Test Case

A self-help book editor uses what she learns at work and in life to help herself.

The Real, True, Honest to Goodness Key to Happiness

There's really only one thing you need to know.

We've heard it before, many times. It's a core understanding in Buddhism. But when we experience it for ourselves rather than simply reading about, it becomes more real for us.

In a recent chat exchange with someone with whom I have an important relationship, I wrote “When I let go of feeling the need for things to be different, I really enjoy how we are together.” That statement, coming from my heart in the midst of a certain amount of turmoil, made us both stop. “Read that again,” he suggested. And I did, several times that night, letting it sink in.

It's been true for me in many aspects of my life. Struggling against the reality of my physical, and very human, flaws, I suffered for nearly thirty years until I let most of that go. Now I look in the mirror and like what I see, and even though I still notice the imperfections, they're no longer as much of a problem. Wishing time and time again that certain of my social relationships were different, I spent a lot of unwanted time unhappily alone, or uncomfortable in social situations, and when I let that go, and relaxed with how things were, I found myself surrounded by love and friendship. Despairing that my relationships with certain family members seemed stiff and unfulfilling, I decided to meet them where they were instead of wanting them to be different, and the relationships softened, became more vulnerable. Realizing I was never going to be the type of person who would give my front yard the care it needed to be healthy, I hired a local man as a gardener, giving him a job and taking a load off of my own back, all at the same time.

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The key to happiness, then, really the only way to be content, is to not want things to be different than they are.

Think about that for a moment.

Are there things you struggle with on a daily basis? Of course there are, we all have those. What would happen if you relaxed around it, made it be OK? You may point to really bad problem – an abusive relationship, a sick child, a terminal illness. And these are difficult problems to make OK. But, is struggling against it working? If there's a solution and you can do something about, worry doesn't help. Doing something about it helps. If there's no solution, struggling against it only makes you stressed and more unhappy.

A quote, attributed to the Dalai Lama and paraphrased several different ways, says “If there is no solution to the problem then don't waste time worrying about it. If there is a solution to the problem then don't waste time worrying about it."

When we let go of wanting things to be different, they become OK. In his book Two Truths About Love, which I was lucky enough to acquire, Jason Fischer calls it “Giving permission for things to be as they are." Buddhists call it “nonattachment." For me, letting go of wanting thing to be different has always been the place where I could relax in a situation, let it be whatever it is, and act accordingly.

Unfortunately, it's not always easy to remember this, and sometimes we get caught up in the struggle again. But we can keep remembering, and keep coming to that place of relaxation, and keep experiencing that sensation of letting the struggle go. As we practice, we get better at it, and life gets easier and less taxing. And then, counter-intuitively, we may find that the situations we used to struggle against actually change for the better, simply because we've relaxed in relation to them.

Melissa Kirk is a writer and editor who works as an acquisitions and developmental editor at New Harbinger Publications, a self-help psychology publisher in Oakland, CA. 

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