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Musings

The pursuit of unhappiness

I’ve come to realize that I don’t have a great track record of knowing what will actually make me happy. Not that I’m generally unhappy, or particularly hard to please, but that the achievements I thought would result in my happiness seem to have about the same chance as any random event of yielding happiness in my life.

The fact is, life is inherently complex, and achievements made in the pursuit of happiness can have unexpected side effects. All the big milestones in modern life: career, marriage, family, your first house – we pursue them because we think they will make us happy, but they are at best unreliable engines. Lottery winners, by and large, live this irony because they generally end up less happy than before (to the continued bafflement of the rest of us). This leads me to believe that the achievement-based happiness promoted (and exploited) by our culture is fundamentally ephemeral.

In our “pursuit of happiness”, all we’ve been doing is making ourselves unhappy. I think there is a more sustainable path to happiness available to us.

For a moment, imagine your life as a chapter book of experiences. When you reminisce about old times, you’re reviewing previous chapters (or even wondering how to rewrite them). When you set goals and think about the future, you’re skimming ahead to future chapters.

In this magical chapter book of your life, the remaining chapters are being written as you experience them. So when you skip ahead in your book, you’re actually not reading your book anymore – you’re reading your *expectations of how it should go*.

Now think of a time you watched a movie adaptation of a book you love. People who didn’t read the book loved the movie, but you walked away disappointed because the movie didn’t match your expectations. The book and the movie were great on their own, but your expectations about how the story should go made the experience of the movie less enjoyable.

When you read ahead in your book of life, by holding onto expectations of how it will go, you’re similarly going to be disappointed. If instead, you release your expectations and just let life flow through you – you’ll enjoy the experience a lot more.

This isn’t an easy mental shift, but a good first step is challenging yourself to be relentless in your commitment to presence. When I catch my monkey mind drifting to the expectation “I’ll be happy when…”, I stop myself and find the gratitude of the moment. This is not always easy! But the more I practice, the more I’ve been able to find the gift in every experience that comes my way.

The next time you find yourself wrapped up in thoughts about the future chapters in your life, return yourself to the current page. You might just find the story easier to follow and the reading more delightful.

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