Happiness happens

“Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue.” –Victor Frankl

Happiness happens.

You don’t catch it. It catches you.

Pursue, instead, a cause bigger than yourself. Focus on what you have to offer, not on what you want to receive.

Aiming to bring happiness to others is a more direct path to your own happiness than trying to get what you think you want.

On not aiming for fame

I saw this New York Times column by Emily Esfahani Smith last fall and filed it away to reference later. I ended up reading her book, The Power of Meaning: Finding Fulfillment in a World Obsessed with Happiness.

She makes the case that a good life is one that most likely looks quite ordinary and unexceptional. You don’t need to live a life that makes the headlines or history books in order to consider yourself a success. If that’s the measure, very few will ever make it. And we all know of too many famous people whose lives seemed to be especially unsatisfying.

The good life that’s in reach for the vast majority of us, though, is marked by authentic human connection and small, mostly unnoticed acts of kindness and meaningful contribution.

Aiming for fame will frustrate and disappoint, whether you get there or not.

The best bet, I think, is to focus on what you can give instead of what you want to get.

In her column, Smith cites this moving line from George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch:

“the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

Unhistoric acts of kindness and beauty by those unknown to us have filled our world with much of its goodness. We can pay that forward to the benefit of all while safeguarding our own best chance at a life well lived.

 

On noticing when you’re happy

From a 2003 speech to college students by the author Kurt Vonnegut:

And now I want to tell you about my late Uncle Alex. He was my father’s kid brother, a childless graduate of Harvard who was an honest life insurance salesman in Indianapolis. He was well-read and wise. And his principal complaint about other human beings was that they so seldom noticed it when they were happy. So when we were drinking lemonade under an apple tree in the summer, say, and talking lazily about this and that, almost buzzing like honeybees, Uncle Alex would suddenly interrupt the agreeable blather to exclaim, “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”

So I do the same now, and so do my kids and grandkids. And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”

Wouldn’t it be great to have an Uncle Alex around to regularly remind you to notice happy moments?

Or maybe you should be Uncle Alex, reminding others and yourself to notice the usually unnoticed small delights and kindnesses of daily life.

We are surrounded by wonder and deep mystery and the potential for little bits of joy that mostly get passed by in our dazed distraction or overwhelmed by the crush of complaints and worries that seem to consume our attention.

It’s easier to find something if you’re looking for it. Look for these moments. Notice when you’re happy.

Remind others, too.

“If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”

Relax already: David Letterman on ego and perspective

David Letterman reflects on no longer having his television show:

“We did this television show—my friends and I—for a very long time. It’s probably like anyone else’s professional pursuit. When you are doing it for so long, and for each day—I have always likened it to running a restaurant—because you get response to the day’s endeavor immediately. Either from the audience or the ratings, but you know as early as the next day how you did.

And because of this introspection, you believe that what you are doing is of great importance and that it is affecting mankind wall-to-wall. And then when you get out of it you realize, oh, well, that wasn’t true at all. (laughter) It was just silliness. And when that occurred to me, I felt so much better and I realized, geez, I don’t think I care that much about television anymore. I feel foolish for having been misguided by my own ego for so many years.”*

When you are in the middle of a thing—your job, an organization, or some silly drama—it seems gigantic and so obviously important.

But if you could zoom out and view it from some distance of time or space, that thing that seemed like a big deal would be revealed for what it is—a tiny blip, a miniscule drop, an otherwise insignificant thing in the vast scheme of all the things.

Not that when you’re in it you shouldn’t give it your full attention and your best effort.

Just know that everything changes, and every thing, ultimately, is quite tiny in the context of all that is.

The thing that stresses you or weighs you down as you trudge home or as you start your day is probably not as big as you imagine.

This, too, no matter how important it may seem in the moment, shall pass.

The center of the universe is everywhere, but you are not the center of the universe.

Relax already.

 

It’s all about relationships

I somewhat randomly clicked on this TED Talk by Harvard researcher Robert Waldinger this week.

He has carried on the research in one of the longest running research projects of its kind, the Harvard Study of Adult Development. For more than 75 years data has been collected that has led to some clear answers about what makes for a good life.

Younger people tend to predict that fortune and fame will lead to happiness. That prediction doesn’t hold up.

Studying older people who have lived more life shows there is one key indicator for happier and healthier lives.

It’s actually simple and ultimately rather obvious. According to Waldinger and the study’s research, this is your ticket to a good life:

“Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.”

It’s all about relationships.

Not only will you have a happier life if it’s built around positive relationships, you’ll live a healthier and longer life as well:

“The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80.”

Even brain health and mental function were notably better later in life for those who reported stronger connections in their relationships.

Waldinger closed his talk with this:

“The people who fared the best were the people who leaned in to relationships—with family, with friends, with community.”

“The good life is built with good relationships.”

I think most people will say they want a life filled with good relationships, but how often are we intentional about investing in our connections with family and friends and community?

What if you “leaned in” to the relationships that matter most? Imagine making family and friends your true priority in the way you spend your time and where you devote your greatest energy and creativity.

If you want a satisfying life, career success and financial well-being should be subordinate to the strength of the connections you make with the people who matter most.

If you don’t have close friends, make some. If your family life is suffering, get busy making it better. If you don’t have a community that you support and that supports you, do something about it.

Life as a human here on Earth is ultimately all about relationships.

“There isn’t time—so brief is life—for bickerings, apologies, heartburnings, callings to account. There is only time for loving—and but an instant, so to speak, for that.” –Mark Twain