True confession time: For a period of about three years, I paid a stranger to listen to my deepest, most embarrassing secrets. Part of the arrangement was that he was supposed to give me useful advice without judging me (though I’m pretty sure he did at times). My job was to learn to face my fears and somehow make friends with them (though I’m pretty sure that will take a lifetime).
Therapy was, for me, a lot like going to the dentist. I was concerned that if I didn’t let a trained professional address decay, eventually I’d lose all my teeth (marbles). Sitting on that couch every week was simultaneously the most humbling and enlightening experience of my life.
It was humbling because one of my biggest fears is opening up about myself. “Doc, did I happen to mention that I’m afraid of every human interaction and it’s easier for me to be alone than in any kind of relationship?”
It was enlightening because only after this process did I realize the importance of truly knowing myself. “Ken, I wonder if you’ve thought about all the ways you might have sabotaged your relationships without realizing it?”
So yeah… it was a bit like a self-imposed weekly torture session, but I guess that’s true for everyone. Probably no one ever comes out of therapy saying, “Man, that was awesome! I’m so pumped about all the ways I’ve screwed up my life.”
But like the dentist, when each session was over, I was always glad I went. I knew somehow this was going to be good for my long-term health. It was more than good, actually. It was invaluable, because I learned more about myself than I ever thought possible — the good and the bad.
My therapist didn’t talk much. When words did come out of his mouth, usually they were in the form of a question. Occasionally, though, he would drop a real mind-bomb on me — something that would get carved into my thought process like a modern rock edict.
One day I mentioned to him that I was trying to organize things in my life in a way that would make me happy. He was silent for a moment, then the corner of his mouth turned up.
“What’s happiness?” he asked.
“Uh, you know… I want to feel good about the decisions I make and the things I spend my time on. I want to be happy.”
It was immediately apparent that I didn’t have a real answer. That’s when he said the thing I’ll never forget:
“If you want to find what makes you happy, look behind your fears.”
If you haven’t noticed, there’s been a happiness explosion lately.
Not an explosion of more people being happy. An explosion of people looking for a happiness formula. There’s a whole industry behind it — books, apps, diets, meditation retreats, you name it. If you have money to spend, someone will sell you something that’s supposed to make you happy(er).
But why is everyone so unhappy these days? What’s causing this frantic search for happiness in a time when the world is more technologically advanced and connected than ever before? (There are tons of practical and philosophical answers to that question, so I’m not even going there. Instead I’m going to talk about our ancestors.)
If it seems like ancient cultures were happier than we are today, it’s probably because they were. For example:
- “The Earth is not a good place. It is not a place of joy, a place of contentment. It is rather a place of joy-fatigue, of joy-pain.” — Aztec wisdom
- “Do not seek to have events happen as you want them to, but instead want them to happen as they do happen, and your life will go well.” — Epictetus
- “Be content with what you have; rejoice in the way things are. When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you.” — Lao Tzu
They had wisdom we seem to have lost today. I think there were two reasons… First, their lives were miserable most of the time. Second (and more important), they were much more spiritual than we are today.
They got it. They didn’t waste time pursuing an elusive elevated emotional state. They spent their time trying to survive and looking for the spiritual meaning behind the constant struggle.
It’s worth remembering that life wasn’t always like it is now. Our predecessors were forced to live in uncertain, frightening circumstances much of the time. Because their mere survival was a miracle to them, they were much more open to finding meaning and happiness wherever they could.
Where they found it was in the struggle of the current moment. We have something to learn from that.
Chasing happiness is like shooting an arrow at a cloud. Even if you manage to reach the cloud, there’s nothing for your arrow stick to.
Happiness isn’t a destination. It’s a byproduct of living an engaged life. As Joseph Campbell said, “I don’t believe people are looking for the meaning of life as much as they are looking for the experience of being alive.”
Rather than seeking an emotional high, a better approach is to figure out what creates the experience of truly living and focus on that. That requires doing some scary things.
For me, it’s been a process. It started with small things, like talking about my fears in therapy. Then bigger things, like dating as a single parent. Then super scary things, like starting a relationship that would lead to the blending of two families.
The good news is that facing my fears has become easier as I’ve practiced it. And more happiness has come to me as a result. What I learned is what our ancestors knew instinctively: Happiness can’t be found in some specific place or time. It comes when you figure out what’s holding you back and begin to face it head-on.
That’s where real growth happens. That’s how we find our purpose and grow. That’s how we make a difference in the world.
It is by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasures of life.
Where you stumble, there lies your treasure.
The very cave you are afraid to enter turns out to be the source
of what you are looking for.
The damned thing in the cave that was so dreaded
has become the center.Joseph Campbell