the pursuit of happiness and Mr. Murphy’s challenges

On Feb 1, I thought I was happy. My to-do list was organized into projects, each project clearly defined with priority and where it fit into my ‘lifeview’ and all that cool and neat stuff was charted and spelled out, and by evening, I was content, happy, and very clear about what would keep me happy. Then, just as I was about to turn in for the night, came the phone call.

It was from the family of the attendant who helps me look after my mother; there was an emergency at her village, and she was required at home, pronto.

I sat there, gaping as the attendant packed her bags, and then I looked at my to-do list.

And as the attendant folded her clothes, I realized in a flash that five minutes ago I had not understood myself at all:  I didn’t need to complete any of my to-do list to be happy. All I needed was that the attendant was back, happy and cheerful and willing to help me care for my mother again.

It took one phone call in the Murphy’s law (see Wikipedia explanation) style to change my elaborate system of happiness into a simple one 🙂 I guess that is one great way of seeing what the priorities really are–jerk away the stuff we (almost) take for granted.

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are supposed to be unalienable rights for Americans as per their constitution. A Wikipedia article gives an interpretation of this made for judicial purposes as: right to pursue any lawful business or vocation, in any manner not inconsistent with the equal rights of others, which may increase their prosperity or develop their faculties, so as to give to them their highest enjoyment . Sounds pretty actionable and achievable through rational steps, eh?

On the other hand, The Art of Happiness: A Handbook of Living (HH Dalai Lama & Howard C Cutler), in a chapter on the path to happiness, states that, once the basic needs are met (food, clothing, and shelter): we don’t need more money, we don’t need greater success of fame, we don’t need the perfect body, or even the perfect mate–right now, at this very moment, we have a mind, which is the basic equipment we need to achieve complete happiness.

Which goes beyond saying happiness is a state of the mind, because it states we can use our mind to create happiness.

On Feb 1, looking at how drastically my requirements for happiness changed in a few seconds, I found myself mulling about this messy business of happiness.

What I think now is that happiness is deeply intertwined with the concept of self. Till the call came, I saw myself as a wholesome rounding of multiple persona threads, all in an interesting, acceptable balance. And then, with that phone call, and with hubby busy with assignments, I was just one thing: a caregiver, 24/7. Ouch!

The fact is, I did not change in that one instant. It was my thinking that changed, my sense of identity. Caregiving is onerous, but I could, if I maintained my senses, still weave in other stuff. Yet the whole thing seemed like an implosion…

I began my own ‘packing’ and re-examined my list. Out went all the activities that could have involved any work outside the home, like healthy morning walks or relaxed afternoons at a nearby cafe to brainstorm ideas or read books. Out went everything that needed a focused slot of work. What I could do was barely a third of what I had been thinking of. I told myself that even a third is better than nothing, and definitely better than zero. It wasn’t that bad. But my spirit of abundance had fizzled out, and that took ages to come back.

Dalai Lama has it right–the equipment to be happy is the mind.

His book describes how to become happy, and frankly, it is rather frightening. The mind can be disciplined to understand what makes it happy and what doesn’t (with a short-term and a long-term perspective). A person, educated and sensitive to the nature of happiness and unhappiness, can start making choices that lead to happiness. Some qualities help acquire this state more easily (like compassion), and they can be cultivated.

In other words, being happy is not a spontaneous thing that just happens, it has to be cultivated. Dalai Lama, who is genuinely happy and easily reverts to that mode after setbacks, has been training his mind since the age of four.

Being happy is hard work.

I, er, have not quite started…

The problem is, we grow up thinking, being told, and believing that happiness comes from what we get. Acquire this object, get this recognition, stuff like that. We create symbols of happiness that sometimes lose track of the happiness objective (so you have workaholics) but most of us then progress to taking some responsibility for our happiness. We must acquire things that make us happy, or manipulate people and environments to give us what makes us happy.

And then, by doing something, or by being the recipient of something, I’ll be happy…finally.

Well, it is a bit Sisyphian, that happiness.

Happiness also comes from memories of moments of flow. But that is always tinged with a fear/ sadness that the flow moment may not be repeatable.

The new-age(?) thinking of happiness as a state of mind has not helped me much, either.  Happiness is living in the present moment (we do that anyway, right?) and not brooding over the past or dreading the future. Sure, but how? I can manage it sometimes, but it is far from reliable. The state is fragile, and easily jolted out of.

So, is mind discipline the answer? Why slog, why can’t I just be happy?

But then, happiness is important to me. What else could be more important? Happiness (the sustained, long lasting, soft and warm one) is the objective even for activities related to altruism and peace and compassion. And if I want to be happy, I need to work at it.

This is not work as in solving a puzzle or writing a good article or story or gasping with a series of insights. This is the work required to cultivate the ability to remain happy. This means, always recognizing the impact of my choices, and always making choices that make me truly happy in a sustained way.

This mind discipline method fits into the new age model, because I can ‘just be happy’ once my mind is disciplined enough. Maybe the instinct to be happy is like the instinct of riding a bike–it is natural once you have learned it.

Now, that’s a project worth a huge to-do list by itself….

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About Swapna Kishore
I'm a writer, blogger, and resource person for dementia/ caregiving in India, and deeply concerned about dementia care in India. On this blog I share my own caregiving journey, my experiences as a resource person for dementia care, and musings on life, aging, dementia in India, and such sundries. More about me and the work I do for dementia care in this set of pages:

2 Responses to the pursuit of happiness and Mr. Murphy’s challenges

  1. austere says:

    This may be off topic.
    Eric Maisel’s creativity newsletter mail this week made a lot of sense.
    A lot is about reframing, no?

  2. Jenue says:

    Your search for happiness might actually be a search for something deeper.

    Happiness is a collection of laughter, peace of mind, security, confidence, self esteem, health, and love. It is the end result of a complicated equation of the human psyche.

    Have pride that you are a good caregiver and make peace with that fact. You’re allowed to ask for help when you need it. That’s not a weakness, it’s a strength.

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