Trying to make sense of life and to learn living it happily.

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Friday, February 8, 2013

Does Happiness Require Settling?

Once I heard a parable about a poor man lying under a banana tree eating a banana. Another man comes up to him and asks,
- Where have you gotten the banana?  
- Plucked it from the tree. 
art by ~DicklessHunter
- Well, you could pick a few bananas and sell them.
- What for? 
- With that money you could hire someone to help you pick more bananas, and sell them, too.   
- What for? 
- In a month, you'd be able to hire 10-15 people picking bananas for you, selling them, and making a lot of money... 
- What for? 
- Well, then you would be able to lie under a tree, eat a banana, enjoy the life and do nothing! 
- But I already do!

Indeed, having a more easygoing attitude is a powerful shortcut to a happier life. It is liberating to realize that we do not need much to be happy. That being happy is being peaceful and content with life at all times and all junctures.

We go through life surrounded by infinite details and choices. Our mood and happiness depend on myriads of daily conscious and unconscious decisions about what we focus on and what we let go; which desires, possessions, events, and battles do or do not deserve our emotional investment.

So it may seem that since happiness does not really depend on external factors, we should not desire them. Why aspire for success or career when we can be happy without? Why bother creating a family, compromise and sacrifice our freedoms, when it will bring us as much aggravation as bliss, especially if ultimately we should not rely on anyone else to make us happy except ourselves? Why do anything when we can just work on cultivating peacefulness and contentment?

Even our values seem to be in the way of happiness. "Would you rather be right, or would you rather be happy?" This seemingly unassuming and seemingly obvious question hints at a univocal choice: fight to be right or settle and be happy.

It sounds that the way to happiness is to take whatever happens to us without challenging, giving up on our dreams, ambitions, beliefs and values.

In order to be happy, do we need to settle?

We will get trapped by this question, if we try to give a definitive “yes” or “no” answer:

art by ~conradyoung
Yes! We need to settle. If we are not as happy as we want to be, we need to change our attitude, we need to change ourselves. If we take everything to heart, if we let all the stuff that goes on rankle us, if presence of problems and absence of solutions anger or depress us, we will get nowhere near happy.

On the other hand, no! Our values, desires and ideas make us who we are. We should not sacrifice our integrity! Being happy may be much more important than being "right" in a petty argument. But what about major issues? Is being happy more important than fighting for our ideals, our ideas, our loved ones, our freedom, our rights, or our values?

Besides, even if we would rather be overall happy, would we be able to disengage from the things that are important to us? It may be rather easy to let go of non-essential things. But when the choice comes to deeply ingrained values, many tend to insist on being right.

So what's the solution? This is a tricky choice. As always, the truth is somewhere in the middle.

If we throw ourselves too much into either direction, we would be forgetting the other essential cornerstone of happiness - moderation. Without moderation every pleasure turns into suffering (see post Happiness vs. Pleasure), bravery turns into stupidity, loves turns into smothering, and the pursuit of happiness may turn into settling, indifference and apathy. It works the same way for the other extreme. If we do not let go of anything, take everything too close to heart, always fight to be right, we risk being miserable, emotionally wrecked and exhausted for the rest of our lives.

We need to sustain the right balance for absolutely everything we do, including contentment (see post on moderation).

It is important not to confuse contentment with complacency. Contentment does not mean inactivity. Being content does not mean settling and never wanting anything else because we are satisfied with the way things are. It means recognizing that even if we are not satisfied with what we presently have or what we presently are, it is sufficient to be grateful and joyful on the road to achieving our goals.

To get into this state of mind, we need to find the right proportion of not caring too much and not caring too little.

Taking a look at the life through the prism of our present understanding of happiness will put our goals in perspective. We may realize that some things we yearn for or fret about are not as overall important as we are used to think, whereas the meaningful things will remain meaningful.

The appraisal of what is meaningful is very personal. Some may want to impact the world, eliminate hunger, or invent flying cars. Others may want things that impact them personally, for example, see their kids graduate from college or quit smoking.

art by ~mole2k
So the compromise is to recognize which goals and ambitions are not essential for us and let them go, and which are important, and aspire toward them. But happiness is not an either/or proposition. It does not appear when we follow our dreams or when we settle for what we have. We should not put it on hold until we finally reach our goals. We should combine the desire to change something and the contentment with the present situation while we work on the change.

Surely, once we achieve our goals and turn the dreams into reality, we will be happy. But as often, our efforts may not come to fruition. The end results of our struggles may not be what we wished for. We should be ready for this outcome as well. Not getting something we want, even the noblest goal, should not disturb our mental state.

The happiness I discuss is the contentment with the process of life itself. The perspective, the balance of not completely giving ourselves over to some goal or idea, and not giving up on it entirely, either. It is being happy while working our way to it, and staying content and balanced whatever the result is.

So happiness is an intricate balance of being both content with what we have, but not settling or giving up on our dreams.

Look forward to your life. Know what your goals are and work to reach them. Just continue to be happy in the interim.

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