Do you believe in fairy tales? I used to. Especially the bit about happy endings. That part had me hook, line and sinker.
I spent many years locked into a determined pursuit of Happy Ever After. The irony was, most of the time it just made me focus more on what I wasn't happy about at that moment. The more I daydreamed about a perfect future, the more my current life didn't measure up. Research has even suggested a possible link between excessive striving for happiness and depression. Based on my own experience , I can understand that (I suffered depression in my 20s, at the height of this crusade for Happy with a shiny capital H). Struggling to shoehorn myself into quite a narrow definition of happiness only seemed to bring me pain.
Am I saying I don't believe in happiness? No. I'm saying that mindfulness practice has helped me to discover a different definition of contentment, one which isn't so limited. Here are three ways we can use mindfulness to help us re-frame happiness, and find a little more of it right now.
1. Happiness Can Be Ordinary
I used to want a particular kind of happiness, the sort that was all bright and shiny. In this fantasy version of myself, I was super-confident and always smiling. Feeling good depended on getting the next hit of achievement - the next special event, whether getting a promotion or getting married. But these big dramatic peaks don't happen every day. So I was left feeling a bit glum in between, once I came crashing back down to earth after a high.
True contentment, I've discovered, can be found in the small moments of life that feel good. Mindfulness helps us to appreciate the specialness of the ordinary, so that we can find many moments of happiness in our day. It might be a beautiful flower you spot on the way to work, or the joy of sharing an unexpected joke with a friend. These little things don't come with the fanfare of the big, special events, and they often go unnoticed. But that doesn't mean they don't have the power to transform a seemingly dull day into an awe-some one.
2. Happiness Can Be Now
Ever notice you've got caught in the 'I'll be happy when...' trap? It's one I've learned to spot for myself. It might be 'I'll be happy when... I'm feeling more rested / I've got a manageable To Do list / I've reached a particular work goal'. You get the idea. There are a couple of drawbacks to this. Firstly, it means we're always delaying happiness until some time in the future. Also, we don't always get what we want in life - so what then? If happiness depends on getting what we want, our opportunities to experience it may become limited. Alternatively, we can choose to find contentment here, in this moment, regardless of whether everything is the way we want it.
I've become very curious about a common phrase I hear alot. When someone asks 'how's things?', people often say 'we're getting there, thanks'. I'm wondering where 'there' is exactly. Because, really, the finish line is death. The ending that we're seeking will come eventually, when there's no more living to do. When we put off happiness until we get 'there', we're missing our real lives.
I had a cancer scare a few months back. Unusually for me, I didn't postpone happiness until I'd got the all-clear. I became exquisitely aware that all we ever have is this moment, right now. And I was able to appreciate and enjoy my life during those weeks without feeling like the tests were looming over me. To be able to feel content during that time was one of the clearest lessons in mindfulness that life has taught me so far.
Ever since then, I continue to follow values-based intentions in my life - which does mean moving towards things I care about. But I'm also able to stay more grounded in this moment right now. I actually find that helps me make positive changes with more ease.
3. Happiness Embraces Change
Another pitfall that I know well is trying to find happiness by re-creating something I've experienced in the past. When we do 'get there' with something we've wanted, it feels good. And there's nothing wrong with that - it meets our basic and healthy need for satisfaction. But we can mistakenly believe that when we get happy, it's possible to somehow freeze-frame our life and hang onto those exact circumstances and feelings.
There's another lesson that life's trying to teach us, which is that everything changes. All the time. We're part of the ongoing, ever-changing flow of life, whether we like it or not. Circumstances and other people are always changing. The natural world around us is always changing. Even our feelings aren't permanent, which can be a relief to remember when they are painful.
Change can feel very challenging. We often don't like the uncertainty and unfamiliarity it brings. Or we mourn the special times that we feel we've left behind. While it's important to make room for all our feelings - including sadness - we don't have to compound our suffering by clinging onto an ideal that isn't how things really are. When we live mindfully, every moment is a new beginning. The beauty of change is that we have no idea what's round the corner. Who knows what pleasant surprises may await us, if we can open to each new moment?
So what does it feel like to put all these together? Well for me, when I stop chasing a Happy Ending, it seems possible to live each moment as a Happy Beginning. There's less pressure for my life (or me) to live up to anything in particular. There's more freedom to enjoy the good stuff that comes my way. And there's a sense of mystery that I'm starting to find more appealing than the predictability I once hankered for. So I'll take a Happy Beginning any day.