When it comes right down to it, we all need to decide what is most important to us – what really matters. I don’t believe we can even begin to make anything resembling intelligent choices until we have identified what will be the value that is primary in our lives.
In one way, there are almost as many different answers to the question as there are people answering it. For example, many people might say that what matters most is being successful – but definitions of success vary from person to person. Even among people who would answer “success at work,” success is a very subjective quality. Some would say success is remaining employed, others that it is being promoted, still others reaching a certain pay level or starting their own business. Even under the best of circumstances success can be short-lived. Americans are living in the aftermath of one of the greatest economic downturns in history, a downturn that made preexisting definitions of success all but meaningless.
Some have said that meaning subsists in acquiring things – materialism. We have all experienced the thrill of buying something new – and, if we are honest, we have all also experienced the reality that nothing is new for very long. If we “buy” into having the newest model of everything as being key to happiness, we voluntarily take our place in a system of repeated acquisition followed by repeated disappointment, creating the need to more acquisition that will inevitably be followed by more disappointment. The truth is that materialism can never bring lasting satisfaction. In fact, its result leads more often to brief periods of satisfaction that occur between long stretches of dissatisfaction and the result is an addictive process that often goes unrecognized.
The truth is that I could go on and on listing things believed to bring satisfaction that fail miserably. The truth is that most of us pin our hopes on things that are fleeting and impermanent while hoping to somehow to turn them into something lasting and permanent. All of these attempts at finding happiness exist only outside of ourselves and so make our happiness dependent upon causes and conditions beyond our control. If we want to be happy, we must look within to find what is within our control – that is, our attention – and we must learn to move our attention from where it habitually lies – on ourselves – to where we can help both ourselves and others by focusing on them. You see, the cause of happiness is being of service to others. When we are of service to others, we find that (completely unintentionally) we are also helped – often more than we help others. Anyone who has ever taught anyone anything, or cared for another who was ill, knows the truth of this teaching.
The recently ended election season was a case study of conflict between people who believe they can find happiness only by focusing on themselves and other people who at least pay passing attention to the needs of the less fortunate. I’m not suggesting that people on either side of the equation are bad people, nor am I suggesting that many of them have reached the point where they both completely understand the need to be of service to others and are ready to make the life changes necessary to live out their vision. I am suggesting that the seeds of happiness are not only present but well identified. We know that when we are in a romantic relationship we very often care more about the happiness of the other than ourselves. In our friendships, we care very much about what happens to our friends – often more than ourselves. It is only a voluntarily worn share of blinders that perpetuate the ignorance that we can be made happy by stepping on the backs of others.
In the end, then, it seems that both happiness and misery are inside jobs.