“I Can’t Imagine My Life Being Any Better”
My encounter with startling happiness
Posted January 14, 2016
I did a double take the first time I met Andy—did I know him? He was working in the produce section of our local grocery store, and the warmth in his eyes and in his "Hey, how are you?" suggested recognition, though it was our first time meeting.
What stood out most about him in that first encounter was his happiness—and by “happiness” I don’t mean a thin veneer of cheerfulness. Andy seemed to have a deep contentment, a satisfaction that manifested in a sense of joy. It was the opposite of misery.
I’m always struck by people who seem genuinely content, who focus on what’s good in their lives. Maybe the Andys of the world stand out to me because I often find myself focusing on minor imperfections in my own situation. While I have no fundamental complaint with anything in my life, I still manage to find things to be unhappy about. I was intrigued—what was different about him?
I got to know Andy through a series of brief conversations over the next few weeks, as I shopped and he worked. Not surprisingly, I didn’t learn any shocking secrets about how to live The Good Life. But several things he said stood out to me as reminders of what leads to happiness.
Happiness Is a Choice
In one of our early conversations as he tied our Christmas tree to the top of our car, Andy and I talked about our experiences as fathers of young children. As he described his relationship with his son he said, “I can’t imagine my life being any better than it is now.”
I was almost startled by his comment. I’m much more used to hearing, and saying, that we’re “busy,” “tired,” or “hanging in there”—especially around the holidays, and especially parents of young kids. I couldn’t hide my surprise, and told Andy how uncommonly happy he seemed.
His response: “Sure, there are things I could complain about, but I choose not to focus on them. Being miserable is easy! It takes effort to be happy.” He was right—how easy it is to notice what’s bad and ignore what’s good. Sometimes we even complain about what’s right:
- Having to take a sick child to the ER (we have access to hospitals that are continuously staffed by doctors and nurses, every day of the year)
- Not being able to find something in the refrigerator (because it’s too full).
- Being busy at work (poor me, I have a job!)
Louis CK has a whole routine on our tendency to complain about issues related to “the miracle of human flight" (Warning: explicit content). We complain about how our seat “doesn’t go back very far,” losing sight of the fact that we’re “sitting in a chair … in the sky!”
In any of these situations we can allow our attention to narrow so that all we see is the stress or inconvenience. When we step back and take in the whole picture, we can see and appreciate that we have access to health care, and food, and work, and jet-propelled flight.
I’m struck over and over by the joy that people manage to find in the midst of terrible life events. Last summer I visited an older friend of mine, for what turned out to be the last time. He told me that he’d had a return of the cancer that nearly killed him two years earlier. He seemed very upbeat about it, and full of gratitude, optimism, and equanimity. He was even happy to see his treatment team again, the men and women who had extended his life, and gave a loving husband and father more time to live, and to say good-bye. He chose to be at peace, both in life and in death.
Happiness Is Not Contingent
I’ll be happy when I find the love of my life.
I’ll be happy if I get promoted.
I’ll be happy when my kids finally do what I ask them to.
Andy also reminded me that happiness isn’t about “if” or “when," and it doesn’t depend on getting exactly what we want or think we deserve. I found out that Andy had had a successful career in another field for over 10 years, and had to start a new line of work when he suffered a major injury that also forced him to give up the adventure sports he loved.
It’s easy for me to imagine becoming bitter and depressed if I’d had a similar experience. But Andy said he’d decided to reinvest his energy into being the best dad he could be. He was working on a new thing now.
How durable is the foundation of our happiness? It depends on how narrowly we define that foundation.
- If it’s always having things work out “my way,” we’re probably going to be unhappy most of the time.
- If it’s our youth and beauty, we’ll be happy until we’re no longer young and outwardly beautiful.
- If it’s our work, we’ll be happy until we lose our job, or stop working.
- If it’s our health, we’ll be happy until we get bad news from the doctor.
- If it’s our house, we’ll be happy until something breaks, probably tomorrow.
Even when we have the things that “make us happy,” it’s a fragile happiness because we’re always at least half aware that we could lose the basis of our happiness.
I have the impression that Andy and his wife haven't "arrived" in the narrow way that we tend to define "The American Dream." He told me that they're working to pay off debt, and are hoping one day to buy their first house. Their life doesn't sound particularly easy. And yet he's content exactly where they are.
So happiness seems to be largely a matter of choice, and we can choose happiness no matter what our circumstances may be.
Happiness Is Simple
As much as anything, Andy said that simplicity is key to his peace of mind. He talked about the simple everyday joys of throwing a ball with his son or reading a book together. In my clinical work I often ask people about their favorite memories, and they’re usually the most basic experiences: Eating a peach with my grandfather. Canoeing with my son. Digging in the garden with my mom. Breathing with my newborn daughter.
It seems to be a general principle that nothing benefits from clutter and excess: our minds, our physical space, our schedules, our possessions.
There are strong pressures against simplicity. We’ve been conditioned for mental clutter. We expect constant entertainment and distraction. We carry with us powerful computers that bring us the entire World Wide Web whenever we want. Our minds are seldom clear.
We’re also trained to keep up with the compulsive consumerism that’s all around us—and that never satisfies. How many of us have reached a certain level of wealth and success, only to realize we were happier in our dumpy apartment in grad school, with barely enough money to put a few dollars' worth of gas in the tank?
It’s up to each of us to define for ourselves what simplicity is. It doesn’t have to mean selling all our possessions and giving the money to the poor. We can find simplicity wherever we are. Whether it’s being mindful of our spending, our schedules, or our surroundings, simplicity makes our lives more spacious, giving us more room to operate. We can breathe. What’s simpler than that?
Talking with Andy is uplifting. We often love being around certain people because we love who we are around them. People like Andy remind us to smile, that happiness is a choice, that life is not about making sure things turn out exactly how we think we want them to. I like talking with Andy because he reminds me, without trying to, that my life is unbelievably rich.
I asked Andy where his philosophy of life came from. I half expected him to cite religious teachings—maybe something rooted in Buddhism, or secular mindfulness. It turned out it arises just from his own life experiences and things he has gathered up along the way. He had no guru to follow, no dogma to defend.
To be honest, I was relieved—and heartened. The basic contentment that he embodies is available to all, and doesn’t depend on finding the right book or the right teacher. Happiness as described here is a birthright. And it's available right now.