Happiness comes to us when we’ve got it all, and it’s all just right… right?
Today I came across an inspiring TED talk by Brother David Steindl-Rast, a monk and interfaith scholar. He says that the one thing all humans have in common is that each of us wants to be happy and this happiness is born from gratitude.
As children many of us are guilty of having wanted something that all the other kids had. Needing it in order to fit in, to be cool. If only we had that thing we would be happy. If our parents ever gave into the “I wants” and we ended up having that thing, we were of course grateful but it wasn’t too long before the next thing was put straight back on the ‘I want’ list.
As adults we think very much the same, but the wish list is a much bigger monster. Many of us are under the illusion that when we get to a certain point in our lives we should have achieved certain levels of greatness or have certain things in order to feel satisfied, complete: happy. When we’ve got the grades, travelled around the planet, found the love of our lives, got the job, bought the house, the car, have the baby, we will feel truly happy right? And, subsequently, be grateful for all that we have that gives us this feeling of happiness.
I’m not sure if that’s exactly the way it goes and I just want to quickly share with you the point in my life when this became abundantly clear to me and, as a result, my life completely changed.
In 2010 I spent a few months in East Africa, travelling from Zimbabwe, through Zambia, into Malawi, to Tanzania and up to Kenya. Along this incredible journey I of course met many Africans, children, adults, families and I was invited into their homes. Homes they had built themselves with mud bricks and straw roofs and often there would be 3 or 4 generations living in the one, three room property, or what would best be described as a mud hut.
Women would tend to the home, meal prep, care for the young, make clothes, and some would also go out to work, at the local markets or on the seaweed farms at coastal areas. The men would be out working most of the day, doing anything they could find to get a little money or anything in exchange for their labour. The women would always come together throughout the day, share stories, meals and laughter whilst the men would gather around a game of Bao or Mancala (board games) and they too would share stories, maybe songs and talk of their days.
The children would all play outside, on the sandy roads, making up imaginary games, braiding hair, playing football or just hanging out, and if they were fortunate enough to live close to one, they would be educated at the local school.
Their diet (and mine) was mainly potatoes, rice, matake (mashed plantains), and a maize meal cooked up into a thick, glutenous, sticky porridge. Sometimes we’d have beans and other veggies depending on the time of year. Meats would only ever be eaten on special occasions and if they lived in coastal areas fish was always in abundance.
The point I’m trying to make here is that these people don’t have the gadgets, the technology, the clothing designers, the food halls, the cars, the café or pub cultures that we do in our Western societies, yet they are some of the happiest people I have ever met.
Don’t get me wrong, quite a few of them asked about my life, they “oo’d and ahh’d” and some of them wished that they could offer that kind of life to their children. But ultimately, they were grateful for what they already had and were happy in the ‘not wanting.’
I went back to my city life feeling so angry, and sickened, by the huge displays of wealth I was seeing around me. So much so that I filled a whole charity bin with clothes, and so much stuff, that I felt was completely excessive, materialistic and totally unnecessary for me to live a happy, fulfilled life.
Needless to say that after a few months of being back in the consumer world I settled in again, I had to, if I was to live peacefully amongst others and continue with my everyday life, but my outlook on life had completely changed.
I would no longer seek happiness from material possessions or in rising up that career ladder, not even from the people around me, instead I made it a mission to find that happiness inside of me. At which point I found yoga, and writing… but that’s another story!
There will come a point that all of us living in this consumer led society will recognise that the road to happiness does not come from the ‘stuff’ we have or want, or the heightened levels of achievement that we strive for. The misconception that happiness brings about gratitude is all too common and this way of thinking ultimately leads to many dissatisfied, frustrated people that are in our society today.
What many of us fail to realize, and what Brother David is telling us, is that we already have that happiness inside of us, each and every one of us. He says that we need to ‘Stop. Look. Go’, slow down, look where we are going, be grateful for what we already have here and now. Instead of wanting and needing the next thing, be patient in the knowledge that opportunities will arise if we allow them to.
Follow your heart, take opportunities as they arise, trust yourself.
We want to have it all right now. We want it all to happen immediately and we are impatient to know what the outcome will be. Instead of taking an opportunity upon a gut instinct or a good feeling, we want to know whether it is the correct path to take and whether it will lead us to happiness.
However, there isn’t a map to show us the way on this journey, no right or wrong turning, no ‘Magic 8 Ball’. We need to be aware of the opportunities that are presented to us and if it feels right, take them rather than trying to forsee whether this path will make us ultimately happy. Notice that the opportunity is there, be present, don’t be lazy about it, make a choice.
As the Zen master says,
“If it’s washing dishes, get lost in washing dishes. If it’s walking, get lost in walking. If it’s listening to a sermon, get lost in the listening. If it’s eating a tomato sandwich, get lost in eating the sandwich – with mindfulness, alertness, awareness.”
If we miss an opportunity, it’s OK, take the next, but just make sure that you take one. Be mindful in choices that we make but don’t dwell on the ‘what if’s’ or the unknowns as this leads to our own frustration which, in turn, compromises our happiness.
Happiness is deeply connected to our minds, bodies and therefore our spirit. A balanced mind creates a healthy body, which in turn uplifts our spirit to be peaceful, at ease and above all happy.
Be grateful for what we have and are doing today, and look forward to the opportunities of tomorrow. The things around us do not decipher our happiness.
Happiness is within us, all of us. It is what connects us. We just need to take the time to realize it.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Bryonie Wise
Photo: Graeme Petrie Photography