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On the Corner

by Robert Docter – 

We seem constantly to seek happiness only to discover its fleeting nature. The U.S. Constitution gives us the right to pursue it, and many of us spend a life time in a fruitless, reflexive chase–running in circles like a dog chasing its tail. Occasionally, we think we’ve found it–only to have it disappear.

Let me say first of all, that a little bit of tension or dissatisfaction in one’s life can be highly motivating. It can get you out of the rut, off the dime, back on track. This dissatisfaction is not un-happiness. But neither will achievement alone guarantee happiness. It depends on how one relates to the achievement.

Despite the well intentioned efforts of Peanut’s good friend Snoopy, I don’t think we know what happiness is. Often, we confuse it with joy. Joy is a human response to stimuli which induce pleasure. It is the confusion of happiness and pleasure that leads to frustration and despair. When one craves pleasure there is an unconscious and unrealistic expectation that it will lead to happiness. It doesn’t. Pleasure, more often than not, is fleeting–momentary. Unrealistic expectations lead to giant size frustrations. Continued frustration causes people to begin wondering about their own efficacy–their own competence in living. They start sending themselves messages about their inadequacy. This results in depression and despair.

I’m not saying: “Don’t try to have joy–or don’t engage in things which bring pleasure.” Not at all. I’m only saying these behaviors in and of themselves will not bring happiness. Seek joy for its own sake. Happiness is something different.

Some try to find happiness in excitement. Good luck. What a curse it must be constantly trying to find excitement. These people get addicted to the rush –the thrill of the burst of endorphins and serotonin across the synapses of our brains. They take anything or do anything to get that rush. Of course we all know that excitement can’t be maintained over extensive periods of time. We also know it’s exhausting. It will not deliver happiness.

Many are convinced that happiness is achieved with wealth and its accompaniments. If I could only get a new car–buy a new house–build a new wardrobe–then I would be happy. Depression seems randomly assigned to all income groups. Money will not guarantee you happiness. Ask the lottery winners. They expected their problems to be solved, only to discover they had only added to the list.

Others are convinced that happiness is achieved in the affirmation of others. Often they seek the support and approval of others in hopes that it will bring them a measure of happiness. Advice from others is rarely unanimous. It only adds to the conflict. Therefore, trying to find happiness in affirmation often ends in more doubt. This leads to more tension and brings feelings of anxiety. These are not words often associated with happiness. Seeking too much the affirmation of others sends a de-affirming message to one’s self. When one knows he or she is a “good person” one doesn’t need to be affirmed by others.

So what is happiness, and how does one achieve it?

A friend of mine shared with me the other day the idea that happiness exists within us in direct proportion to the degree that we are thankful. Happiness is not achieved with the acquisition of externals. Happiness exists inside us according to the amount of gratitude we generate in defining our world.

I was reminded that 12-step programs have a saying about the importance of having “an attitude of gratitude.” That attitude confronts the expectation that “there is something better out there, and I must have it quickly.” The product of that kind of thinking is frustration and unhappiness. To the degree that we internalize an orientation to life based on being grateful so that even our impulses give thanks, to that degree we find our measure of happiness. Even sadness cannot conquer the steadiness found in that kind of happiness.

In order to achieve this attitude of gratitude we must be fully integrated: spiritually, physically, socially, intellectually and emotionally. I’m working on it. Are you?

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