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Monday, May 31, 2010

Cultivate Well-roundedness

Here we are: Number 365. And it's a doozy: Cultivate Well-roundedness, the fifth and last of our "Five Cultivates."

It seems the happiest people I know can whoop it up with friends on Saturday night and attend church with great conviction on Sunday.

They can chat with equal amiability with college professors and construction workers, with police officers and prostitutes, with ministers and mine workers.

They can have fun in a disco or on a mountain trail, can be at peace in traffic or in tranquility.

They are all things to all people.

They are, as the Tao recommends, as soft and yielding as water, yet, as it also says, their strength has no equal.

Anyone who sounds one note might not fit the bill.

And yet, in all these situations, happy people are always themselves, never sacrificing who they are for the sake of others.

They contain multitudes.

So that is the final Secret. Look back over the other 364, and find out what sides of yourself might need development. If you only have one tune, master some more. If you only have one way to deal with adversity, learn some others. If you only have one friend, make more!

And, for the last time: You'll be happier.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Cultivate Peace

This brings us to the fourth of our "Five Cultivates," Cultivate Peace.

In many ways, peace is both the end and the means of our quest. What I have been calling "happiness" for nearly a year is really a sense of peace, or well-being. It is a lack of turmoil, tsuris, dukkha.

And how do we attain it? We start with it. We end with it. Borrowing and adapting from a couple of traditions, let us say:

Peace before me
Peace behind me
Peace above me and under my feet
Peace within me
Peace around me, and in all whom I meet.

With peace may I walk.
With peace before me, may I walk.
With peace behind me, may I walk.
With peace above me, may I walk.
With peace below me, may I walk.
With peace all around me, may I walk.

It is finished in peace.
It is finished in peace.

Cultivate Peace, and you'll be happier.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Cultivate Gratefulness

The third of our "Five Cultivates" is Cultivate Gratefulness.

Yes, I've written about this before, but as we're in the Final Five, it bears repeating: The key to abundance, and therefore happiness, is to be grateful for everything you get. You may or may not get more as a result of this attitude; but if you’re truly grateful for what you have, who needs more?

I am what is known amongst English speakers in Asia as "a templer," one who visits temples (Buddhist, Daoist, etc.) fanatically.

When I visit, I "pray." When asked the gist of my "prayers," I can sum them up in two words: "Thank you."

Thank who? Whoever's listening. It's not the "receiver" that's important in giving thanks, it's the heart of the sender, the position of acknowledging our dependence on others, on the universe.

So give thanks. Be appreciative. Cultivate Gratefulness. Your life will be fuller and richer for it, and, yes, you'll be happier.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Cultivate Compassion

Here's the second in our series of "The Five Cultivates": Cultivate Compassion.

This word "compassion" is widely misunderstood. It's often thought to mean merely "pity" or "kindness."

It is so much more.

At its highest cultivation, compassion becomes an identity with those who are suffering. Lest you think this is some high-falutin' Buddhist idea, just remember the words of John Donne:

Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls it tolls for thee.

When one suffers, we all suffer.

So for pity's sake (!) Cultivate Compassion. You (and all sentient beings) will be happier.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Cultivate Mindfulness

As we come near the end of our 365 (this is number 361), I have been emphasizing a few points that have run through the series. Now I want to end with a "definitive" (ahem) list. Let's call them "The Five Cultivates" (a naming convention borrowed from China, where I live).

The first one is: Cultivate Mindfulness.

Be mindful of the people around you, of the places where you spend time, of the way you live your life.

Which ones are making you happy? Which ones are making you not so?

Be mindful of your attitudes, towards things, towards people, towards life itself.

What mental furniture makes you the happiest?

In short, pay attention.

Socrates said it: "The unexamined life is not worth living." I think he was talking about being mindful.

So there's Number One: Cultivate Mindfulness. And you'll be happier.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Diversify

It's standard wisdom in economics: Don't put all your eggs in one basket; instead, diversify.

So why wouldn't the same be true of happiness?

No less an expert than Sigmund Freud said, "Just as a cautious businessman avoids investing all his capital in one concern, so wisdom would probably admonish us also not to anticipate all our happiness from one quarter alone."

If there's someone (or something) in your life that constitutes your "everything," you run the risk of severe unhappiness in the case of loss. Think of it this way: As happy as that person or thing makes you, whatever heights you rise to, that's how low you'll go if you ever suffer a loss.

So spread those eggs around. Find multiple sources for the happiness in your life. Start a hobby, get a pet, create something, find a special place. But don't let all your happiness come from one source.

Diversify. You'll be happier.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Be Bold

British journalist Holbrook Jackson once wrote, "Happiness is a form of courage."

Conversely, I guess, those without the courage to take hold of happiness are doomed to be miserable.

If I have learned one thing in the past nearly-a-year of writing about happiness, it's that happiness is hard work. (If I've learned a second thing, it's that it's useless to actually work toward happiness. Which leads to a third thing: that virtually everything we say about happiness is paradoxical.)

Anyway, it's true that happiness is available only to those who have the courage to take hold of it. Some of my friends (and I myself, when I was single) plan their own birthday parties. If no one else does it, why not? It's a bold, and to some, self-serving, move. And yet, if it makes you happy, why not?

So grow some cojones. Have some nerve. Be bold and seize some happiness.

You'll be happier.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Know How to be Abased, and How to Abound

Every life has its ups and downs, the flux symbolized by the "Wheel of Fortune" (the medieval symbol, not the game show--although that has ups and downs, too!)

Knowing how to handle both conditions is an essential Secret of Happiness.

The Christian apostle Paul put it well when he wrote to the Philippians: "I have learned to be content in whatever state I'm in. I know both how to be abased, and how to abound; I have been instructed every where and in all things both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need."

This same sentiment was voiced by the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca, who said, "Happy is the man who can endure the highest and lowest fortune. He who has endured such vicissitudes with equanimity has deprived misfortune of its power."

How to achieve such a state? Paul attributed his strength to Christ, a "higher power." Seneca's stoic philosophy sought to attain equanimity through "moral and intellectual perfection."

Either way, the goal is to set one's eyes on the prize, not being ruffled by setbacks and successes, but always aiming at something higher.

That's it. Learn to accept the good with the bad.

You'll be happier.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Work Toward Gross National Happiness

Many have found the current economic woes to be a blessing in disguise, turning us away from rampant consumerism and a rat-race mentality toward simplicity, self-development, and work that satisfies.

More and more people, through choice and necessity, are living in smaller spaces, driving smaller cars, preparing for caring careers, and just generally conforming their lives to a more human scale. A 2007 study in the UK showed that "more that than one in two Britons wanted a second, more compassionate career for the last two decades of their working life," aiming to "put satisfaction before success."

This sentiment was voiced back in 1972 when the former King of Bhutan said, "I care less about the gross national product and more about the gross national happiness."

What a noble sentiment! And how unfortunate that it took a crisis to move us in that direction.

But, perhaps, a new day is dawning. A day when compassion trumps greed, when kindness overcomes anger, and when wisdom prevails over ignorance.

Wouldn't it be nice?

So as you evaluate your life and where it's going, consider the cause of "GNH"-- Gross National Happiness.

Promote it, and you (and everyone around you) will be happier.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Practice "The Four Immeasurables"

As we come near the end of this project (just ten Secrets to go!) you'll notice that I'm leaning more and more toward lists. We had Goethe's last time, and I'll be giving you my own "summa" over the final few days.

But today's list is a corker. The Buddha taught four principles in his "higher teaching" (not for the weak at heart), and these were so supreme that they have been called "immeasurable," or even "Brahma Viharas"--the dwelling-places of the divine.

They are, in short:

  1. Loving-kindness: wishing happiness for all (including not just people but all sentient beings)
  2. Compassion: desiring a decrease in suffering for all (again including all sentient beings)
  3. Sympathetic Joy: rejoicing in the success of all (including you-know-what); the very opposite of jealousy
  4. Equanimity: avoiding distinctions like "friend" or "enemy," "success" or "failure," "praise" or "blame," etc., and reacting to all phenomena with detached acceptance

And how do we attain these exalted states? Through meditation, calming the mind, quieting the raging ego.

Try it. If you can do that (and no one is saying it will be easy), you'll be happier.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Go with Goethe

Today's guest blogger is the German genius Johann Wolfgang von Goethe--I think. I haven't really verified this quote, but it's so good, I just thought I'd steal it. (I have also added the numbers and the italics.)

Nine requisites for contented living:

1. Health enough to make work a pleasure.

2. Wealth enough to support your needs.

3. Strength enough to battle with difficulties and overcome them.

4. Grace enough to confess your sins and forsake them.

5. Patience enough to toil until some good is accomplished.

6. Charity enough to see some good in your neighbor.

7. Love enough to move you to be useful to others.

8. Faith enough to make real the things of God.

9. Hope enough to remove all anxious fears concerning the future.

So go with Goethe.

You'll be happier.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Be Seized

When I was a kid, there was a candy bar jingle that ran:

"Don't fight it!
"Surrender to a Peter Paul Almond Cluster..."

A wickedly effective campaign.

There are some things in life that won't be denied: love, death, a certain madness in springtime, and yes, a good candy bar.

When was the last time you just "surrendered"?

Give in to something bigger than yourself. Surrender. Be seized.

You'll be happier.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Don't Wait 'Til Too Late

I recently saw a wonderful bit by the great Alan Watts. In essence, he said, the point of a piece of music is not the finale. If it were, then he who conducts the fastest would be considered the best conductor!

No, the point of a piece of music is the enjoyment throughout.

But in Kindergarten, we can't wait for first grade, and so on through our school years. Then university, the first job, the bigger house and car and so on. We spend all our lives pursuing "success."

Is that the point?

Hear the words of the clever French novelist Colette (author of Gigi, among others): "What a wonderful life I've had. I only wish I had realized it sooner."

Realize it now. Don't wait 'til too late.

You'll be happier.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Detox Your World

When I lived in Tokyo, I really felt the effects of the density of city dwelling. For one year, I was able to keep a regimen of juicing once a week, living on fruit and vegetable juice instead of solids.

It made a huge difference.

What's toxic in your environment? Do you smoke? Stop. Does someone around you smoke? Find a way to neutralize the effect.

Are you eating purely? Stop the junk, the additives, the artificials. Get back to basics, eating what's fresh, and unprocessed.

Air. Water. Food.

Once you've done that, consider your visual and sonic environments. Are you greeted by pleasant views and soothing sounds at home? If not, fix it.

The modern world can be a toxic place. The more we can detox it, the happier we'll be. We can't all live in Bali, but we can make where we are a bit more like paradise.

Try it. You'll be happier.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Burn Some Incense

Simple pleasures.

I can't tell you how happy it makes me when I walk into my living room and my wife has been burning incense. or cooking rice.

Or when I'm walking down a path and suddenly smell osmanthus.

For some, it's hot coffee. Or baby powder.

I once heard that if you were trying to sell your house, you should cut apples before prospective buyers came. The smell triggers a "home" reaction.

So pay some attention to your olfactory environment. Sweeten up the smells around you. Burn some incense.

You'll be happier.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Cross Your Eyes

That wily philosopher Anon. once said, "Being happy doesn't mean everything is perfect. It means you have decided to look beyond the imperfections."

Try this some time: instead of inspecting every minute detail of your appearance in a mirror, just cross your eyes a little. Blur the image. That's about how close most other people will look at you.

Try it in other spheres, literally and metaphorically. Instead of focusing in on some problem you’re having, take in the whole of your life. You may discover it's just not that bad.

Stop zeroing in on the negatives, and take a more blurred view of things.

Cross your eyes.

You'll be happier.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Sit by the Sea

The first key component of the Perennial Philosophy (the basis of my personal belief system) is that "there's something bigger than us."

Most of the time, we can't see it. But there are moments: sitting by the silent, impersonal, immense sea; looking down on the angelic clouds during a flight; attaining the summit of a mountain, and gazing back over the range traversed: all of these are "intimations of immortality," visible manifestations of that "something bigger."

So sit by the sea. Cross a vast plain. Climb a mountain. See yourself as the speck that you really are, but more than that, a part of the whole.

You'll be happier.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Cope

A couple of decades ago I got divorced, and lemme tell you something: Divorce is nowhere near as much fun as it looks. Neither is the death of a loved one, the loss of one's health, nor any of the other "thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to."

(I know; they don't look like fun at all. And they're even less fun than that.)

But you know what? Here I am, happy again. I am one of the millions, nay, billions, of "walking wounded," those who have gone through a traumatic experience and come out the other side.

How did I do it?

One step at a time.

Somebody said, "Happiness is not the absence of problems but the ability to deal with them."

You can do it. Whatever it is, cope with it.

You'll be happier. Someday.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Live Dangerously

When I think of the Masters of Happiness, names like "Jean-Paul Sartre," "Albert Camus," "Franz Kafka," "James Joyce," and "Friedrich Nietzsche" don't usually spring to mind.

Yet these keen observers of life had much to say about how to live--and isn't that what happiness is all about?

Take Nietzsche, for example. Most famous, perhaps, for his declaration that "God is dead," and his misappropriation by the Nazis, he also said homier, more accessible things, like these:

  • "Ah, women. They make the highs higher and the lows more frequent."
  • "A pair of powerful spectacles has sometimes sufficed to cure a person in love. "
  • "There is more wisdom in your body than in your deepest philosophy. "

And the saying that gave us today's "Secret":

"Believe me! The secret of reaping the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment from life is to live dangerously!"

Seriously. The Road to Happiness requires us to flee the comfort zone and go out on a limb.

Do it. Live dangerously.

You'll be happier.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

All Aboard!

You may have heard it said that "The journey is the destination."

How does that relate to happiness? Well, American author Margaret Lee Runbeck wrote, "Happiness is not a station you arrive at, but a manner of traveling."

All aboard! You'll be happier.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Give Something Back

Recently I've been in several discussions about the practice of celebrities showing up at disasters or adopting children or starting foundations, and then saying, "I just want to give something back."

Reactions to this amongst my friends run from admiration to cynicism.

But the fact is, we've all been given more than we deserve. We all are obliged to "give something back" to our families, our teachers, our communities, our nations.

And yes, to those in immense need.

Let's take a page, though, from the Bodhisattva Practice. This does not look at "the other" with pity; rather, it sees the other as oneself, and recognizes that in "giving back" we are in fact giving to all sentient beings (including ourselves). There is no glory in that; it is just what any mindful person would do.

So do it. Give something back.

You'll be happier.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Reorganize a Workspace

Heaven knows, I'm not one of those people with an excessively neat workspace; quite the contrary, I subscribe to the maxim that "A clean desk is the sign of a sick mind."

However, I do need to be able to lay my hands on things in a hurry. There is a place for everything, and everything's (usually) in its place. It just doesn't look it.

But from time to time, it gets out of hand, and I have to re-organize. I hate doing it, but when it's all done, I feel good.

Give it some thought. Is your "system" slowing you down, making tasks take longer and thus keeping you from doing the things you really enjoy?

Maybe it's time to get organized.

If you do, you'll be happier.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Worry Wisely

I wonder how many people realize that Bobby McFerrin's "Don't Worry, Be Happy," was meant to be satirical?

You've lost your bed and your house; you have no cash. But don't frown, because that would make others feel sad! He can't be serious.

Nevertheless, a lot of us expend useless energy on worrying. It's not that worrying itself is bad; it's just that most of us do it wrong.

Problem: worrying about how my boss does her job.

Problem: worrying about inevitabilities, like death.

Problem: worrying about Acts of God.

What do these things have in common? They're not under our control.

If you're going to worry, worry about those things you can do something about. Then your worry can become productive.

And, of course, worry toward solutions, not just running in circles like Chicken Little.

And when a solution is reached, act on it. Check off that item on your "to worry about" list and start worrying about something else.

Pretty soon, you'll be happier.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Do What You Love (and Love What You're Doing)

Lots of TV shows have been built on the premise that people will do some pretty distasteful things for the chance to win money (think "Fear Factor"). It's easy to laugh at them, right? I mean, who would do something they didn't like, just to get money?

Ummm... Most of us?

I've written before about working less, even if it means less money. "Money can't buy happiness," they say. And yet it seems a lot of people trade happiness in order to get money. Why not reverse that: give up some money to get increased happiness?

My dad (like most dads and moms) is a hero in many ways. One thing stands out, though: when my older brothers started school, my dad was working "swing shift," and realized that he wouldn't see my brothers most of the week. So he changed jobs, taking a significant pay cut, just to work "days" so he could see "his boys" (and after me, a girl).

That's heroic.

Or, how about doing something you love even if it means less money?

Find something you love to do and, no matter the pay, you'll come out on top. As Albert Schweitzer said, "If you love what you are doing, you will be successful."

So do what you love (and love what you're doing).

You'll be happier.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Pluck the Treasures of Unhappiness

It's true: Most of us cannot sustain happiness all the time. So here's something from the great Canadian novelist Robertson Davies:

Happiness is always a by-product. It is probably a matter of temperament, and for anything I know it may be glandular. But it is not something that can be demanded from life, and if you are not happy you had better stop worrying about it and see what treasures you can pluck from your own brand of unhappiness.

Wow. Read it again. Then put it into practice.

You'll be happier.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Hope

Back in 1969, Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross wrote about the stages of grief in her book, On Death and Dying.

The well-known stages (with example statements from Wikipedia) are:

  1. Denial – "I feel fine."; "This can't be happening, not to me."
  2. Anger – "Why me? It's not fair!"; "How can this happen to me?"; "Who is to blame?"
  3. Bargaining – "Just let me live to see my children graduate."; "I'll do anything for a few more years."; "I will give my life savings if..."
  4. Depression – "I'm so sad, why bother with anything?"; "I'm going to die... What's the point?"; "I miss my loved one, why go on?"
  5. Acceptance – "It's going to be okay."; "I can't fight it, I may as well prepare for it."

Once upon a time, I was trained in the diagnosis of problems in schoolchildren based on this model.

But the woman who did the training was a person of faith (I was a church elementary school principal at the time), and she added one more step to these fearsome five:

Hope.

Yes, beyond mere acceptance, beyond the shrug and the "Oh, well, what the hell," comes genuine belief in the benevolence of the universe and the promise of the future.

So if you're in grief, look forward to Hope.

You'll be happier.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Remember, Well Begun is Half Done

The Nazarene Teacher admonished his followers to "count the cost" before undertaking to follow Him.

"Suppose you wanted to build a tower," he said. "Wouldn't you sit down and figure out the cost, then make sure you have enough to complete it? Because if you lay the foundation and then can't finish it, you'll be a laughingstock."

So yes, before you "jump in," be sure that everything's in order. The old folks said, "Well begun is half done." Count the cost, then just do it.

You'll be happier.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Call Off the Search

There's an old story about the fish who set off on a quest to find out what water was...

Joseph Campbell quotes a Polynesian proverb about "standing on a whale fishing for minnows."

Or, more elegantly, this, from Albert Camus: "You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life."

On the meaning of life, Campbell again: "People say that what we're all seeking is a meaning for life. I don't think that's what we're really seeking. I think that what we're seeking is an experience of being alive..."

Yes. Stop looking for meaning, stop seeking the "secret of happiness."

Call off the search and just live and be happy.

You'll be happier (natch).

Monday, May 3, 2010

Deal With Your Achilles Heel

Achilles' heel brought him down. If only he had found a way to turn it into a strength.

Artists, stand-up comedians, social activists: many of these are people who have taken their weaknesses, their shortcomings, their pain, and turned them into something beautiful.

Why can't we do the same?

So what's yours? And how can it serve you? Find a way and you'll be happier.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Get a Second Opinion

This week I've had my students peer-editing each others' writing. It's amazing how much easier it is to find problems with the work of others than to find our own faults!

The problem, as I've written before, is that we aren't always so good at detecting our own blind spots (that's why they're called "blind spots"). The most professional of doctors will often call for a second opinion; why shouldn't we do the same?

Not sure what to do at work? Run it by a colleague, or the boss.

Quandary in your personal life? Discuss it with a trusted friend or family member.

Got a DIY project going? Call on that contractor buddy for advice.

Heck, here in the Internet age, post it on a forum, or put it in a tweet, or ask your Facebook friends. There'll be no shortage of opinions! And they may think of something you missed.

Of course, this brings up another very important point: The final decision is yours. Sort through the advice you're given and find the nuggets of gold; wash away the rest.

"Two heads are better than one": use 'em both, and you'll be happier.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Grow

A common saying amongst my Indian friends is, "You can't stay in second grade forever." (OK, the grade varies, but the idea is the same.)

I mean, can you imagine a 45-year-old sitting in one of those little chairs at one of those little tables, knees up around his ears?

Ridiculous.

So why do so many of us hang onto old ways, old attitudes, old problems, and simply refuse to grow?

I recently learned that the late Pearl S. Buck, author of The Good Earth, was born and grew up just a few miles from the Buddhist monastery in Jiangsu Province where I lived for most of a year. Because of this, I took a second look at Buck and her works.

And in doing so, I found this gem: "Growth itself contains the germ of happiness."

The corollary sounds even more convincing: stagnation leads to unhappiness.

So grow already.

You'll be happier.