Read an Excerpt
People say they want to be happy; yet real happiness seems like the impossible dream. Everyone reaches for it so desperately, but for many of us it never seems to come any closer. What are we doing wrong? Why are so many people dissatisfied in so many ways? Is it the times we live in? Do we expect too much? Do we want the wrong things?
Well, it’s not as bad as all that. There are plenty of people who are having a wonderful time with their lives; they are living to the hilt and love every minute of it. But they don’t talk about it much; they are busy doing it. They don’t usually write articles or go to analysts. Yet it’s true; not enough people have that sense of zest in their daily lives. Too many people have just not mastered the art of being happy.
You call it an art. Do you think it is something that can be learned, like dancing or making pottery? But I should think you’re either happy or you’re not. You can’t decide to be happy. You can do a lot of things, but I don’t see how you can make happiness. You can go after the things you hope will make you happy, but you really don’t know until after you get them whether they will.
In a sense that’s true. But the way you put it is part of the problem that many people have in their pursuit of happiness. They think there is something that will make them happy if they can just get hold of it. They expect happiness to happen to them. They don’t see it’s something they have to do. People will go to a lot of trouble to learn French or physics or scuba diving. They have the patience to learn to operate a car but they won’t be bothered learning how to operate themselves.
That’s a funny idea. You make it sound as if we should be standing at our own controls and pushing buttons. Shouldn’t the art of living be more natural than that.
Maybe it should, but for most of us it’s not. We are not born with the secret of how to live, and too many of us never learn it. There is nothing cold-blooded or mechanical about it, but there are many things we have to learn to do.
The first thing is to realize that we’ve probably been looking in the wrong place. The source is not outside us; it is within. Most of us haven’t begun to tap our own potential; we’re operating way below capacity. And we’ll continue to as long as we are looking for someone to give us the key to the kingdom. We must realize that the kingdom is in us; we already have the key. It’s as if we’re waiting for permission to start living fully. But the only person who can give us that permission is ourselves. We are accountable only to ourselves for what happens to us in our lives. We must realize that we have a choice: we are responsible for our own good time.
It still seems like a strange idea. If it is up to us, if we can push a magic switch and turn on happiness, why doesn’t everyone just do it?
There is no magic switch. But there is an attitude. To take responsibility for our lives means making a profound change in the way we approach everything. We do everything we can to avoid this change, this responsibility. We would much rather blame someone or something for making us feel unhappy than take the steps to make us feel better. We even talk about our own feelings as if they were visitors from outer space. We say, “This feeling came over me,” as if we were helpless creatures overwhelmed by mysterious forces, instead of simply saying, “I felt that way.” We speak as if our feelings change from sunny to stormy like the weather, over which we have no control. This meteorological view of our emotions is very useful; it takes us off the hook for the way we feel. We diminish ourselves, just in order to push away the chance of choice.
You know, I really find that hard to accept. I mean, feelings are mysterious; they come and go, and most of the time you don’t know why. If I am angry or upset about something, I can stop myself from breaking dishes or maybe from breaking into tears, but I can’t just stop being upset or miserable. I’m not sure I would even want to. After all, if something has happened to hurt me, then I have a right to feel that hurt.
You certainly do. You have a right to your feelings, your painful feelings just as much as your happier ones. To feel all that you can feel is to be truly human. But too often people cling to unpleasant feelings; they even court them. Without fully realizing what they are doing, they actually bring them about. They do things that make them feel bad and then they say, “I couldn’t help myself.” What most people mean when they say that is “I didn’t help myself.” But we can all help ourselves.
Can we really? That’s an exciting and lovely thought. I would like to hold on to that. How can we do it?
In so many ways. First, you have to make a very basic decision: do you want to lift yourself up or put yourself down? Are you for yourself or against yourself? That may seem like a strange question, but many people are literally their own worst enemy. If you decide you want to help yourself, you can choose to do the things that make you feel good about yourself instead of the things that make you feel terrible. Why should you do what gives you pain when it is just as easy to give yourself joy? That’s an important question to ask yourself.
People worry about pollution. But the harm we do to ourselves is a lot more dangerous than the damage we do to the environment. We don’t need television or comic strips to pollute our minds; we do a much more efficient job of it ourselves. Nobody has to be told how to put himself down; when people are looking for faults or shortcomings, they have no trouble finding them or inventing them if they don’t really exist. For many people, finding the things that help them feel good about themselves is a real challenge. It’s as if they had blinders on that shut out all the bright spots.
But there are plenty of people who see nothing but their bright spots; they think they’re quite satisfactory as they are, and if anything is wrong, it is with somebody else, not them.
Of course. But they don’t really believe it. Those who are working that hard to convince themselves—and others—how great they are, are also shutting something out. They can’t see their faults because they’re afraid they’ve got nothing else. They think their choice is between being perfect and being the worst thing that ever lived. The trouble is, it’s very hard to give up that way of looking at yourself, because it is based on refusing to look into yourself. And to change, you really must look into yourself to see what you’re doing wrong. You must be able to see the ways you’re pulling yourself down and decide that isn’t what you want to do. Then you can start doing the things that give you pride and pleasure in living.