You have to realize that happiness is not something you find at the end of the road. You have to understand that it is here, now.
Thich Nhat Hanh, You Are Here
I’ve said it often, and I’ll say it again – mostly because I haven’t internalized this message.
Happiness is not a worthwhile goal. We should not try to be happy.
When we achieve our goals, life will not be sunshine and rainbows.
If we cannot find happiness now, we will not find happiness when we reach our dreams. It is a fallacious fantasy.
Happiness starts today and ends today.
10%. Happiness researchers seem to agree that 10% of our well-being can be accounted for by our circumstances. That’s it. That new car? That best-selling book? That new job? The promotion? Unless we dig yourself out of abject poverty, these achievements will only negligibly alter our baseline well-being.
40% is genetic – not much we can do about that (though emerging research shows that focusing on a healthy diet and lifestyle can lock and unlock different genes.) Biology is only destiny if our lifestyle choices are also destiny.
But 40% of our happiness stems from our daily habits, mindsets, and outlook on life. We can shift 40% on our well-being upward or downward based on what we choose to focus on and highlight in our minds.
On Friday afternoons, sometimes I feel stress piquing inside as I anticipate my three consecutive classes. I don’t often teach three classes consecutively, but it can be taxing no matter what outlook I take.
“Ugh. Three straight classes. I’m so tired. This is gonna suck.”
How happy will I feel at the moment? I would be shocked if I felt anything north of despondent.
“Okay. Three classes. The weekend is so close. I can taste it. Let’s finish strong and make these the best damn three classes this week!”
Does this attitude shift guarantee that my classes will go well? No. Does it guarantee that I will be happy? No. Does it give me a fighting chance? Absolutely.
Some things I never learn. On Sunday evenings or moments before an unbroken streak of classes, I feel a kind of low-grade dread. I feel stressed and nervous about difficult students, unengaging lessons, and Ian Teacher pulling his hair out. But those teaching doomsdays never come to pass. Never. Sure, my classes are never perfect. Sometimes students are unfocused and disengaged. They’re not angels.
But it is never as bad as I think it will be. They’re not devils either. They’re just teenagers.
Part of this satisfaction arises when the flow state that emerges during teaching. When I am engaged in a lesson, I don’t have time to watch the clock. I don’t have time to worry about how the lesson is going. I have 20-30 students in front of me who depend on me to manage the class, deliver key concepts, and conduct engaging activities. That takes a lot of focus. I am absorbed. Sure, I monitor time so make sure we finish our activities. But I never actively, futilely implore the clock to accelerate.
“Today we will continue working on the future tense.”
“Group 3, please read the sentence.”
Min-ho stops chatting with his friend and looks up.
“Ji-yong, wake up please.”
“Ability spelling? It’s A-B-I-L-I-T-Y.”
“For. Not to. ‘I buy a car for my friend’ or ‘I give a car to my friend.'”
“Very creative idea. High-five!”
“Okay, presentation time! Let’s all listen and focus!”
“Wow! Excellent picture. I love how you changed the spelling of 7-Eleven to Seven-11. Very creative.”
50 minutes fly by when I’m leading a class. I have no time to think about how I feel. And something crazy happens when I don’t have time to introspect.
I feel happy.
In these moments I feel Hanh’s wisdom. Happiness is not something we can plan for. It’s not something we can manifest in our mind by thinking about it (though some forms of deep meditation are known to elicit spontaneous joy). In my experience, happiness arrives when I fully engage in what I am doing.
When we read a book, then we should read a book. When we do the dishes, then we should do the dishes. When we teach a class, then we should teach a class. The satisfaction arises naturally from the absorption. Engagement gives us purpose, and purpose can make us profoundly happy.
I honestly wonder if this is a major source of the depression pandemic that is sweeping the Western world. When we don’t have time to think about being depressed (due to absorption in some kind of activity), then we tend to feel just a bit happier. While medication and therapy can also be useful tools, especially people struggling with more severe forms of depression, finding an activity to sustain engagement can also serve as self-therapy.
When we expend our energy on the external world, we gain internal gratification.