Welcome to a new month and new topic from Kevin Schoeninger on Spiritual Growth Monthly. This month Kevin begins an exploration of the Pursuit of Happiness, a very appropriate theme for the holiday season, since we are all supposed to be especially happy this time of year, and we may feel more than a little guilty if we are not.
Sometimes it is difficult to know what we mean by happiness. There always seem to be plenty of people telling us what will make us happy…buying what advertisers call “must haves” or conforming to traditions and experiences because they are expected, but only leave us feeling empty and out of sorts.
One of my favorite quotes about happiness comes from Abraham Lincoln, who said “most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.” This is the angle that Kevin approaches happiness from as well; the idea that happiness is a choice, and a matter of balance in how we live our lives.
To guide us through our discussion of happiness, Kevin explores the book, A Unified Theory of Happiness: An East-Meets-West Approach to Fully Loving Your Life, by psychologist Andrea F. Polard, Psy.D. Through her years of research, Dr. Polard has reached the conclusion that many of us have always known in our hearts…happiness is not about what we own, or our circumstances. Happiness is more about our state of being, no matter what is happening around us.
In her book’s title, Dr. Polard uses the words “East-Meets-West-Approach,” which sort of sums up two different attitudes toward what makes us happy; two different modes of thinking that often show up in eastern and western ways of looking at the world.
Dr. Polard calls the western approach to happiness the Basic Mode, which encourages us to achieve goals and find our happiness in productivity and interactions. The eastern model, which she calls the Supreme Mode, involves learning to consciously let go, and allow ourselves to find happiness in being at peace and experiencing feelings of oneness.
A simplistic way to demonstrate this shows up between the “Puritan work ethic” of striving for material success to gain what we desire vs. the Buddhist ideal of gaining happiness by letting go of desires.
Where many of us get tangled up in our search for happiness is the idea that we have to choose between one mode or the other. But Dr. Polard and Kevin show us that happiness is found more in the balance of the two modes than tipping either way.
When we see a successful person in western culture, who also practices regular meditation and takes time to stop and experience the joys of life, we immediately understand that person has achieved something special. And we may even instinctively wish we could have that same balance of serenity and achievement that they have been able to find. So what do they do that we do not?
Finding what stands in our way
Kevin began his article this week by mentioning a recent visit to Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, the birthplace of the American Declaration of Independence. Our founding fathers, he reminded us, considered “the pursuit of happiness” such a basic human right, that they included it as part of our heritage.
The right to follow a course of action and determine your own life’s work was indeed revolutionary in the 18th century, and happiness was seen as intricately linked with being productive and building a secure future, based on your own desires. These days we still understand the concept of job satisfaction, even though not all work gives us joy.
Once we fulfill our basic needs, Dr. Polard says, further happiness depends on our ability to focus our consciousness. We often experience this as “flow” or “being in the zone,” being so absorbed in something that everything seems to go right, and what is unnecessary melts away.
In my own experience, flow happens with things I love to do. But there are always a number of things I “should” do that seem to get in the way. And while our ancestors left us the legacy of the pursuit of happiness as a right, they also left us strict codes of behavior that can make us feel guilty for doing what we enjoy, or simply having fun. We call it wasting time, or we feel the world expects us to always be productive.
This one sided view point may be what causes some people to quit the “rat race,” get off the grid, or escape to a simpler lifestyle away from their former ambitions and stress. In the extreme, people can lose themselves in self indulgence, or believe they will find happiness in some sort of chemical haze.
A question of balance
Once again, happiness depends on a state of balance. We all have responsibilities, to keep ourselves afloat and provide for our loved ones. But we also have the responsibility to decide what makes us happy, and bring more of it into our lives. We need to open our eyes and our hearts to little moments of joy…to take the time we need to experience an existence outside of the eternal quest to acquire more of whatever doesn’t really make us happy anyway.
Before we move on next week, Kevin asks us to define what makes us happy. Occasionally it is good to remind ourselves of what really matters for our happiness, in case we discover we are not heading in that direction at all.
Kevin goes into far more detail than I have here, and I encourage you to read his entire post here: www.spiritualgrowthmonthly.com
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