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Searching for the unicorn: where to look for happiness

13/04/2015 15:53 BST | Updated 13/06/2015 10:59 BST

Old acquaintances share a walk together along a lake in the countryside. The day is perfect- crisp blue sky, waves that ripple so gently they appear to skim across the placid lake. A gentle breeze nudges both men along under a bright yellow sun. They continue walking, their two dogs ambling behind or in front, sniffing, investigating spent clam shells littered along the shoreline. Both dogs dip their paws into the shallow water near the edge of the lake and decide in canine unison to wander along dry land rather than dive in. In such an idyllic environment on a picture perfect postcard day, the subject of happiness comes up. And one acquaintance looks at the other and declares that he has never known what happiness is. Ever. Bad luck and financial hardship have blighted his entire life and seem to be his only companions.

Not that far away from the bucolic lake and in the village where I currently live, there is a lady of a certain age whose deceased husband was once prominent on the world stage. This lady is always impeccably dressed replete with pearls and fingers laden with priceless gems. The hair is coiffed par excellence and one can tell, of course, that Madame has lived a comfortable life. Her house is the finest in the village and through the windows one can spy possessions of exquisite quality - antiques, oil paintings, etc. and yet when one meets the lady in question, not a pleasant word ever passes her lips. Her latest vendetta is against the pigeons that must be eliminated at all costs. She brandishes a petition at me- will I sign it? No indeed! I remind her that the pigeons were here before us and shall outlive us all as well. "But they carry diseases!" she exclaims. "Oh, well, I will die then," I reply.

What therefore is the elusive happiness? How many books have been written on finding that particular unicorn? Thousands? Perhaps millions. We all know someone who possesses an entire library filled with self-help books. You know the type- the one who calls constantly usually late at night to offload their latest drama and who is the first to whip out a paperback from nowhere and suggest we read it because it really 'helped them sort out their s...t." and yet when we do cast an eye at the said 'bible' it makes absolutely no sense to us at all. And that, ironically, is probably what happiness is.

Human beings are all on different journeys- visualise this: a school of fish all swim together in the same direction. Now imagine that same image but with the fish choosing to head off individually in random directions and without following each other. That is exactly where each of us is on our life's journey and no two people will ever evolve mentally or spiritually in an identical way. The idea for example that one religion could possibly answer all of life's dilemmas is precisely why many have abandoned their faith. There is no book that has all the answers (if there were one, the writer would be very rich indeed). Finding happiness is not an impossible or elusive a goal in one lifetime but the solution is surprisingly simple (and perhaps disappointingly so). It requires responsibility on the part of the individual to accept themselves with all their flaws. It also requires that the individual seeks to know themselves above all else. Whilst this may sound easy, it is anything but. Human beings are social creatures and without an inbuilt need to be surrounded by other people, we would not have evolved into thinking beings. Our interaction with each other is what has essentially civilised us. This also brings about a neediness to be accepted, loved and even admired. In our money-oriented society we tend to compare ourselves to others from a materialistic perspective only. We are driven to managing appearances, and on a more subtle level, measuring ourselves against the success of others hence the term 'keeping up with the Jones'. In our pursuit to follow others, the self becomes pure ego effacing the spiritual core. Put another way, someone who is being constantly being put down ends up losing their confidence completely. Similarly that is what happens to the part of ourselves which wants to flourish but we keep suppressing- if we don't exercise the most private innermost self it will become lost forever to the more voracious ego. I should clarify here that I use the word 'spiritual' as not necessarily being connected to God or a faith but as the closest we can be to discovering who we truly are and finding innermost peace.

How therefore can the process of finding happiness be termed as 'simple'? Once we get over the first step of taking responsibility for our lives on our terms - which is the hardest part of self-discovery and which takes real courage- the rest is easy. Ironically, we all function better when we are calmer and less encumbered by the stuff that truly does not matter. The riddle locked in the enigma is separating the metaphorical chaff from the wheat, which can't be taught because remember, we're all on different journeys. Our search for fulfillment, contentment and yes, happiness is the one thing we can truly control and which belongs only to us.

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Photo copyright S. van Dalen