Friday, April 11, 2014

Happiness - A State of Mind

"The purpose of our lives is to be happy." Dalai Lama

Through my nearly seven decades of life I have done many things, traveled many roads and paths, experienced success and failure in many ways, loved, been loved, disliked and have been disliked, laughed and cried until tears dropped from my eye like rain, worked hard, played hard and but seldom relaxed with the same intensity and tried and experienced a long list of things. Of course, I haven't tried or experienced everything I thought I'd like to experience. But, I've come to accept that I, like everyone, will leave this life with a mountain of "unfinished business." It took me a while to get my head wrapped around that idea because, for some reason, probably youthful exuberance, I felt I could realize all my dreams and aspirations. I feel pretty comfortable in making a broad generalization in saying that you could say the same thing. And, if you're not ready to concede, you will someday.

In our early years, childhood through adolescence, I don't think many people, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, religion and so on, ponder the nature and meaning of life. I'm sure lower forms of life function on one primary level, survival. Since each of us evolved from a single cell life form (and this is not a discussion of creationism vs. evolution vs. intelligent design - that is a debate I'm not interested or willing to devolve into), science has hypothesized that all humans have what is termed as a reptilian brain. The reptilian brain is the primitive part of the brain that was responsible for the typical behavior of a species involving aggression, dominance, territoriality and rituals. As the human brain developed and humans became "civilized" many of these traits were tempered. That being said, these traits were the basis of survival for the primitive species and even the current lower forms of animal life. However, we still see these traits to varying degrees in our current human species.

So, what do I mean that these traits are still at work in our current, civilized human species? The first and most dominant trait is survival. Aggression is in evidence in every society on the planet whether it is on a football field, a battlefield, the ranks of government, scientific discovery, the corporate cube farm and even the classroom. Aggression can be positive as in those who strive to improve the world or negative as in those who rob, rape, murder, etc. And, of course, there is a broad spectrum between the two extremes. Dominance is observable by those who strive to be the best in athletics, business, military command and any other aspect of human endeavor. The territorial trait is displayed by our desire to have our own cave, den, nest or home (be it an apartment, house or a bed in a dormitory or military barracks). It is "our" territory; others stay out unless invited in. Rituals are normally thought of as things like weddings, funerals, religious ceremonies and so on. However, the ritual is as primitive as going out on the daily hunt for food, building a nest to lay eggs in each year and then protecting and feeding the chicks until it's time for them to "leave the nest." We as civilized humans take all of this for granted and while we may have tempered and socialized these traits, they are all very instinctual, primitive traits stored in our DNA and processed by our reptilian brain.


So, am I relating all this in an article about happiness? It's actually very simple. Happiness is very simple. In researching for this article I found hundreds of quotes related to being happy and experiencing happiness. But, the quotes that spoke most clearly and profoundly to me were the simple quotes like the Dalai Lama's quote at this beginning of this writing. Now, believe me when I tell you that I am not going to define happiness for you and your life. That is way, way above my pay grade. What I am going to do is offer you some food for thought and contemplation. At some point in life most of us will ask the questions "Why?" and "What is the purpose of life, more specifically my own life?" If you remember back to when we were children we all had certain inquisitiveness. You know, the "Why is the sky blue, Daddy?' type questions we posed to our parents and others we looked up to and depended on to initiate us into this life.

Personally, I think the Dalai Lama answered the question about the purpose of life most profoundly with only nine simple words. Leo Tolstoy said, "If you want to be happy, be." He used only seven words to tell us the formula for happiness. Another interesting perspective is proffered by Desiderius Erasmus "It is the chiefest point of happiness that a man is willing to be what he is." I believe Shakespeare said something similar when he wrote, "To thine own self be true . . ." Anna Pavlova says that happiness is a right, "The right to happiness is fundamental." Susan B. Anthony suggested another important quality that defines happiness when she said,
"Independence is happiness." I like to use the words, personal freedom. And perhaps these words from the French philosopher, Albert Camu wraps it all up with a bow on the package, "But what is happiness except the simple harmony between a man and the life he leads?

There are hundreds more quotes from all kinds of people going back to Biblical times, the Greek philosophers, the Buddha, Lao Tzu and a plethora of contemporary politicians, writers, celebrities of all description and modern day philosophers. However, I find it interesting that the simple quotes I listed were able to define the basis for happiness in life and reveal the formula in a few, simple words. So, if this is true, why are the world, our country, our local community, our family and most importantly the average person not happy? Where have we gone wrong? Have we made life far too complicated? Are we overlooking a honeybee pollinating a flower, the beautiful colors we can see looking through the prismatic effect of a drop of due with the early morning sun shining through it, a sunset so majestic as it reflects in a still lake that it takes one's breath away, the sound of a child giggling and laughing as they play hide and seek or swing on a tire swing? Have we placed such high expectations on ourselves and those around us that we can't be happy when we/they fall short of these expectations? Have we become so dependent on others that we've given away that vitally important ingredient of independence or personal freedom? Can you honestly think, considering an average lifespan of, say, 80 years, of any other true purpose of living this brief time on Earth more honest, more true than being happy and living in a state of happiness?

The Cost of Happiness

What does it cost to be happy? Douglas Horton said, "To buy happiness is to sell soul." I'm sorry! That doesn't sound like a good deal to me. "Money has never made man happy, nor will it, there is nothing in its nature to produce happiness. The more of it one has the more one wants." Those are the words of our own Benjamin Franklin, a philosopher if there ever was one.

So, what do we do with those 80 years of our lives?

We're born and typically spend the first 18 to 25 years (around 25% of our lives) preparing to go forth and live whatever the purpose of our life supposedly is. This varies in length, of course, depending on the country and culture.

From approximately age 22 to age 65 to 70 we work at some kind of professional career. This consumes approximately another 54% - 60% of our 80-year life span. During this period we typically take on the responsibility of family, some kind of occupational or professional career, establishing a home (owned or rented), providing for the necessities besides shelter like food, clothing, medical care and then the accumulation of as much stuff as we can cram into our space and when we run out of space we either move to a bigger space or rent storage space from someone else to keep stuff we aren't using if we have to store it. And then there is the constant concern with generating financial income to pay for all the stuff, the space, the necessities of life and a future time that is becoming less likely to manifest itself, called retirement. Much of this money we're forced to earn is used for paying debt on one or more mortgages, multiple motor vehicles and their upkeep and paying off all the stuff that's going to end up in storage at some point in time. Is this a formula for happiness? Is this a description of independence or personal freedom? Personally, having been down that road, I for one can emphatically say, NOT!

Finally, if we are fortunate enough and we did more things right than wrong and the stars are aligned and our health holds out, we reach this nebulous time of life labeled "Retirement." This segment of life, for those who actually, voluntarily reach it comprises 10 to 15 years or between 12.5% to 19% of our 80-year life span. There are a lot of variables that can impact those 10 to 15 years including one's health and medical condition, one's financial position, an individual's spouse, if they are married (and sometimes their grandchildren) and one's psychological/mental situation. A nominal percentage of the population will be financially capable and physically/mentally able to enjoy a retirement at some degree of leisure while some will be about to still kick up their heels and thrive during a part of this time of their lives.

It is not my position to judge or prescribe anything for anyone. I have one life I'm responsible for and that, quite frankly, is a full-time job. One thing I know for sure is that life is unpredictable. Here are a few anecdotal stories and I'm sure you have as many as I have or more. A guy I went to elementary, jr. high and senior high school with died two months before he planned to retire at age 66. This is a short, but true story. A professional speaker friend I knew had a heart condition and had been fortunate enough to have developed a reasonable amount of wealth. His wife was a victim of MS. He retired at age 60, bought a motor home and he and his wife were going to travel together as long as they could. He had a massive heart attack and died before they got on the road. Another professional speaker friend and his wife discovered RVing, bought a new beautiful 40', high-end motor coach. They were living and working (both speakers, consultants and writers) from the motor home. He developed a rare muscular, autoimmune disease. He died in his motor home about a year later at age 61. Another friend from graduate school, actually he, his wife and I all met in graduate school, took care of his wife who contracted MS nearly 30 years before she finally died just short of 70 years old. He has already undergone a heart valve transplant. And, most recently, a friend, the husband of a woman who has worked with me on a volunteer organization was celebrating his retirement at age 70. He and his wife traveled to Asia and were in an underdeveloped country (Myanmar) when he caught a flu, that turned to pneumonia and when he had an asthma attack in his hotel room and modern medical treatment was not available, he died - in a foreign country.

Okay, so that's the doom and gloom side of the equation. I don't dwell on that nor should you or anyone else. We know a certain percentage (fortunately, a fairly small percentage) of people will not make it to that average lifespan age of 80. Basically, 50% of us won't make 80 and 50% of us will live longer than 80. We just don't know which side of that average we're going to we'll be in.

"The purpose of our lives is to be happy."

So, I go back to my original premise as so profoundly stated by the Dali Lama. If this is the purpose of our lives, are we happy? More importantly, are you happy? It took me a long time to reach this point for myself, but I realized that happiness is really a state of mind. Sure, living comfortably, having enough quality food to eat, being able stay warm in the cold weather and cool in the warm weather, having comfortable and appropriate clothing having access to quality health care and all the other things we consider to be basic to our lifestyle are all good and certainly contribute to our happiness. And, for me, and most likely you, as well, having independence and personal freedom are a major part of my state of mind and my attitude of happiness. Pretty much everything else, for me, is optional. I still have way too much stuff in my life. That stuff is actually a burden to me and does nothing to enhance my life currently or provide any comfort. It's simply stuff. If anything, I have to chide myself when I think about, what I now consider, poor utilization of my funds by acquiring most of the things I have now determined are just "stuff" cluttering my life.

Heck! Am I saying it's wrong to want and desire some things, just because you want them? Absolutely not! Am I saying that, perhaps, many or, possibly, most of the things we label as stuff in our lives, we didn't really need and might not have really wanted, but we thought we did or it raised our social status or it helped us keep up with the Joneses? Yes, in many instances.

I have no regrets. It's too late now. "Woulda," "shoulda," "coulda" have no basis. It's all history. Would I have done things differently and/or made different decisions and choices with what I now have learned about myself. Absolutely. But, I've simplified my life. It's still way too complex, but the simpler the better. I've downsized and continue to downsize. I found this to be a difficult task (others may not find it so). However, I don't miss anything I've eliminated from my life. I am not a cheapskate, but I am definitely far more frugal in my economic decisions. While I've enjoyed many pleasures in life like staying in some of the finest hotels in the world (normally at a client's expense, though sometimes at my own), I find that I'm just as content and sleep just as well in a decent, budget motel when I need one. I've eaten in many fine restaurants, even four-star restaurants. However, I'm just as happy and perhaps more happy with a couple hot dogs at Rutt's Hut or a sack of White Castle tiny hamburgers (sliders). I enjoy finding healthy and economical foods I can prepare quick and easily myself. I make myself justify the purchases I make based on actual need or some long-term use. Otherwise I'll borrow, rent or do without it. I need a very limited amount of space to live in. I've lived in numerous spacious houses on mountaintops, on lakes on ranches and so on, but I now realize I can be comfortable in the confines of my 50 square foot living space in My McVansion. And the best part is I can change my scenery as often as I choose and if I don't like a neighbor, it takes nothing to turn the ignition switch and move to a new "neighborhood." I do like technology and the benefits and freedom it affords me. But, even in that part of my life, I've ramped back and now look for the best technology for my needs at the best value and the knowledge that I can utilize it for some time.

How about you? Are you happy? What is your happiness? Are you happy all the time (not likely, me neither)? Are you happy the vast majority of the time (I am)? Are you happy some of the time? Are you mostly getting by in life with an occasional moment of happiness? What will it take for you to go from where you are now to being happy the vast majority of the time? What will it take to stop worrying about money, debt, being burdened by your stuff, your health, your relationships, and your job/career/profession/business? I'm really interested in exploring this concept of happiness. As I said, I'm happy the vast majority of the time, but I know there are more things to learn from others. I'd love to share these ideas and concepts. Nothing is wrong if it makes you happy. If you're not as happy as you feel you'd like to be or should be, what can it hurt to share with others?

So, here's the deal. You can leave comments on this post at the bottom. However, I encourage you to click here or the "Living Free" icon in the left column of this post and join my "Live Free and Happy" Forum on Yahoo. The forum has been around for a couple years, but it just hasn't been very active. I started the forum specifically to explore ideas, philosophies and experiences about how to have a better, freer and happier life. As the Dali Lama said, "The purpose of our lives is to be happy."  So what are you waiting for - you can have it now if you choose to. 

And while you're at it, Like the "LivingFree" Facebook page, see the link in the right column of this post and help me get that site more active. 

There is a huge population of people to reach who want to live free and happy. I know I can only touch a very few people, but if we band together, maybe we can make this a much better world for everyone.

See you on the "Live Free and Happy" Forum and the "Living Free" Facebook page.   


Colin Ramsey said...

Love the article Ed. I believe that true happiness come from within, No amount of money or friends can do this for you. In the end we arrive in this world alone and we leave alone, the best type of happiness we make for ourselves.

Ed Helvey - Professional Nomad said...

Thanks, Colin, I think you nailed it. The problem I see is that a lot of people, perhaps the majority, may, at some point in their life reach this conclusion, but either don't really believe it or lose sight of it and want to "have it all." There's nothing wrong with having it all, but there is a price for everything and the price for having it all is often real happiness and contentment. Actually, in my thinking, the price of real happiness is pretty inexpensive. As you said, neither money nor friends can buy or make you happy.


Anonymous said...

Excellent post, Ed. I wish more people would realize the points you make. . . The world would be a much better place.

Thanks for your posts.

Your fellow nomad, Jeff