HAPPINESS AND CLUELESSNESS

Happiness and Cluelessness
The path to happiness is controversial. In truth, almost every serious matter that human beings think about has too many alternatives, options, and competing viewpoints. (And research shows that too many options make us anxious, which does not make us happy. That's me in a grocery store.)

Before I launch into the controversy, let me make a disclaimer backed up by Freud and Woody Allen. Freud said, "We cure people from neurosis to return them to the ordinary misery of life." This brings to mind the scene in Annie Hall where Allen made the distinction between "the miserable" (very anxious because of too many options) and "the horrible" (serious illness, blindness). In this Dig, we are only addressing ordinary misery. If you are dealing with the horrible, please accept my sympathy and my prayers.

For the rest of us, here is an intriguing question: what would have to happen right now for you to be happier?

You have a lot of demands on your time, too much responsibility, and you know you would be happier if you could just find the time to….what? Here's a list to help you along.

— go to the gym more
— have more faith
— save more money
— be more assertive
— go on a date with your spouse
— stop shopping for more clothes you can't afford
— avoid that third glass of wine after the kids go to bed

Or maybe you are at the opposite end of the spectrum and you actually feel lonely, useless, unproductive, and dull because you are not contributing. You know you would be happier if

— you could find a new dream
— someone would ask you out on a date
— you stopped taking out your resentment on people
— you could make friends more easily
— God wired money into your bank account
— even a third glass of wine could excite you

So, you are mulling over the one thing that would make you happier. Now suppose I came back in a week or a month or a year and found out you have not put that one thing into action? What would we say about you then? Some experts on happiness would say that you must want to live this way and you don't really want to be happy. After all, they would argue, you are not doing the thing that would make you happy. I promise you that somewhere in the world right now there is a conference at which experts are nodding their heads in agreement with "people want their pain." And they are all chuckling a bit—and another struggling soul, possibly you, is disaffirmed by a group of experts who obviously must have their lives totally together.

I think those experts are clueless in their view of human beings.

Here's a different perspective: I call it the "step-at-a- time-be-proud-of-your-strengths-and-fix-your-faults-as-you-live-now-heading-towards-excellence" happiness. For shorthand, let's call it humble happiness. Humble happiness hinges on four truths.

  1. Nobody has his or her act totally together—not even the experts—because it is hard to live well and quite hard to be happy. I know that there are some gifted human beings out there who walk on the moon, understand day trading in the stock market, and can skim the surface off a micro chip at IBM. But the man who walks on the moon has not taken his wife out on a date in months, the day trader hasn't seen a gym since the Dow was 5000, and the micro chip expert drinks four glasses of wine a day.

    Everyone is imperfect, has down times and is in mighty need of help from other people. So you can slow way, way down on "comparing upward" with fantasies about an expert's perfect life or your neighbor's perfect home, garden or spouse.

    Instead, relax and breathe and smile. You are a part of the human race, not the perfect race. You're great at some things (be proud), not so great at others (be humble)—just like everyone else.

  2. There are deeper reasons for you not doing the thing that will make you happy. It isn't that you don't want happiness—who doesn't want happiness, for goodness sake? The plain and simple truth is that it is hard work to change what we are doing or not doing. We all have internal competition about what will make us happy (one part of us wants to save money, the other part wants to spend money). And there is so much stuff that gets in the way. We all get knocked off our "I'm great at this, fix my faults, working harder to change happy horse" by all the competing demands on our time and energy and resources. The way we live is a complex web of priorities and expectations and beliefs and habits. It's a spider web composed of steel cables. It's hard to cut through steel.

    For example, right now as I'm typing this I "want" to go to the gym. But I also have to make breakfast, pack my gym bag, and sort through a box of leftover "stuff" from my car that blew its engine and last week's "happy horse schedule" to smithereens. And I actually want to finish this Dig more than I want to go to the gym. I need to do both. Getting your life together is an indispensable part of happiness and, like happiness, it is one big juggling act.

  3. The biggest reason why we don't do the things that will make us happy is that we just don't see how important the thing is that we need to do. For example, I'm pretty "geared into" writing the things that I need to write. I am not as "geared into" going to the gym. After a while, if I choose writing more than exercise, the beauty of exercise will feel like a dim and distant memory. The "spell" of writing or going to a movie will fog me over and I won't even see as clearly the absolute necessity of exercise. And I will be less happy, but barely notice it because I will get used to the "status quo" (only go to the gym once a week, when everything else is out of the way).

    Alas, we are all, at times, clueless people. We live life forward and understand it backwards (Kierkegaard) as we look in the rear view mirror. And there we see a highway littered with blind, self-centered moments….habits picked up that are now in control of us….friends dropped, seldom consciously…..so much stuff accumulated that we have to bury our treasure in our closets and sheds and storage places….and some secrets we want no one to know about (hopefully, they fell into a deep ditch.)

    And that isn't even the worst of it. In our blind, self-centered moments we hurt people and don't even know it. People hurt us and they don't even know it. This can go on for years until there is a mountain of hurt between people and walls as thick as the Great Wall of China.

    Ironically, the truth about our cluelessness can make us happier, in a way.

    Now it won't make you happier if you read it as an excuse to stop fixing your life and settle deeper into the couch for more potato chips and television. We all have what I call our "do-able ideal version" of our life and if we get too far from our own do-able ideal, we will not be happy—with ourselves.

    But being aware of cluelessness will make it easier to be more merciful and gentle to yourself because you will realize that most of your folly was not clearly seen and clearly intended. It's not as if you were deliberately screwing up your life in a "I must want it" kind of way.

    Second, even though you realize that people have hurt you, you might have thought that everything was being done to you in a conscious way by really, really smart people. Probably ain't so. Though your father might have been a bright mechanical engineer, if he talked to his 4 year old like you were 42, he was not very smart and he did a lot of unintended harm. And though that still hurts, it hurts a wee bit less if you realize he was clueless. (Of course, I'll give you a year of therapy to rage at him before you get to this point!)

    Third, even the experts are at times clueless. We have to think "buyer beware" when it comes to everyone, especially when it comes to our happiness. So be careful when experts advise you—after all, not only may they not have walked a mile in your shoes, they might not even be able to.

  4. Given all of the above, we all need a HAPPINESS COMMITTEE in our life. Since happiness and life are such juggling acts and we are clueless at times, we must assemble a team to help us be happy. We need Joe to tap us on the shoulder and say "You must change your life"—to borrow a line from Rilke. We need Anne to give us a hug and say "Well done." We need Jose to watch out for our comparisons. And then we can have a humble happiness on our journey—peace about ourselves in the meantime, whatever we strive towards.
The Weekly Dig
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