A Simple Truth About Happiness
by Dennis Prager
If you're waiting for it, you've missed the point.
After I gave a talk on the subject of happiness, a women in the audience stood up and said, "I wish my husband had come." As much as she loved him, she explained, it wasn't easy being married to someone so unhappy.
This woman enabled me to put into words what I had been searching for- the altruistic, as well as the personal, reasons for taking happiness seriously. I told her that each of us owes it to our spouse, our children, our friends to be as happy as we can be. And if you don't believe me, ask a child what it's like to grow up with an unhappy parents, or ask parents what pain they suffer if they have an unhappy child.
I was not a particulary happy child, and like most teen-agers, I reveled in my angst. One day, however, it occured to me that I was taking the easy way out. Anyone could be unhappy; it took no courage or effort. True achievement lay in struggling to be happy.
The notion that we have to work at happiness comes as news to many people. We assume it's a feeling that comes as a result of good things that just happen to us, things over which we have little or no control.
But the opposite is true: happiness is largely under our control. It is a battle to be waged and not a feeling to be awaited.
To achieve a happier life, it's necessary to overcome some stumbling blocks, three of which are:
Comparison With Others. Most of us compare ourselves with anyone we think is happier- a relative, an acquiantance or, often, someone we barely know. I once met a young man who struck me as particularly successful and happy. He spoke of his love for his beautiful wife and thier daughters, and of his joy at being a radio talk-show host in a city he loved. I remember thinking that he was one of those lucky few for whom everything goes effortlessly right.
Then we started talking about the Internet. He blessed its existence, he told me, because he could look up information on mutiple sclerosis- the terrible disease afflicting his wife. I felt like a fool for assuming nothing unhappy existed in his life.
Images of Perfection: Almost all of us have images of how life should be. The problem, of course, is that only rarely do people's jobs, spouses and children live up to these imagined ideals.
Here's a personal example: No one in my family had ever divorced. I assumed that marriage was for life. So when my wife and I divorced after five years of marriage and three years after the birth of our son, my world caved in. I was a failure in my own eyes.
I later remarried but confided to my wife, Fran, that I couldn't shake the feeling that my family life had failed. She asked me what was wrong with our family now (which included her daughter from a previous marriage and my son). I had to admit that, aside from the pain of being with my son only half the time (my ex-wife and I shared custody), our family life was wonderful.
"Then why don't you celebrate it?" she asked.
That's what I decided to do. But first I had to get rid of the image of a 'perfect' family.
"Missing Tile" Syndrome. One effective way of sabotaging happiness is to look at something and fixate on even the smallest flaw. It's like looking up at a tiled ceiling and concentrating on the space where one tile is missing. As a bald man told me, "Whenever I enter a room, all I see it hair."
Once you've determined what your missing tile is, explore whether acquiring it will really make you happy. Then, if you truly believe that something is missing from your life, my suggestion is: Find it or drop it. If you cannot live without it, do whatever you can to find it. If you cannot find it, stop thinking about it and celebrate what you do have.
I've spent years studying happiness, and one of the most significant conclusions I've drawn is this: there is little correlation between the circumstances of people's lives and how happy they are. A moment of reflection should make this obvious. We all know people who have had a relatively easy life yet are essentially unhappy. And we know people who have suffered a great deal but generally remain happy.
The first secret is gratitude. All happy people are grateful. Ungrateful people cannot be happy. We tend to think that being unhappy leads people to complain, but it's truer to say that complaining leads to people becoming unhappy.
The second secret is realizing that happiness is a byproduct of something else. The most obvious sources are those pursuits that give our lives purpose- anything from studying insects to playing baseball. The more passions we have, the more happiness we're likely to experience.
Finally, the belief that something permanent transcends us and that our existence has some larger meaning can help us be happier. We need a spiritual or religious faith, or a philosophy of life.
Whatever your philosophy, it should encompass this truism: if you choose to find the positive in virtually every situation, you will be blessed, and if you choose to find the awful, you will be cursed. As with happiness itself, this is largely your decision to make.