We’re often told that happiness is an illusion, and some of us believe it, despite the experience of our own lives. Happiness is obviously not an illusion, because we’ve all felt it, not once but many times. Most commonly, we realize after some period of time — perhaps a few minutes, or a day — that we have been happy in the time just past. We haven’t thought about it one way or another, but now that we do, we realize we’ve been happy.
That happiness occurs when we’re not paying attention to it is part of why happiness seems so mysterious. But it isn’t mysterious at all.
We know a lot about what doesn’t make you happy. As a rule, nothing you lack now will make you happy when you get it. People imagine they’ll be happy as soon as they get that relationship, degree, marriage, or promotion — only to obtain it, and find happiness eludes them.
Similarly, buying things doesn’t make anybody happy. The endless disappointment of shoppers, thronging to the stores to acquire the new clothes of the season, the new car of the model year, is repeated again and again. We make our purchase, and feel happy for a while. But soon the happiness fades. The purchase didn’t do what we hoped, and we begin the buying cycle all over again, like alcoholics who have forgotten the hangover. The truth is that buying things — particularly for yourself — won’t make you happy.
In fact, the more attention you lavish on yourself, the more unhappy you become. People focused on their bodies, their clothes, and their career aren’t happy. Look around, and see if it isn’t true. Devoting a lot of attention to yourself is actually a prescription for misery.
If you want to be happy, forget yourself. Forget all of it — how you look, how you feel, how your career is going. Just drop the whole subject of you. We all know this is true because we’ve all had the experience of doing some task — even cleaning the sock drawer or washing the dishes — and for a while, forgetting ourselves entirely. And when we blink our eyes and come back, we realize we’ve been happy.
So losing your self-preoccupation is important. How do you do that? Simple: focus on something else. People dedicated to something other than themselves — helping family and friends, or a political cause, or others less fortunate than they — are the happiest people in the world. We sometimes hear about how people “throw their lives away” or “live for others.” But such people are often very happy.
Of course, if you care for others, if you devote yourself to some cause greater than you are, it doesn’t mean your life will be free of troubles. No one’s is. It doesn’t mean you’ll enjoy every minute. No one does. But it does mean you’ll have a happier time than somebody who’s always looking out for number one, or who is hurrying to buy the latest trendy thing, or who is standing before the mirror, watching his or her life drain away — as it inevitably does.
So if you want to be happy, resolutely turn the spotlight off yourself. Forget your own self-importance, your aches and pains, your feelings and fears. Instead, get busy. The world is wide and fascinating, and it needs your participation. People out there need your help. A little more service to others, and a little fewer possessions to claim your attention.
Now: who knows all this? For one thing, terminally ill people do. When you learn you’re dying, you work out the priorities real quick. Nobody on their deathbed ever wishes they spent a few more days at the office, or bought that new car. What matters is friends and family, and human relationships: what you did for other people, what they did for you. How you helped and were helped. Where you cared and were cared for. That’s the heart of happiness, and all the rest is commercial hustle. Don’t buy it. Make the world a better place and you make your life worth while. Make your life worth while and you’ll be happy. You don’t need to buy anything or ask anybody for advice. You can just go do it.
And you can start right now.