The Declaration of Independence ensures Americans’ right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” But it doesn’t tell us what it means to be happy. Happiness is such a fleeting thing, it comes and it goes. We chase it endlessly as though it were something we could possess, when our experience consistently shows us differently. Happiness arises out of life itself, in unexpected moments of connection, appreciation, or humor.
It’s all in how you look at it. After more than half a century on this planet, I have come to realize that happiness does not exist outside of myself. Happiness is not something I can capture or create. Happiness is within me, and it has very little to do with circumstances. Sometimes when things are going my way I’m miserable, and when things are really rough I can be thoroughly happy.
We spend so much time trying to make things right so that we can be happy, when happiness seems to arise most naturally when we appreciate the life we’re already in. We look out, we see our place in the world, we connect. Then we discover the most reliable kind of happiness, the happiness that arises from benefiting others.
I work as a server in a restaurant. It’s really easy to be unhappy as a restaurant server. Things are never exactly the way you want them to be—the meals are ready too early or too late, you get so busy that you can’t stay on top of it all, customers stay and stay when you want them to leave so you can go home. Sometimes you make a mistake and feel like it’s the end of the world.
As long as I’m looking for things to turn out right, I’m doomed to dissatisfaction. But when I think about the others involved, I can instantly lift myself into a happier state of mind. If I connect with customers (or my fellow servers) in a way that lifts their spirits, then I’m happy too no matter what else is going on.
It’s the same ongoing relationships. Yes, there are times when I need to take care of myself by setting a boundary or by grieving or by initiating a difficult discussion. But the ultimate satisfaction comes when I step outside myself and take a look at the bigger picture. What’s going on for the other person? Does she like herself right now? What is her joy, her sorrow, her wisdom in this moment? When I take an interest in others, I relax. And, without any effort at all, I become more joyful.
My teacher, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, has said, “If you want to be miserable, think about yourself. If you want to be happy, think about others.” When you wake up in the morning, before you get out of bed, ask yourself, “How can I best serve others today?” Then remind yourself of this intention as the day unfolds. You will find a contentment that transcends all the drama and tragedy that come your way.
The movie Groundhog Day demonstrates this point beautifully. Living the same day over and over, Bill Murray learns to choreograph each moment to his personal satisfaction. But happiness eludes him. Only when he changes his focus from himself to others does he find the happiness he seeks. He settles into his strange situation, not looking for things to change, being kind and considerate and helpful with all the people he encounters. That’s what makes him happy. And in the end, it sets him free.
So “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” all go together. To be truly alive is to be present, wakeful, and engaged with our world. This implies extending outward, opening to others with kind intention. When we remember to do this, we find not only life but also happiness and liberty—the kind of liberty that can’t be bought and can’t be taken away. It’s freedom of heart, freedom of spirit, freedom of love.
This understanding of happiness is simple, but we keep having to relearn it. It is in all spiritual traditions, it’s the bread and butter of life. So be it. With all the aggression and confusion in this world, let us cultivate happiness, moment by moment, by holding the intention to benefit others.
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