Dragging my feet from one day to the next, what am I really doing? This one question is unavoidable in the life of every reasonable person. Call it an existential crisis, a midlife crisis or whatever you like. If you have lived your life by the book and did all that you could to help others and yourself, this phase is inevitable.
Every sane person, at some point in their life, is plagued by a persistent feeling of emptiness. Everything is there but nothing is, you feel. There is no real reason to be unhappy and yet happiness is nowhere to be found. I have wealth, family, freedom, and status. I should be happy, you think. But life still kind of feels pointless. As if the more we acquire, the emptier we feel.
Not every rich man feels empty and not every poor man feels fulfilled though. Not all the time anyway. Happiness is a flirtatious partner. You can’t bet on its loyalty or stability. Often we think happiness exists in my dreamland, a place where everything (and everyone) will move according to me. And since, life will function the way I want, I won’t have to deal with feelings of inadequacy, jealousy, anger and so on. This is a lofty and ignorant view.
A life devoid of challenges and conflict is not necessarily a happy life, in fact, it is immensely boring and will eventually lead to intense sadness and a big void. Our struggles teach us, they shape us.
Quoting Dr. Victor Frankl, whose philosophy bears significant and direct influence on my views shared in this post:
What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost, but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him.
As we see, a human being is not one in pursuit of happiness but rather in search of a reason to become happy, last but not least, through actualizing the potential meaning inherent and dormant in a given situation.
I think Dr. Frankl nailed it. We must have a reason to be happy. Our possessions and people are reasons to be happy, to be grateful, but they are not long-lasting reasons because they don’t really give meaning to our life beyond a certain degree. No doubt, they bring color, variety, pleasures and even moments of happiness and fulfillment. Yet, it doesn’t mean that we are leading a meaningful life. Otherwise, hundreds of millions of people, materially comfortable, wouldn’t be fighting the demons of loneliness, sadness and depression.
Friedrich Nietzsche contended, “He who has a Why to live for can bear almost any How.”
If you have a reason to get out of bed every morning, you will. If you’ve got a reason to live, you will. If you’ve got a reason to love, you will. If you have a reason to be happy, you’ll be happy. And the reason boils down to one thing: meaning. If your life has meaning, if your relationships have meaning, you’ll be fulfilled naturally. Meaning is the only light that dispels the darkness of emptiness.
And there are three ways to find meaning in your life.
The Vedantic school has a famous phrase called Satyam Shivam Sundaram. Satyam is truth, Shivam divinity and Sundaram beauty. The moment you learn the art of seeing and appreciating the goodness in your life, you start to see the truth in its ways. You begin to see the divinity in everything life puts you through. You are inspired by the beauty of it all. The splendor, glory and miracle of every unfolding moment melts you from within, they gently force you to see how goodness abounds in your life. A blue sky, a healthy body, a sound mind, green trees, vast oceans, everything is full of goodness. It’s a state of mind that can be consciously cultivated. The Vedas call it sattva, the mode of goodness. Goodness is synonymous with fulfillment. A sattvic mind (that is, a mind full of goodness) is a tranquil mind. So, one way is to fill your mind with good thoughts. Or, make an effort to see the truth, divinity or beauty that exists in the present moment. Your life then takes on a whole new meaning.
The second way is to passionately give yourself to a cause. Devoting your body, mind and soul to serve a cause leads to a phenomenal expansion of individual consciousness. You will still have your down moments with everything else going around you, but you won’t feel your life is pointless. As soon as you take up a cause, you grow out of your limited and individual existence and step into a much larger playing field. The baby bird has jumped out of the nest hoping to fly. It won’t fall flat on the ground. Precisely at the right moment, this bird will know how to flutter its wings. Nature will not let it die. Giving yourself to a cause forces you to reach the optimum level of your potential. The Vedas call it rajas, the mode of passion. You are full of energy when rajasic and can’t wait to get to work because your cause has given your life meaning. Your cause breathes a new life into you awakening the spirit of service, transforming your negative emotions into a usable form of energy.
By suffering I don’t mean that something terrible must happen in your life. Instead, anything that shakes us out of our illusions is suffering. Such incidents and experiences, while disconcerting, push us out of our comfort zone. They make us humble and more open to other perspectives. They impel us to reflect on our lives, our choices and our actions. You realize that all that you took for granted at one stage was actually a blessing. In this newfound wisdom and humility, you begin to look at life differently. The Vedic term is tamas, the mode of ignorance. Ignorance leads to suffering. (Yes, it’s 100% true. For, suffering is not what happens to us but how we interpret it. An ignorant person can’t handle his or her loss in the same graceful manner an enlightened person would, for example.) In my view, ignorance is the chief cause of individual suffering and suffering is the seed of meaning. For Buddha too, it was the sight of suffering that melted him enough to quit royalty, don robes and embark on his journey.
A young man tells his mother he has fallen in love with a girl and wants to marry her.
“Just for fun, Mom,” he says, “I’ll bring over three girls and you’ll have to try and guess which one I’ll be marrying.”
And the next day, three beautiful women are sitting in front of his mother.
“Can you guess who will be my wife?” the son asks bubbling with excitement.
“The one on the right,” she replies in a blink.
“Oh my God! You’re amazing! How’d you know?”
“Cause…” she says nonchalantly, “I don’t like her.”
We don’t have to dislike something just because life is giving it to us. At times, playing a spectator, a nonjudgmental witness is all it takes to understand what direction we should take.
Our intrinsic nature propels us to discover our life’s meaning. When it comes to an inquisitive mind, the discovery of meaning is the secret of happiness. You know, how there’s a release of energy and you laugh as soon as you understand a joke. So it is with life. You are set free the moment you get a grip on its meaning. Different things are meant differently to different people. It’s a personal affair.
When you remain oblivious to the goodness, beauty and divinity in your life, or if you don’t selflessly devote a portion of your time to a cause, life is then forced to hand you the third perspective: suffering. It may come as acute boredom, deep sadness, severe depression or a wake-up call in the form of great personal loss. Whether you want to go with the first, second or third option, the choice is yours.
Himalayan lotuses don’t grow in freshwater ponds, they blossom in marshes. Emptiness or unhappiness is not a dysfunction of life. It’s not a malfunction of your mind. It simply means that life is telling you to reflect on yourself and your actions. It’s asking you that you no longer neglect your calling or that you find one. The seed of fragrance is the very basis of your existence. When stagnation arrives, the lotus of transformation is ready to bloom. All you have to do is not oppose it.
Go with the flow and see where life takes you. Let the seed sprout.
He who has a Why to live for can bear almost any How…
Art of Meditation
Free yourself from suffering and live life to the fullest. Learn the yogic technique of meditation in 4 days (and master it over a lifetime)
What is the secret of happiness? Yes, you know the answer now. Here are a few FAQs to help you discover happiness secrets and live a fulfilling life.
Could you give me some practical steps or guidelines that I could follow to work towards happiness?
Happiness is a skill. It is something one has to acquire and cultivate. If you put in the hard work, you will see the results.
So, while there’s no secret to happiness, there are some guidelines. Here’s my two cents’ worth; five principles of happiness:
- Be Sincere
- Stop Complaining
- The Fifth Principle — Write Down Your Own Principle
Read more on each of these principles here.
How can I develop an attitude of happiness?
Happiness is your personal state, a private matter (though the more you spread it, the more of it you get to keep). When you fail to see the good in your life (and everyone has an abundance of goodness if you choose the right perspective), there’ll be nothing good left to feel. Be simple, be grateful. An ostentatious or flamboyant lifestyle can bring you attention but not happiness. You are entitled to have your comforts, but extravagance is a disease.
I don’t think there’s any more to happiness than noble actions, gratitude and contentment. No doubt, happiness is not merely an emotion but a state of being. Above all though, happiness is an attitude. When you make it a point to live your life positively, to appreciate the goodness of your own life without measuring it against the lives of itchy bums, your world will light up with the radiance of a thousand suns.
To learn more on how to cultivate the attitude of happiness, go here.
How can I stay happy when the going gets tough?
When the going gets tough, when life stretches you, take it gracefully. There’s no point in complaining or whining. Remind yourself that it’s the rainy season, that you must persist and remain focused, and that when one door closes a hundred others will open. Sometimes the rainy season may last longer than expected. So what? Sometimes the door may not open soon enough. So what? This is life.
The sooner we understand and accept this truth of life, the happier we will be.
Happiness is the path we walk. It’s a matter of commitment. In fact, it’s a choice and not always the outcome. Read more here.
Is there a shortcut to happiness?
“Is there a shortcut to happiness?” Narayani Ganesh asked me last week when I was speaking at the Bangalore Lit Fest.
“Oh,” I said, “you mean a jugaad for happiness?” She and the audience chuckled with me…
Happiness, in my view, is a sense of fulfillment that comes from three things:
Here’s the secret to happiness: protect trust (self-trust and others’) at all costs and love and purpose will walk into your life on their own. Together they make up happiness.
It’s that simple, really. Read more here.