When people discuss the secret to happiness, the conversations tend to become complicated. Maybe your friend believes that making more money or a certain amount of money is the only way to happiness and so pursues a career where there are plenty of opportunities to climb the ladder.
Another friend might say that the secret to happiness is to start meditation or mindfulness practice. Ever since they started, they say, their lives have been a lot smoother, more peaceful and they have been able to deal with the stressors of life much more efficiently.
Then there are those that believe the secret to happiness comes from the number of great relationships that you have. The more friends you have, the more choice you have of people to hang out with. You can dip in and out as you choose, giving you more freedom and with it, happiness.
Whilst I believe that money is important, mindfulness is an awesome habit to acquire and friends are an essential part of a happy and healthy life, they come from adding to your life.
But what about taking away things?
Adding vs Taking Away
Whenever we tend to think of happiness or when we are feeling down, we ponder over what can we add to our lives to make ourselves happy. If we are talking about short-term happiness, that might be deciding to go out with friends or jumping on a few videogames for a couple of hours. If we are striving for long-term happiness, we might look to add more relationships, more money or even more books into our lives.
However, we very rarely think about what we need to take away.
Whenever we are sick or of ill-health, we tend to look in the medicine cupboard or look for those vegetables that we have been neglecting for too long. We focus on what we can add to our bodies, rather than what we are already putting in that we could do without. In many cases, this is why intermittent fasting can be so effective for health.
Whenever we are stressed or overwhelmed, we tend to look for some activities, hobbies or distractions that will help us to decompress from the rest of our lives. It is not that often that we look at all of the activities that are making us feel so overwhelmed, and deciding what needs to go.
Take away your personal ‘labels’
These two examples are practical for our daily lives, but the same is true for discovering happiness in yourself and in your place in society.
As Anthony de Mello highlights in his book Awareness:
Happiness is our natural state. Happiness is the natural state of little children, to whom the kingdom belongs until they have been polluted and contaminated by the stupidity of society and culture.
To acquire happiness you don’t have to do anything, because happiness cannot be acquired. Does anybody know why? Because we have it already. How can you acquire what you already have?
Then why don’t you experience it? Because you’ve got to drop something. You’ve got to drop illusions. You don’t have to add anything in order to be happy; you’ve got to drop something.
Life is easy, life is delightful. It’s only hard on your illusions, your ambitions, your greed, your cravings. Do you know where these things come from? From having identified with all kinds of labels!
We attach our identities to the various roles that we play as human beings. A single person could be a banker, a wife, a sister, a carer, a volunteer, a friend and a best friend and a variety of other labels that we use. The more we become wrapped up in these status roles or ‘labels’, the more we set ourselves up for never finding the secret to happiness.
As a banker, there might be the pressure to earn a certain amount, dress a certain way, get promoted a certain number of times every few years. Then there might be your own personal narrative about what kind of banker that you are. Maybe you think of yourself as more fair, more aggressive, more successful or more laid-back. It doesn’t matter. Whenever you act contrary to your label, you will be unhappy. Trying to keep up with your label will make you unhappy too. It’s a vicious circle that you will want to jump out of.
The call to action
So what can be done about it? Here are a few suggestions:
Drop the bad stuff that is making you ill, from food to relationships.
Drop the work or activities that don’t set your heart on fire.
Drop the labels that you carry around on your back all day every day.
Sometimes we need to add to discover the secret to happiness but quite often, we just need to take away.