How to Be Happy, Even When You Least Expect It
Change can occur instantly and we need to be prepared to drop our expectations.
Posted Apr 24, 2019 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma
In most professional sports, athletes reach their peak in their twenties. In their 30s, if these men and women are still able to compete, they can keep up with their younger peers because they’re able to use their years of experience to offset the drawbacks associated with their aging bodies. But once they reach their 40s, no matter how well they’ve developed their athletic prowess, their bodies can’t handle what’s required of them. It’s at this point that retirement is inevitable.
While pro athletes in their 40s may wish they could compete longer, I think most would not be surprised that their bodies are no longer capable of doing so. These men and women aren’t spending time wondering why they are less fit than they were in their 20s.
But what may cause prolonged suffering is retirement due to injuries. A career-killing injury can crush the dreams of athletes otherwise in their prime with a bright future ahead of them. Retirement under these terms may be far more difficult to accept. These men and women may be filled with despair asking themselves, “Why me?” “Life’s unfair,” and “I’ll never be happy again!” While thoughts like these are normal and understandable, over the long term, they will create suffering. And they point to the pitfalls of a mindset that fights against the universal law of change.
Change can occur instantly—such as when you have some sort of accident. Or it may take place over time—such as how our bodies age as the years pass. What often happens is that certain change we have a tendency to accept. While it may not be our preference, we accept it. Meanwhile, other change we refuse to accept. We fight it and fight it and wind up miserable over the long term.
Life can take twists and turns that are unexpected and unpredictable. To be happy, we have to drop expectations of our lives turning out a certain way. When our happiness is associated with a particular outcome, we’ve created the formula for suffering. This formula even applies to circumstances where we get exactly what we want, such as the dream job, spouse, child, car, house or (input your desire here). Because once we have what we want, our minds quickly shift to either wants or fears: We want more of what we have or fear losing it.
So what do we do when we’re confronted with change that we didn’t expect or want such as the case with the pro athlete whose career was cut short due to injury? As far as the athletes are concerned, accepting change means taking on an attitude that says something like, “I’ve had a few amazing years. I’m glad I had them, and now I’m going to move on with the next stage of my life.”
Unfortunately, many remain upset with their loss and suffer as a result. And they may hold on to their resentment for years—maybe even for the rest of their lives. While the injury was not the athlete’s choice, how he or she will adjust to it is. And the same is for the rest of us too.
Whatever expectation we cling to will cause suffering. Life throws surprises at us, and the longer we live, the more surprises we’ll encounter.
The good news is, if we rely on our human nature, we have a solution within us. Humans over the course of millions of years have survived where other species have gone extinct because of our innate ability to adapt. Thus all of us are capable of being amazing adapters if we choose to do so. But we’re also free to choose to hang on to the past: The job we lost, the relationship that ended, the loved one that passed away. If we cling to our desires or our fears, we will suffer. Another way to describe clinging is fighting against what is.
Imagine we lost our dream job. If we dwell on how it was our favorite job, how we may never find one like it again, and how unfair life is, we’re fighting against reality—that this job is gone. Adapting to what is, rather than clinging to it, would entail telling ourselves something like, “I really did like that job, I miss it and I’m sad it’s gone, but I’m sure another one will come along. And whatever that maybe, I’m going to work toward enjoying that one too.”
Fighting against what is, is a formula for unhappiness. This doesn’t mean we become complacent and neglect to take action when possible. No doubt, we have aspects of our lives that are fully in our control. If we receive a bad medical report, but we can improve our health by diet and exercise, by all means, we should increase our physical activity and eat lots of healthy food. If we’re in an abusive relationship, then we should take steps to end the abuse. But so much of life is out of our control. And if we fight against what is, we’ll lose, because life with all its unpredictability will always win.
The key is to focus on what we can control and work to create the change we want to see in our lives. And when life throws us a curveball, which is inevitable, rather than fight against what is, we flow with it.
If happiness is our goal, then we have to focus our energy toward adapting to new circumstances and information. When we encounter the unexpected, no matter how difficult, there is always beauty in what life presents us.
There is a story of a monk who was wrongly incarcerated. He lived in his tiny cell under solitary confinement for years. When he was finally exonerated and freed, he was asked about his experience: “Aren’t you enraged at the injustice?” “How do you feel now that you’re free?” Rather than reply directly to the questions, he reflected on how during his incarceration, he learned to appreciate the beauty of the cockroaches that he’d see every day in his cell.
When we learn to love what is, no matter what, we invite happiness into our lives. We all have everything inside us to lead beautiful, peaceful, and happy lives.