I am two-years-old, toddling across the farmyard behind our house in Wales. I look down and see my favorite precious little book lying in the mud. I don’t know what to do, don’t know to pick it up or keep it safe. I don’t even ask others to help me. Gradually over the weeks, I notice its pages falling apart until eventually it becomes indistinguishable from the grime around it.
That neglected book is a symbol of my early life in a troubled family with an alcoholic mother and absent father. No one picked me up or kept me safe; no one said they loved me. My inner world became torn and soiled—a lost boy who could not find his happy thoughts.
My family was a constant source of shame and embarrassment. I grew up wary and watchful, a prey to silent anxiety, a stranger to myself, never quite at home in this world. I hated secondary school, had few friends and left at age 15. Occasionally, life offered me a morsel of pleasure, a bone of satisfaction, but I did not know what happy meant.
So it is a constant surprise to find myself in my 70’s cheerful and often filled with joy. My neighbors have got used to me bursting into wordless songs of praise and gratitude. Life still has its share of hassles, irritation and disappointments. I get upset at the cruelty and ignorance of some of my fellow human beings, but my equanimity returns quickly. Looking back, I could never have imagined that getting old would be so enjoyable.
So what is the secret? If you want a happiness recipe, there are many good websites on the Internet listing the things that contribute to wellbeing (see Resources). I support them all and suggest you put into practice your own list, stealing ideas wherever you can. However that’s not where I’m going. While it’s essential to cultivate a positive frame of mind and do those things that support emotional resilience, we cannot fabricate happiness. The pursuit of happiness is a mirage, like running after the wind.
Look at a baby: as long as her physical and emotional needs are met, she gurgles and smiles and finds endless delight sticking things into her mouth. Babies are generally happy. I have a felt-sense as an infant of lying on a blanket looking up at the sky through trees flooded with pink blossom. In that unending moment, my whole being is suffused with serenity and joy.
That memory is from a period before my family finally tore itself apart. It reminds me that I have not attained happiness through my own efforts—I have rediscovered it, like an archeologist unearthing treasures buried for eons. Happiness is a birthright: we are born to be happy and intended to be happy. Unfortunately for many of us, that capacity became sullied and masked by the confusion, pain and demands of growing up. By adulthood, we get locked into a box with walls built of shame, frustration and sorrow.
The question is not how to achieve happiness, but how to escape from our own obscuring edifice of negative thinking and dissatisfaction. One client described his depressive mood as a heavy overcoat soaked with rain, weighing him down and making it hard to breathe. When he discarded that sodden overcoat, he became naturally buoyant and lighthearted. Therapy did not made him happier; it uncovered his true nature of inherent cheerfulness.
Explorations through therapy and self-reflection are helpful and often necessary first steps; they divest us of constricting assumptions about who we are and how we should be. As we connect more to our true selves—to our own extraordinary uniqueness—a wellspring of contentment and enjoyment naturally bubbles up. The roots of happiness are buried deep in our psyche waiting to be released.
Ordinary happiness is our birthright as human beings, but there is more. Joyfulness and exultation are unearned gifts that comes from beyond our small self. Joy is an infilling of an empty still space we’ve cultivated through spiritual practice; it is an opening up to a Universal Force that surrounds and encompasses our being.
There is a wonderful line from the Bhagavad Gita: Without quietness, where is meditation? Without meditation, where is peace? Without peace, where is happiness? Our ultimate happiness depends on emptiness, contemplation and inner peace.