Eckersley gives us some hints based on his review of what the “wise and famous” said (104):
- Focus on others, not ourselves.
- Balance wants and means.
- Be content with what we have.
Looking at this wisdom, it is clear that not only are we not taught about what it takes to life the happy life, we are bombarded with messages that point us into the opposite direction. Individualism is rampant in modern Western society and it’s getting worse, narrowing our focus further and further away from others. Materialism is driving our wants far beyond our means and we’re never content with what we have.
But the most important message that we’re not getting is that it takes work and effort to create a happy life. We want quick fixes – the magic of finding a soul mate, or at a minimum, a pill to pop. Yet, as Jennifer Hecht points out in The Happiness Myth, if we want to, we can learn from the sages (67):
According to the great philosophers, your worst barrier against happiness is you, your own wrong thinking. Your four problems are these: You cannot see yourself or much about the world you live in. You are ruled by desires and emotion. You will not take your place or rise to your role. You are alternately oblivious to death and terrified of it. As such, your job is to master these four errors in yourself. If you do, you will be happy and more free to love, work, and play the way you wish you could. None of this comes easily; it has to be practiced a great deal, and it never works completely. However, there is no useful alternative to the effort.
Our job is to continuously counteract our irrational thinking, which is defined within Rational-Emotive Behavioral Therapy as thinking that is counterproductive to happiness (Albert Ellis and Irving Becker. A Guide to Personal Happiness. 23). As anybody who has used REBT can attest, it is a lot of work. Irrational thinking is very pervasive (and often all too persuasive). It takes a lot of vigilance and work to counter-act this thinking. And sometimes, we still end up in the darkness of depression, the deep hole. Then, our task is to work our way out again, as hard as it can be. Sometimes, we manage to get ourselves out again. Other times, it’s more difficult. It also helps, to try to break the rumination cycle: Focusing on ourselves and how miserable we feel is only going to make the depression worse. Working for causes outside of our little sphere can help us focus on others rather than ruminating, which is one of the keys to happiness Eckersley gleaned from the ancients (and sometimes this focus on others can take the form of sharing on our blog what we learn down here in the hole… ;-). Once we’re out of the hole, we need to focus on what Hecht calls maintenance work to at least reduce the times we fall down (135-6):
Happiness maintenance work is creating things to look forward to on a daily basis; arranging some peak experiences for yourself occasionally; and making sure the overall story of your life has some feeling of progress and growth.
To create a happy life for ourselves, we need to move beyond the cultural trances that point to elusive and ultimately useless quick fixes and work on the life we want. This will help us address the important questions in our lives – those of meaning and belonging – and connects us with something larger than ourselves (and this does not have to take the form of something supernatural; community is larger than ourselves, so civic-mindedness can connect us to something larger). This is what happiness is made of.