How to be Happy

I have discovered that two basic kinds of happiness exist – the first is wonderful when it happens, but fleeting.  We are happy when we first fall in love, when we receive a very nice gift, when we complete a performance and receive compliments, when we get a visit from a friend, when we come into an unexpected large amount of money, perhaps.

The common characteristic of the first type of happiness is that it is based on an external event, and because external events are constantly changing (first love grows familiar, the gift breaks, the performance is forgotten, the friend leaves, the money is spent), and if we pin our happiness to those events, then it’s not likely to last very long.

Often we realize this, and start looking for the next external event to “make” us happy – maybe we will feel better if we go on a trip, or get our nails done, or eat more ice cream, or watch a funny movie.  There is nothing inherently wrong with any of these activities – they are all valid ways of living.  However, we are operating under delusion if we believe that any external object or event will bring us lasting happiness.

To understand the second type of happiness, imagine an outdoor soccer field in a park, and a highly competitive game being played on the field.  The sidelines are crowded with shouting fans, each cheering loudly for their side.  Finally, the last play wins the game for the home team by just a point.  The home fans cheer wildly and the visitors are instantly dejected.  In fact, on both sides there are tears – of joy, and of sorrow.

After just a few minutes, the drama that played out on the field is over, and it appears that nothing is left.  But something does remain – the field.  The field which did not take sides, but allowed the play of life to take place – remaining peaceful, open to possibilities before, during, and after the highly competitive game.  The field, now ready for kite flying, or children playing tag, or an older couple just walking together in the sunshine.

The field is a metaphor for the state of mindfulness which allows our hearts to accept both happiness and sorrow, and to let each flow through our lives, without clinging to happy events, or rejecting the difficult ones.  The deeper form of happiness is one of gratitude for the experience of life and all that it teaches us.

I remember when we made the decision to leave our organic produce farm in Wisconsin, and start a new life.  It was a difficult decision  because we had put our hearts and souls into that farm, but we lived too far from markets to make a profit.  I took one last hike by myself in the late fall to a large rock outcropping that crowned a tall ridge that looked out over our valley.  I sat down on the golden grass and cried with a broken heart.  But in the middle of deep sadness, I heard the chickadees singing all around me.  In fact, the little birds had perched on the rocks and in the trees closest to me, and when I looked at them, they looked back with their compassionate bright eyes.

I remember thinking, “Life can be so sad, but it is so beautiful”.  In that moment, mindfulness was present for me, as I allowed my sorrow to begin healing because I saw beauty at the same time.  Lasting happiness is about gratitude for living.

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