Do you know what the greatest skill to master is? A skill that has no downside, the one that makes you a better person and this world a better place? Most certainly it is not the ability to accumulate a lot of knowledge or wealth. It is not about being good or great at managing relationships either. It is not the art of keeping others happy. It is not even about discovering your true nature. You may wonder, what is it then? Let me share with you a little story first.
In a certain village lived an old man who was always grumpy and cranky. No one in the community wanted to have anything to do with him because he was eternally complaining. It was said that nothing or no one could make him happy. And sadness is like an undesirable scent, you know — even if one person in a group puts it on, you smell it too. Rub off them and you’ll reek of the same odor. The old man smelled of sadness and was as good as abandoned.
It all changed when one morning people saw him taking a stroll sporting a bright smile. This was as unusual as unexpected. He greeted others, exchanged pleasantries and he ruffled the hair of the young spikelets as he walked past the golden wheat fields. Everything about him seemed different. Some more days passed and yet his happiness didn’t disappear or even diminish.
“What happened to you?” the villagers asked him one day. “We’d never seen you this happy earlier.”
“I’m eighty years old,” he replied. “All my life I’d been chasing happiness. It didn’t take me anywhere. I bought bigger farms, I saved more money. I tried chasing it in wealth, family, friends and power. But it always eluded me.
“One day I thought of happiness as an attractive friend. And I realized that if I had to chase a friendship then it wasn’t worth it. I must make myself so worthy that either happiness would come after me, or I would learn to live without it. I made up my mind to just enjoy whatever life brought me. The moment I decided that, happiness sneaked up on me. It’s a feeling that doesn’t leave me now.”
We are eternally chasing happiness like a hungry dog following the scent of food. We think happiness is a possession and we can just own it and keep it safe. It is an erroneous view though, it’s like trying to see butter in milk without churning it. This leads me to my topic today. The greatest skill, in my view, is learning to be happy on your own. If not all the time, at least the majority of the time then.
You may say that being with so-and-so person makes me happy, or loving someone and being loved back makes me happy. You may even say that success makes me happy and so on. But, for how long and on whose terms? When I talk about happiness as a skill, I think more of gymnastics than soccer, for example. In the latter, you are affected by how others deal with you on the field. They may not pass you the ball or give you any opportunity to score.
When it comes to happiness, life is not a soccer field. It’s a gymnastics floor and you are the gymnast. There may be a panel of judges who will be scrutinizing your moves, there may be an audience who will cheer for you, but, ultimately, your success depends on the grace and agility of your movements. It depends on how skilled you are, how well you have practiced and championed the art of gymnastics. You are solely responsible for the quality of your performance. A popular quote paraphrased from The Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle says:
Whatever we learn to do, we learn by actually doing it; men come to be builders, for instance, by building, and harp players by playing the harp. In the same way, by doing just acts we come to be just; by doing self-controlled acts, we come to be self-controlled; and by doing brave acts, we become brave.
If there is only one skill you could master then make it how to keep yourself happy regardless of what’s going on around you. Contentment is the mother of happiness. But, if you can’t feel content for any reason then devote yourself to a purpose or a cause that gives you a sense of fulfillment. If you don’t have a purpose then find one. It’ll be worth every effort. Take my word for it. Above all, happiness is not a blessing, it is a skill. It is not something we are born with, it is something we learn.
Oscar Wilde once said, “Some people cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go.” Which one are you? I’m not talking about your impact on others. You may or may not be able to bring joy to them for their happiness is more dependent on their preferences than your offerings. I’m referring to happiness in an individual context, I’m alluding to your impact on yourself. Are you happy in your own company? This is the skill of happiness.
We sit with our threads of thoughts and knit patterns of life like a knitter purls yarn. In doing so, some of us, most of us in fact, make it too complicated. Our patterns are unnecessarily complex, and our weaving, tiresome. The more we learn to appreciate the beauty in simple motifs, the easier our life becomes. Profound happiness is found in simple patterns.
What are you weaving? Pay attention if you will.