Monday, February 17, 2014

The Pursuit of Happiness

"In the Moment"

"Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness"- according to the United States' Declaration of Independence, these are the three basic "unalienable rights" of every human being. 

This morning, I've been thinking abut these three "rights," and it seems to me that of all three, the one that is most abused and most misunderstood is the "right" of all human beings to pursue happiness.

After all, how do people (especially in this culture) go about finding happiness in life? And what does it really mean to be happy?

Lots of people think that happiness is achieved by amassing as many "creature comforts" as possible - a bank account full of cash, a closet full of designer clothes, a house full of fine furniture and a sports car in the garage will surely bring happiness. Some might say that this is the "American Dream."

And how do people go about "pursing happiness?" They work hard for it. This is also the "American Way" - if you work "endlessly hard," you will be able to achieve whatever you want in life, you can find happiness. 

I have nothing against "creature comforts," but I certainly don't think they bring us "happiness." I know plenty of very miserable people who live in mansions filled with stuff. 

I also know for certain that spending all your time and energy and "working really hard" to build up your "empire" in life will not bring you happiness at all. 

Yesterday I was sitting in a local coffee shop that I regularly frequent. The place was packed (lots of tourists in the desert at this time of year) - a folk singer was playing his guitar and providing some very mellow entertainment. But somehow the atmosphere in that room was not all that calm for me.

As I looked around, I noticed that many people were almost frantically pecking away at a smart phone or an iPad or a laptop- writing and answering emails, looking at work reports and writing memos, surfing the web.  I thought to myself I wonder if these folks are in "pursuit of happiness." 

I had this urge to stand up on a table and make a speech: "Hey folks, it's Sunday morning here. Most of you are on vacation, enjoy the people around you.  Listen to the music.  This desert is one of the most beautiful places on earth. The sun is shining, a gentle breeze is blowing and it's 78 degrees. So,  put away the laptops and enjoy the moment" (I didn't actually make this speech, but I wanted to). 

When I got home I turned on the local NPR station to listen to the "TED Talks Radio Hour," and I started grinning from ear to ear because the entire hour was devoted to "Finding Happiness." 

One particular talk seemed exceptionally relevant to me, especially in light of having just come back from the rather frenetic experience at the coffee shop. 

A Harvard scientist was reporting on his extensive research  into what makes people happy and what makes them unhappy. In essence he concluded that people are most "happy" when they focus their minds in the present.  People are happiest when they do one thing at a time and focus their full attention on being "in the moment."

When people let their minds wander, thinking about the past or expending their energy in plotting and strategizing and preparing for the future, or when they spend their time multi-tasking, they are the least happy. 

As I  listened to that TED talk yesterday, I couldn't help but think about that coffee house full of people on vacation anxiously pecking away at electronic devices oblivious of the people around them, ignoring the mellow sounds of a guitar and a soft desert breeze.

Every morning, I "practice" a discipline of mindfulness in my meditation garden - focusing my mind to be totally available to each unfolding moment.  I like the word "practice" because my morning "practice" of mindfulness in my desert garden is good "practice" for living my everyday life during the rest of the day. 

Every morning, as I sit silent in the moment, aware and attuned to whatever comes my way, I am in  "pursuit of happiness." 

In fact, as I think about it, my morning time of mindful awareness is probably the time of day when I really am most "happy." 

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