One of my patients recently shared a bit of wisdom that I wanted to share as the entire story taught me a lot about what makes for a good life. He had been feeling much better recently and cited taking more risks to do things he had been putting off, doing more of what he truly enjoys. He also shared that he has been trying to make a conscious effort to be more mindful about what he actively thinks and pays attention to – for instance looking for opportunities to express gratitude for the simple things like a sunny day, or saying something kind to his wife or children even if they are not expecting it. He said that he was inspired by something his daughter had passed on to him that seemed simple but looked at deeply was a profound idea – that happiness is fleeting. While his daughter had told him something that to most people sounds like a depressing thought – as it would to me most of the time – what he realized about this was quite positive indeed, and its truth is one I support because Neuroscience bears it out as well, in terms of understanding how the mind and body actually work.
The mind experiences life in moment to moment bits of information – as experience literally happens. What aspect of the experience we focus on and how we evaluate it determines what emotional reactions we will have, including happiness – a physiological event that brings a pleasing feeling to us (warmth, relaxation, etc.) as a signal to us and those around us (see me smile = I am pleased) that something pleasing and to our liking is happening. These physiological processes are inherently fleeting, yes, like clicking “send” on an email, once it is gone the moment is over! So while it is wholly critical that we stay aware of what dangerous or troublesome things are arising in any given moment for safety and security, it is also fundamental for well being to make an effort and recognize that in every moment there are also good things to bring into our awareness and gain the nourishment that it provides. Our minds are always on alert to sense danger and shoot adrenaline into our bodies to enable us to act, and thank goodness they do! But our minds are not inherently geared towards seeing the positives that are in abundance in the moments in between, and being happy requires building habits of mind that pay attention, take note, and recognize all that is good around us.
For instance on first hearing that happiness is fleeting one can feel a depressing reaction, yes, but if we take this as just one aspect of our reality into our awareness - of just what is – then it can be a call to act in every moment to seek happiness, to replenish the energy and peacefulness happiness brings us. So recognizing this reality, that happiness is fleeting, can be the source of our freedom. Life inherently has painful moments, and for some life can bring terrible tragedy and hardship, leading us to naturally grapple with the painful “why?” that follows, which truly has no answer we can derive with certainty. But in every moment in between life offers us some goodness to nourish our souls and keep us hardy and brave to take those challenges on as best as we can.
Happiness is fleeting, yes. Recognizing that this is just reality and can’t be fought or changed, it just is, allows it to sink deep into our awareness and moment to moment consciousness. If we allow that to happen then in every moment that we do have free to be mindful we can take it upon ourselves to be vigilant, to be responsible (“response-able”) in regard to what we decide to place our attention on.
The other piece of this story that I found meaningful was the fact that it was my patient’s daughter that told him this. Why? If there is any message I have been sending so far in this piece it’s that our happiness is our “response-ability”, and our encouraging by action and habits to instill awareness of this reality is encouraging self-reliance. But in my view the most fundamental aspect of being self-reliant is recognizing that we cannot go it alone in this world no matter how much modern life affords us the delusion that we can. That we all at some point need to rely on others for such things as encouragement, reassurance, guidance, and on those harder days for actual support, just is…and it is critical if we are going to build our own resources day to day to be truly self reliant.