Is Happiness the Wrong Goal?

“I just want to be happy.” I hear it ALL the time. I read it everywhere. It’s like a moaning mantra. It’s an interesting sentence in many ways. What does it mean to be happy? How different would that definition be for different people? Does this mantra suggest that you mean you want to be happy ALL the time, for five minutes, for some percentage of the day? And how about that JUST – is it ONLY or is it as though this is a small thing to want?

Our dogged pursuit of happiness as a goal has taken us in so many different directions, it seems pretty clear to me that the definition of happiness, or at least what is believed to be necessary to get there, is REALLY different for different people. And I think the thought of being happy all the time, no matter what your definition, is kind of funny. How would you even know that you WERE happy if that was all you felt? There’s a lot of trust there that your mind wouldn’t find SOMETHING to be bothered about, something to mourn, something to struggle with. Maybe your mind is cleaner than mine, but I’m pretty sure that no matter what my circumstances, I’m not going to be happy all the time. And so as for that “just,” if we’re talking all the time, being happy is no small feat. It takes work. It takes mental work. And when we have to do that… well, we’re not always happy. See what I mean?

How to be happy is the wrong question
All of the baggage that surrounds this notion of “just being happy” makes it worth considering that maybe happiness isn’t the best goal. What could we strive for instead of happiness? There’s another question that we’d likely get a variety of answers to, but I want to share what I learned from Sebastian Purcell over the summer. He’s a professor of philosophy who studies the Aztecs (as mentioned in this previous post), and it would seem that the Aztecs thought the proper goal for our striving was, rather than happiness, ┬ásomething they called “rootedness,” becoming deeply tied to and nourished from several sources. I was immediately intrigued by the idea, and that grew when I heard just HOW the Aztecs suggested one become more rooted.

In Aztec philosophy, the way to achieving the good life was marked by becoming rooted in four different ways: 1) rooted in one’s own body, 2) rooted in one’s own psyche, 3) rooted in one’s community, and 4) rooted in the universe. Oh, okay. Easy. Done. Yeah, no. That sounds like a tall order, so what are we really talking about here?

I have to say I absolutely LOVE that the first principle is becoming rooted in one’s own body. In my work with clients attempting to lose weight, I have seem so many people who only address their bodies with negativity, who have stopped listening to their own bodies’ language, and who don’t even want to look at their beloved spirit shells. For the Aztecs, the body was a source of sacred connection and nurturing. They emphasized this importance by recommending that people do something like yoga every day to be in tune with their bodies and balance “competing energies” within the body. For modern westerners at least, I think we could go a little more basic with some body awareness: cultivating the ability to really feel how your body feels, to pay attention to those signals (hunger, pain, fatigue), to pay attention and be fully present when we do something that feels physically good, to find ways to eat and move that are not just enjoyable for the chattering brain, but that make our bodies FEEL good, so we can become rooted, grounded and nurtured through our bodies.

The second principle is also really interesting in that the Aztecs saw becoming rooted in the psyche as an act of balancing desire and longing with judgment. The believed that good judgment is learned and tempers or informs, but does not destroy, our desire. Boy does that sound healthy! I can attest to the way that some of us use our “good judgment” to completely overwhelm, override, and dismiss our desire. We rely on our good judgment alone to take us toward our goals, losing sight of where those goals were born in the first place. If they are not born of desire, that’s a long row to hoe. To be rooted in one’s psyche, desire and judgment work together to inform our actions and allow us to be both grounded and nourished, rooted.

Thirdly the Aztecs believed that rootedness is cultivated in the community. Social cooperation is critical to the growth and health of a community AND to the rootedness of the individual. In other words, the roles that you play in society, the tasks you take on, are not only for the benefit of others, but for our own individual benefit. We become nourished by participating. We become grounded by interacting and working together with others. It sounds obvious when I say it, but in our 24/7 culture it is all to easy to let these kinds of things fall by the wayside. It is all to easy to let community involvement fall to the end of the list, forgetting that it is part of who we are, that it’s not just part of serving others but in being our best selves, rooted.

Finally, the Aztecs believed that rootedness can grow by developing a sense of being part of the larger energy of the universe. For them, the way there was either through religious drugs or through the study of philosophy. In my experience, there are other ways. Meditation has, for me, always been an inroad to a sense that I am part of something greater. Standing at the edge of the ocean has the same effect. When I look around at a large gathering of people and take the others in, see them as individuals and see the group, see the purpose they are there for, take in their connectedness I also feel a touch of the divine. It would seem that my willingness to slow down, to be present, to notice my place in the physical world and in my community is a way to be rooted in the universe.

Real happiness comes from being rooted.
The interesting thing about all of this, is that as I think about it, even as I type it all out, I feel pretty happy. Maybe it’s just my definition of happiness, but being that in touch, that connected with myself and the people around me, that sounds pretty great. Maybe the Aztecs knew something we didn’t. Maybe by taking our sights off of “happiness” as a goal and developing our sense of “rootedness,” we get to be truly happy a lot more of the time.

Looking Back at Happier Times…

This weekend we joined a small but loving group in bidding a final farewell to one of our closest friends. He had passed away 6 years ago, and his parents had been thinking about where to spread his ashes for a few years since. They then did a bit of a tour to friends and places that were sacred to their son so we could all lay him to rest exactly where he’d want to be, near the people he cared for the most. It was hard, but peaceful and we were delighted to all be together in his memory and then making new memories as we shared an evening together.

The whole event, predictably, made me think back to our time together. We were friends long before my children were born and we formed a group of 4 couples who had a whole lot of fun together. We traveled. We celebrated. We played. We drank and ate with abandon. We stayed up late and had absurd conversations. We talked quietly about things that mattered. And we laughed, a lot.

It is bittersweet to look back now, having lost a core member of that group. The whole thing got me to thinking about how I often used to look back at some “happier” time, a time where things were less difficult in some way, or perhaps where I, in retrospect, think I had something going that was RIGHT. In my conversations with people, it seems a lot of us feel this way, that there were certain eras in our past where things were just better.

Lots of folks in the personal development world will tell you that looking back is a huge stumbling block, that the present and the future are the proper place to set your sights. I get why they’re saying it, because there can be an awful lot of murk and muck back there to get our feet stuck in. There can be a lot of regret and self-blame and other-blame and family complications and deep sticky tarry complexity. But what about when we think back on “happier” times?

Here’s what I think. Sometimes those times just seem happier because our minds are selective and not so great at saving the whole roll of film (yes, I am old, it used to come in rolls, because there was film… oh never mind). So that’s one thing, but I also think there is a valuable way to look back at the past, at your happier times, even if your memories of that tie are incomplete. This kind of backward gaze allows you to figure out what you’re missing now. Huh?

When we look back at our happier times, we so often focus on the circumstances that surrounded us: a job, a relationship, people, maybe even a different town or city. We mourn our inability to recreate those circumstances and feel defeated, maybe even feel stuck or trapped in our current situation. But looking back at the circumstances is keeping our view restricted in such a shallow way. It’s like looking at one snapshot of a family gathering and thinking you understand the whole event.

I was happier then.
So what’s he best way to look back at happier times? The view that will really help you in your current situation is to look back at how you felt. If you are thinking those days were so much better, it’s time to figure out how you felt then. What kinds of things did you think about? How did you feel that you don’t feel now?

Let me demonstrate. I can look back on those days with my gang of 8 and remember some of how I felt, what made it so special. I felt accepted. I felt included and cared for. I felt a little wild sometimes. I felt free. I felt safe. I felt at home.

So if I’m looking back with longing, the question is, what is the feeling that am I longing for? What feelings am I missing? What am I craving? Which of those feelings could I use a little more of today? Truth is I’m a really lucky woman, and I’ve done a lot of work over the last several years to get a whole bunch of those feelings back. I feel accepted (by myself most importantly). I feel included by friends and family. I feel cared for (again, more so by myself than in the past). I feel safe. I feel at home.

What are you missing?
So, if I’m missing those days of yore, it mostly has to do with wildness and freedom, and hey, I’m working on it. I’ve been challenging myself, my current older/wiser/parenting self to feel out what freedom looks like now. I don’t need to recreate my freedom and wildness from then; it won’t fit me now. It won’t feel good. I need to just use the feeling as the target and figure out what I need to think to feel that way. My 30 Days of Freedom Challenge that I’ve been doing for the last twenty-something days has shown me perfectly that I can feel so much freer today WITHOUT turning the clock back, WITHOUT changing my circumstances considerably, even WITH my current responsibilities, because freedom is what it has always been, an inside job. It is all about what I’m thinking. When I think differently, I find those feelings. I feel better. I feel more free.

When you look back on an earlier time, what do you see? Do you imagine yourself happier, stronger, more creative, less encumbered? What feeling do you crave from your past, from your youth, from other times? Leave the circumstances as they are. Find the feeling and think your way right into it. I can show you how.