March 14, 2016

The Path to Happiness is not about Being Happy.

fake plastic smile happy doll

The year before I started kindergarten, I desperately wanted to be a student.

Every morning, my mom would pack my lunch, and I waited at the bus stop with all of the older kids. Then they would get on the bus, and I would return home.

Oh, how I wanted to get on that bus. How I wanted to be a student like the others.

Fast forward to the next year when I started kindergarten. I finally got my chance to ride the bus to school. That, I loved. But once we got there, it was a different story. I found I didn’t like it much. I didn’t actually want to be a student. The day-to-day reality was disappointing. I quickly revolted. I cried every day and tried to convince everyone that I didn’t belong there.

What I realized 40 years later is that I was presented with an important life lesson then. I’ve got a new lesson from Robert Fulgham, the author of All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. Don’t strive to be anything. Rather, focus on what you want to do. That is the path to happiness.

I loved the idea of being a student. But, I didn’t enjoy what we had to do every day. Of course, some things in life you just have to do. There are laws, like mandatory school attendance.

But, the point is, being is not enough.

For our entire lives it seems like the whole world is conspiring to play on our emotions and get us to focus on being, especially advertising. It must work because selling lifestyles is big business.

Be an athlete, be a dancer, be a valedictorian, be an Ivy league grad, be thin, be beautiful, be buff, be rich, be a marathoner, be a professional, be a high-end car owner, be a big home owner, be a parent, be a CEO, be a worker who moves up in the company, be a spouse, be an activist, and the list goes on and on. Let’s not forget an entire presidential campaign was based on “being” the change you want to see in the world.

But being is fleeting. It doesn’t last. It might feel good for a moment. But, if day in and day out you don’t enjoy the work it takes to gain or maintain the state of being, you can’t get lasting happiness.

Do you want to get a promotion at work and be a manager because you enjoy leading and guiding individuals, or because you like the idea of being a manager? If it’s the former, great. If it’s the latter, the excitement of the promotion wears off quickly. Chances are you will spend a lot of time dreaming about retirement.

Do you want to be a parent because you enjoy getting on the floor and playing legos and guiding another human being through the phases of life (including the dreadful teenage years)? Or, do you like the idea of being a parent? If it the latter, the reality of changing diapers and checking homework will hit you hard. Those 18 years are going to be long ones.

Do you want to be a marathon runner? If you don’t enjoy running, or at least the camaraderie of a running group, be prepared for months of dread and hours of misery. And consider whether or not you want to spend your precious free time doing something you don’t really like.

Do you want to be an advocate for the poor? You’d better find joy in counseling, coalition building, interviewing, drafting legislation, preparing arguments, strongly persuading or any of the other tasks involved in advocacy. Otherwise, your days will be long and there will be a lot of looking at the clock. The incremental change inevitable with advocacy won’t sustain you.

My insightful therapist recently asked me if I could do something for the enjoyment of it and not the outcome. I realized that almost every decision that I have ever made has been about the outcome, what I think I want to be. That’s how I set goals. “I want to be_____.” I bet this is the case with a lot of people who are successful, but unhappy.

I rarely gave much thought to whether or not I would like to do what I needed to in order to be something. What was presented to me back in kindergarten, I finally see at 45. A life based on seeking outcomes rather than seeking enjoyment in what you do is a life full of a whole lot of unhappy times.

When the allure to be something grabs us, we should pause. It may just be a feeling playing on our emotions and insecurities. Explore and map out what really needs to be done. Will you look forward to doing it? If the answer is no, you actually won’t want to be it.

Doesn’t this seem obvious? Yet, how many of us mindfully put on the brakes, untangle ourselves from the feeling that being something will magically makes us better, and instead explore the reality?

I used to joke that I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. But not anymore. That was never the right question.

The question we should be asking is, “What is it you enjoy doing and how can you live doing it?” It’s about a life worth living, not a life worth being.


Relephant Read:

Happiness Redefined: A Recipe


Author: John Coburn

Apprentice Editor: Kathy Baum / Editor: Catherine Monkman

Image: Robert Couse-Baker/Flickr


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