for a while and then fall to shit – that if what I wanted wasn’t meant to be (over and over again) then perhaps I wasn’t following the right signals.
Listen to yourself
I stopped pushing and started listening. It’s amazing what you hear when you stop (even for a moment) bossing yourself through life to accomplish all the things you think you should have accomplished by now. Our intuition is giving us signals All. The. Time. At first the signals were less than subtle. I started noticing the number of times I did something I could barely stand to do, but had promised or scheduled or in some way obligated myself. I started making space by committing to less. Some things feel good to do and others feel horrible. Doing more of the feel-good things means you feel pretty good. It might seem obvious, but that tells you how clueless I was.
Learn to be alone
Committing to less means risking alone time. The growing amount of time and space felt pretty uncomfortable for a while, but the practice of not filling it was very valuable. I could see that being busy did nothing to satisfy the feeling of discontent; it was just a distraction. It was only in my meaningful connections with people that the discontent vanished for a while, but I had to create space and be selective before this became obvious to me.
This is a big one! There’s a lot of pressure there is to conform. We’re bombarded by messages of comparison, of standardized beauty, of bigger, better, shinier things to own. The message is that each of these things is associated with a degree of happiness and social status and that without them you don’t quite measure up. Then, as if to add insult to injury, we compare our flawed, scarred and sometimes dark selves to other people’s social-media selves. This is no way to find peace! Turning down the outside noise and focusing on ourselves makes us better able to handle stress and the needs of others.
Follow your heart
There are lots of things each of us can do to make a contribution, and if you stop to listen to the impulses you have (before your thoughts override them), you’ll probably feel yourself compelled to give. Maybe it will be $5 to someone begging on the street (before you think, “Oh, they’ll probably buy alcohol.”), or maybe it will be to help someone at work (before you convince yourself you don’t really have time or before you wonder what you can get in return).
Esfahani Smith states that “…researchers, who looked at a large sample of people over a month-long period, found that happiness is associated with selfish “taking” behavior and that having a sense of meaning in life is associated with selfless “giving” behavior.” Follow your heart, not your head. It will tell you to give more and worry less, and in this you will find meaning, some peace, and an increasing level of assurance that you are doing life right.
Any step toward awesome means you’re doing life right.
This months Podcast has a very special guest, Merle Irvine. Here is a picture of Lisa and Merle, and all her medals!!! Merle is very proud of her medals...well her competitions really. She is one of the happiest people I know, is always on the go and is continually doing something new and interesting.
This months article on the Captain is written by our guest writer, Tamara.