The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.
If happiness was like taking a bath, this type of happiness is seeing the tub all around you for what it is: in your mind. The level of water would shift and leak or remain full according to how you see it.
In the first half of the twentieth century, an American Protestant theologian composed the famous Serenity Prayer. It is as follows:
"God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."
These few words have helped generations of people in the west to step back and look at their situations, whether immediate or long term, and question their urge to change them. In short, it has helped us to look inward.
Niebuhr’s prayer echos a philosophy that has been resounding across human cultures, and over thousands of years. It whispers of a Buddhist world-view, and at the very least urges the individual to question their perspective when things aren’t going their way.
This call to look inward remains as prudent as ever. Matthieu Ricard said it well:
“What strange hesitancy, fear, or apathy stops us from looking within ourselves, from trying to grasp the true essence of joy and sadness, desire and hatred? Fear of the unknown prevails, and the courage to explore that inner world fails at the frontier of our mind.” —Happiness, p. 34
Where Do We Go From Here?
But what about when our basic needs are met? Despite what we see on the news, more people than ever before in history are living with their basic needs met.
“We don’t need more money, we don’t need greater success or fame, we don’t need the perfect body or even the perfect mate–right now, at this very moment, we have a mind, which is all the basic equipment we need to achieve complete happiness.” –from the Dalai Lama in The Art of Happiness, p. 37
Many people understand, at least on an intellectual level, that it is naive to think that external conditions can ensure happiness on their own. Yet the myths persist across our cultures: get more money, get this, achieve that, succeed at this…THEN you’ll be happy. All of us fall victim to these ways of thinking from time to time.
In fact, people think more about the future than they do the past or present. About 12% of the day, actually. We drive ourselves mad planning how to manifest our desires.
The mind is its own place,
And in itself can make
A Heav'n of Hell,
Or a Hell of Heav'n.
So what’s the alternative to this relentless cycle of external thinking?
“None of us can control our emotions. We can only control our reactions to our emotions.” –Neil Pasricha,The Happiness Equationp. 74
Acceptance in the Present Moment
We build up so many ideas about how life should be. Buddhism has targeted this issue very well, citing it as the primary problem each of us face: Attachment.
We have many images of what should be, and put high demands on ourselves. We want others to see us in a certain way. We want to see ourselves in a certain way. We crave this, and have aversion to that.
“I was experiencing my own inner war with the way things were. And at the root of this war was my own ignorance of who I really was. I had stopped seeing the completeness of life; I had forgotten my true nature, and I had gone on the warpath with the present experience. Not realizing who I really was, and therefore identifying as a separate ‘self,’ I had gone to war with the present moment.” –Jeff Foster The Deepest Acceptance p. 21
In here lies the biggest key of all to changing our perspective toward happiness. All of existence is, and will be, with or without you. And here you are, part of it.
Acceptance of this, in the present moment, alters our sense of self. We see that we can escape attachment, instead simply having preference.
Acceptance is like an antidote to suffering, because it turns our own wants, with their cycle of reactionary cravings and aversions, into peaceful preference. It widely opens the door in our minds to appreciation.
“From this perspective, it is possible to accept life in its totality, both the good and the bad, and know that everything is all right, just as it should be, including you and your place in the world. Surprisingly this acceptance does not breed passivity. I have found that I am most effective at creating positive change when I am in this state; energy normally employed to ward off frustration at opposition or fear of failure is instead channeled precisely where it needs to go.” Andrew Weil, Spontaneous Happiness p. 10
It’s true…acceptance and mindfulness does make people more productive.
As you train your acceptance and mindfulness, you will see you have more energy and hopefulness. You will become more optimistic, and eventually, happier.