This section is a compilation of Joe’s articles, theories, and musings. The goal is to bring you new articles at least every month, so check back regularly to read the latest offerings, or sign-up to receive updates by email.
The Paradox of Happiness: How to Find Contentment In Less
June 06, 2009
Last month I shared with you a way to find contentment. I offered a simple, practical approach to finding a deep sense of satisfaction, leading to self-confidence and a joy for life. By actively doing an inventory of your life and seeing that you may indeed have enough, then you free yourself from the chaos and frustration of a life dictated by the media and a belief system that “bigger and more is better.” The individual who can truly say “I am content. I have enough” is the real revolutionary of our time.
How did it go with your inventory? Did you discover anything new? Could you separate what it is that you need and what you want? Did you see that you actually have a lot more than you thought you did—assets, things, resources, friends, mentors, talents, skills, and even our most precious commodity these days, time? You may have discovered just how rich you really are! As I mentioned in the last article, identifying and getting your needs met results in contentment; focusing on what you want leads to feeling unfulfilled and stressed.
Interpreting Your Inventory
Many of you shared your views on your needs and what you would need to be content. It is so great to hear from you. One reader, jrs10k6, says, “If I were to inventory what I currently have, even at 22, I would conclude that I have more than enough. Enough would be a comfortable pair of jeans, an old t-shirt, some toothpaste, an income that provides food, shelter, transportation (preferably via bicycle), and the occasional sweet….” Now, that’s a wise man! I also personally resonate with jrs10k6's persepctive. In my early twenties, I traveled to Europe planning to wander for a year with 2.5 bags. That was the time in my life that I was the most content. Everything I now own on top of that is extra. I enjoy what I have, but I see it all as excess baggage, things that weigh my sense of freedom and contentment. That is simply my personal view. That is why it’s important for you to do the practice and determine what your needs are.
So what do we do when we feel we have enough, maybe even more than enough? What do we do when we can feel content and see that others are not? Well, we could use our “extras” to find true happiness. We can share our excess resources, our skills, our time to make others happy. And this will lead to our own true happiness! The Dalai Lama has said, “Look for your own happiness and you find suffering; seek the hardship of helping others and you experience true happiness.”
And this is the paradox. Dwelling on our own well-being, focusing on our own success and happiness creates a kind of neurotic energy that makes us often competitive, closed off to others, resentful and judgmental. We tend to categorize others into how they can help us or not, and not see them for who they really are. We over-exaggerate our own sense of self-importance and find it hard to be open, loving, compassionate and generous to others. Do you recognize this in yourself or in others around you? This is what the Dalai Lama means when he says that pursuing your own happiness leads to suffering. This is the suffering of discontentment, resentment, anxiety and fear.
Of course, it’s fine to pursue your own well-being and to be happy with what you accomplish or obtain. It feels good to get a promotion, or to meet a nice guy, or buy a new car. But if you think about it, these things bring about temporary happiness. The promotion is great, but suddenly you have twice as much work. The new boyfriend is yummy, but then you find yourself complaining about the same things you complained about with your last boyfriend. The car is fun, but suddenly it needs repairs. So none of these things bring about lasting happiness and often we get more and more stressed looking for the next thing that will make us happy. This is another form of suffering.
However, the act of making others happy leads to lasting happiness. This is essentially what love is. The Tibetan Buddhists define love as “the desire to make others happy and acting on that desire.” In this context, love is a verb; it’s something you can do. Who have you “loved” lately? When was the last time you went out and made someone happy by giving them something, or doing something for them, or just spending quality, nurturing time with them? Do you remember how it felt giving like that? Well, that feeling is true happiness!
So, here’s a step by step practice to help you shift your life from one of anxiety and frustration to one of inner peace and lasting happiness. As always, it’s not enough to just read this and think you have done it. You actually have to go through each step, contemplate it, personalize it, and then do the practice to see how it works. The first few steps are similar to the practice of contentment. Why? Because the foundation of true happiness is contentment.
- Inventory your life. How much do your possess? Include finances/resources, skills/talents, and time.
- How much do you need per month? This includes your physical, emotional, social, work, intellectual and spiritual needs.
- Evaluate your current situation with what you need and what you have. Do you have enough? If the answer is yes, then meditate and feel that. Let yourself be content.
- Do you have too much? How much can you give to others—resources, skills, time? Come up with a concrete amount, like 100 dollars per month, or eight hours per month.
- Find creative ways to share this amount with others.
- Don’t expect anything in return. Not even a thank you. Let your own feeling be your reward!
So, give it a try. You don’t have to give too much. You can give to charities, become a mentor to someone, volunteer your time. You can make dinner for a friend, give someone a compliment, invest in a friend’s project. Be creative and make it unique to your experience. But I do recommend you choose a fixed amount of resources and time per month.
Paradox Into Practice
I have a client who doesn’t have a lot of money and is always caught in a dilemma of what to do with people on the street asking for money. After doing this practice, he established that he could afford giving 10 dollars a month to others. So, at the beginning of every month, he gets a ten dollar roll of quarters that he carries in his bag. He gives change to others until there are no more quarters for that month. He no longer feels the anxiety, doubt, or guilt, when he passes a person on the street asking for money. He knows what he can give and he does it freely and he can honestly say no to others when the ten dollars are finished for the month. He did the practice and now feels he can take care of himself as well as still feel engaged with the world
And this is the paradox: the less you dwell on your own well-being and open to the happiness of others, the more happiness you will personally experience. I have seen how this practice has changed the quality of life for a number of my clients. They feel empowered and feel more at home in the world. They understand how to give and receive love. Actually, this is the practice of love—the desire and act of making others happy. This is the formula to true happiness and inner peace—the healthy balance between taking care of your own needs and being of benefit to others.
BACK TO MAIN ARTICLES PAGE