The tao of happiness
While happiness is often elusive or fleeting or ephemeral, we treat it as a God-given right – so declared by our founding fathers. Its pursuit can become a life-long quest, and we shadows of Don Quixote, tilting at windmills.
Happiness is considered so important, so vital to our psyche, that it has become the subject of endless study. Each year we are offered lists of the happiest countries, professions, and companies. Social scientists travel the world to unearth the key components of a happy life.
The gold standard of these efforts is the University of Chicago’s General Social Survey. Since 1972, this biennial survey has recorded the evolving state of social phenomena in the US.
As a result of this and other studies, social scientists attribute happiness to three major sources – genes, events, and values.
At one time or another we have all come face to face with a curmudgeon. The grump who no matter what the circumstance sees the glass as half full. An Eeyore dressed as a friend.
Conversely, there’s the happy-go-lucky chap who always has a smile on his face, who sees nothing but the good in others.
It turns out that our general outlook on life is largely a matter of genes. We inherit a significant proportion of our happiness – about 48 percent.
So happiness, like a youthful appearance well into middle age, is partly a result of good genes. Uncle Bernie, not so much.
Likewise events – a great job, the dream boyfriend, an invitation to go on a sailing adventure – can contribute up to 40 percent of our happiness at any given moment.
But these are typically one-off experiences, and their impact on our general state of happiness is short-lived. The longer we travel that happy road, the more accustomed we become to the scenery. Until we eventually take it for granted, with a parallel tapering off of endorphins.
So what is the third variable of our happiness quotient?
That last 12 percent may not sound like much, but, as it so happens, it’s under our complete control.
By pursuing these four values – spirituality, family, community, and work – we are able to find the way … the tao of happiness.
Frequent readers of this column will recognize the themes contained within the first three, as they represent the core of slow living.
Spirituality means different things to different people. Some find it in their religion, while others find it in meditation. Still others discover a spiritual connection with nature. Whatever your source, there is a calmness, a centeredness, that can be found in transcendent grace, and it provides a direct pipeline to happiness.
Likewise family, friends, and a sense of community provides purpose and enriches our lives.
Most of us recognize that our vocation can bring meaning into our lives. Often our sense of who we are is wrapped up in what we do. Take that away and we are lost.
So, intuitively, equating work with happiness seems sensible enough.
The trouble is that, for many of us, our vocation is often the result of random circumstances, and not a life-long quest. We tend to tilt where the wind blows rather than at the windmills in our mind.
This has certainly been true of me. Beginning with my first job out of college I pursued what tweaked my interest or curiosity, rather than search for a perfect marriage of passion and skill.
Retailing looked like fun so, hell, let’s give that a try. Twenty years later I was burned out, poor, and needed to find a different job.
That led to restaurants, which, as many of you know, is the perfect blend of chance and quick money.
Throughout, I dabbled in other ventures that touched on the edge of what I have come to think of as my true vocation.
And, being someone who tends to live in my head, I have been introspective about who I am and what I long for – for years.
This thinking about work and happiness came full circle recently when I discovered some long lost goals and objectives, written approximately twenty years ago. Even then I wanted to become a writer and a speaker.
But fate and circumstances intervened. The tyranny of the urgent over the important.
I think many of us find ourselves in similar circumstances. Our head is turned by the immediacy of a paycheck, or a job that happens to land at our feet. So we head that way, like our Labs on their morning sniff.
And here we are. Here I am. Twenty, thirty, forty years later. Just now carving out some space for something truly meaningful. Something that I know will lead to true happiness.
It already has.
So what I wish for you over this holiday season, and into the new year, is to spend some time thinking about that 12 percent. What is it that brings you spiritual fulfillment? How does your friends, your family, and a sense of community enrich your life? And to what extent have you been able to link your passion and skills to your vocation?
The answer to those questions is the first crucial step on the path to happiness. The second step, what turns it from a hope to a journey, is determining how to get there. And that will be the next installment of our year-end wrap-up.