For the third time in three years I am sending out my Provision on “How To Be Happy.” It is, after all, a perennial pursuit. But each time, I add a little more to the mix. The first time I sent it out was in July of 2005, as the conclusion to my series on the twelve embraces that make for a wonderful life. I sent it out again one year ago, in advance of Halloween, to turn our thoughts from ghostly and ghastly things to the things that make for goodness and peace. Now, in the midst of my series on benevolence, I want to add a few words and send it out again. I think you will find it to be as relevant now as when it first came out. Enjoy!
First, I want to thank everyone who sent me birthday greetings on Friday. It was a pleasant surprise. I had a great day with family and friend. I’ll let you decide whether I’m 35 or 53 (hint: my daughter is a medical doctor doing her residency in Los Angeles).
Second, I want to resurrect my Provision on how to be happy. Given our long trek through the factors that make for Optimal Wellness, the answer to that question may seem obvious: eat right, exercise regularly, rest well, manage stress, and care about something other than yourself. The more you pour out your heart for worthy causes, the more meaning and significance you will find in life and work. I call that benevolence: the desire to do good and to make life more wonderful for one and all.
The problem is that it’s far easier to talk and write about those things than to actually do them. I’m as guilty as the next person when it comes to letting things slide in the interest of one more email or one more project. Unfortunately, the tendency to be productive has a way of catching up with us. Especially in this 24-7 world of hurry-hurry, do-it-now. So perhaps it’s time to revisit this Provision, only now in the context of benevolence.
If we want to be happy, if we want to do good and to make life more wonderful for one and all, then we would do well to make the following twelve shifts on the trek of life:
1. Avoid Control / Embrace Freedom. As human beings we have a natural desire to control things. And over the millennia we have developed a wide variety of control systems, including magic, religion, politics, and science. But sometimes, in spite of our best efforts, those systems fail to work. Sometimes, the panacea fails to cure, the security fails to protect, and the foam insulation still flies off the fuel tank. To think we can control the course of life is magical thinking that we best give up if we hope to promote spiritual wellness.
Better to embrace freedom instead. Freedom from attachment to particular outcomes, from addiction to particular practices, and from adherence to particular illusions. We must intentionally give these up if we hope to be spiritually well. And to stay well it takes more than just intention. It takes the assistance of other people and of the Great One to complete the past and to move forward in freedom. For all its uncertainty, the way of freedom is a better way to be.
2. Avoid Cynicism / Embrace Possibility. Once we give up on our ability to control particular outcomes, it’s easy for the pendulum to swing all the way over to cynicism. “Why bother!” we exclaim. “If there are no systems that are guaranteed to work, then why strive for anything at all? Better to just live for the moment, since tomorrow we may die.”
Although living in the moment is an important part of mindfulness, to stop striving for anything is to ignore the possibility that human beings do have a natural ability to influence things. Just because nothing works all of the time does not mean that nothing works any of the time. In fact, the possibilities are limitless. Spiritual wellness brings this awareness to the forefront. We approach life not with guarantees as to what the future holds but with confidence as to what holds the future.
3. Avoid Manipulation / Embrace Mindfulness. Unfortunately, this confidence can incline us to manipulation. We may not be able to control the future, but perhaps we can beg or barter our way to the top. “Do me this one favor,” we promise the Great One, “and I’ll be good.” But the Great One cuts no deals. Not even “the power of positive thinking” can make everything turn out all right. As it turns out, positive thinking is not very powerful at all.
But that doesn’t mean we should stop thinking or paying attention to life. Indeed, paying attention is a powerful spiritual practice. Instead of trying to control life with the power of mind over matter, we seek to notice life with the attention of mind to matter. Instead of whining about life because it doesn’t conform to our expectations, we engage with life as it proceeds in the here and now. The more mindful we become in the present moment, the more opportunities we will discover to move forward in the direction of our dreams.
4. Avoid Pessimism / Embrace Responsibility. While the cynic questions whether anything will ever work out, the pessimist knows that nothing will ever work out. In some cases, that’s because pessimists blame the world. In other cases, that’s because they blame themselves. Either way, they suffer from what M. Scott Peck calls “disorders of responsibility,” taking on either too little or too much responsibility to be spiritually well.
Better to embrace the ability to respond, regardless of what comes our way. In good times and bad, we can be responsible. But don’t confuse this with being accountable. Accountability is about answering for something, as in taking the credit or the blame. Responsibility is about engaging with something, as in giving our best selves to every situation. In both challenging and comfortable times, we can take responsibility for life.
5. Avoid Distraction / Embrace Silence. There are many things that can distract us from examining our lives. Some of us live at a frenetic pace, allowing precious little time for reflection and planning. Others are numbed by chemical and social mendicants, such as alcohol or television. Still others have never learned to appreciate the value of critical thinking. Whatever may be your distraction, Socrates was right when he observed that “an unexamined life is not worth living.”
That’s because we have to go deep if we want to give our lives a sense of meaning and purpose. These things do not emerge without some measure of wrestling and contemplation. So finding moments of silence, both short and long, becomes an important spiritual discipline. There we can learn to release our fears and to approach others with gratitude. There, in the absence of noise, we can learn the truth about ourselves and about our place in the family of things.
6. Avoid Exclusivity / Embrace Diversity. It’s easy to get seduced by the word “exclusive.” It sounds so attractive, favorable, and special. From exclusive offers to exclusive communities, we find ourselves drawn to privileges and perks. But this is not the road to life. Exclusivity does more harm than good. It sets people up, one against the other, in competitive us-versus-them relationships. It tears at the fabric of human community and undermines our ability to be spiritually well.
Better to embrace diversity as though the whole human family were of one body, mind, and spirit. “We have learned to fly the air like birds and swim the sea like fish,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once noted in a sermon, “but we have not learned the simple art of living together as brothers and sisters. Our abundance has brought us neither peace of mind nor serenity of spirit.” That comes only when we learn to embrace the rich multidimensionality of the human community as not just a fact of life but as a positive value to be celebrated and encouraged.
7. Avoid Anxiety / Embrace Mystery. We live in an age of anxiety. Troubles and terrors, both of natural and human origin, are real. But that does not mean we can afford to live from that anxiety. Not only is anxiety unproductive, it undermines creativity, obscures possibility, and negates temerity. It brings us up short in the game of life.
Which is especially unfortunate given the mysterious way things have of working out. What may, at first, seem to be a catastrophe often appears, in hindsight, to be a blessing. Indeed, the very nature of our quantum universe argues against anxiety, which is itself a remnant of the Newtonian principles of cause and effect. If that’s the only way things happen, then we have reason for anxiety. But if the universe can jump natural barriers, respond to subtle energies, and generate synchronicities then we can embrace mystery as our way of being in the world.
8. Avoid Aimlessness / Embrace Hope. It’s hard to say what represents the most frequent reason people come to coaching. Many, of course, want assistance to make their dreams come true. Many others, however, want assistance to remember their dreams. Life has become an aimless routine of getting up and going through the motions. There is little to no engagement with a personal or professional sense of cause. As a result, life has become empty, flat, and devoid of meaning.
Enter the mystery of hope. Working with a coach is itself an act of hope. The notion that we can together discern the themes and dreams of a person’s life implies that we believe they are there, even when they are buried. Learning to manifest those themes and dreams is yet another act of hope. It is to come from the place that believes we can make a difference in the world, even if we sing as but one solitary voice. Even when the odds are stacked against success, hope enables us to make a strong and vital witness to the things we hold dear.
9. Avoid Superiority / Embrace Humility. Just as confidence in what holds the future can incline us to manipulation, so can hope incline us to a superiority complex. We can become so certain of our witness that we can bowl people over along the way. We start showing off, taking credit, and demanding privileges for all that we do, say, have, and are. But this is not the way of true mastery and it sows the seeds of our own demise.
Remembering that there are no guarantees in life, that we exercise influence rather than control, it is both more appropriate and more effective to become a humble witness to the things we hold dear rather than a haughty one. No one enjoys people with an attitude! But humble people, who know the ground from which they come and the shoulders on which they stand, attract the energy that makes their hopes and dreams come true. They don’t boast of what they know; in fact, they hardly notice what they know as they seek to give themselves away in service to others.
10. Avoid Inferiority / Embrace Beauty. But humility is not to be confused with inferiority. Humble people do not think poorly of themselves, they just don’t think of themselves. And they certainly don’t think poorly of others. Inferiority breeds failure since it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you think, feel, speak, act, and pray as though you don’t have what it takes to make things work, then things won’t work. If all you can see is impossibility, then nothing is possible. If you deny your access to intuition and instinctive intelligence, then you won’t notice the things that make for success.
Embracing beauty is an antidote for inferiority. No matter how poorly you think of yourself or the world in which we live, noticing beauty will lift your spirits and move the human community in the direction we need to go. Sometimes beauty is easy to see, especially when we are surrounded by nature, art, culture, and love. Other times we have to look hard, such as when we suffer the indignities and shattering blows of life. Either way, beauty is always there for the noticing and doing so makes all the difference in the world.
11. Avoid Scarcity / Embrace Justice. In a world that’s drowning in a sea of abundance, where self-storage has become a bigger industry than the motion-picture industry, it’s hard to believe that people still suffer from a scarcity mentality. But this mentality • that there just isn’t enough to go around • lies behind the practices and policies of many institutions, movements, and people in the world today. Time, money, energy, and love are all viewed as limited commodities that need to be traded and protected carefully.
So instead of pursuing justice for all, we end up pursuing justice for some. We can’t even see the perspective of oppressed peoples, global ecology, and world peace since these things threaten to undermine our standard of living and our sense of security in the world. But what if our standards are the very things that contribute to our insecurity? Spiritual leaders the world over, from every tradition, have long made this connection. Apart from justice, there is no chance for wellness of any sort to flourish and prosper.
12. Avoid Selfishness / Embrace Love. Selfishness is the personal manifestation of scarcity thinking. Lest we fail to have, do, or be enough, we hoard everything that comes our way. “More, more, more” and “mine, mine, mine” become our mantras. We can even come to justify this in terms of extreme self-care. Unless we take good care of ourselves, we reason, we can’t take good care of others. So we live selfishly with the hope that it will somehow benefit one and all.
Fortunately or unfortunately, that’s not the way the world works. Self-care is not a product of selfish living but a byproduct of pursuing generosity, justice, peace, and love. These are the things that make for spiritual wellness and all other forms of wellness. The more we extend ourselves for others, not because of who they are and what they can do for us but because of who we are and what we can do for them, the more joy we will find in life and love.
These, then, are the twelve shifts that make for happiness: from control to freedom, from cynicism to possibility, from manipulation to mindfulness, from pessimism to responsibility, from distraction to silence, from exclusivity to diversity, from anxiety to mystery, from aimlessness to hope, from superiority to humility, from inferiority to beauty, from scarcity to justice, and from selfishness to love. These are the things that make life worth living. The more we incorporate them into our daily living the more we will contribute and the closer we will be to the Great Spirit of life.
Coaching Inquiries: Which of these shifts do you practice most regularly? Which ones do you practice only occasionally? Which ones would you like to practice more? How could you make all of them more a part of your life?
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LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)
Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Form or Email Bob.
I recently read about the “Four Levels of Happiness.” They sure fit with this Provision.
Level 1: Immediate Gratification.
We all know about this one. “You’re worth it! Get it now! Why wait, you deserve it.” The benefit to Level 1 happiness is that it usually works … for a while. When the good feelings wear off, though, we can often find ourselves emptier than before. If we’re honest, we usually “live” at Level 1 when we are trying to feel better about ourselves or to avoid or subdue our fears. It’s a pretty shallow happiness.
Level 2: Gratification Through Achievement.
This one is less self-centered than Level 1. We are using our talents to achieve goals, to accomplish something good. There will be some short-term gain and we can experience a sense of success. If we remain here, though, we can become fearful of failure, isolated, jealous, and cynical. Happiness becomes something to be worked at endlessly. After years of this, the burden can become overwhelming.
Level 3: Gratification Through Contribution.
In this level we take our eyes off ourselves and begin serving others, helping to meet their needs. The benefits of this kind of living can far outweigh more self-centered tendencies. We begin to see ourselves as part of a community, able to make a real difference in the lives of others. Our own happiness increases as we stop grasping for it. And finally …
Level 4: Transcendent Gratification.
We are now living for a purpose that is larger than us, something truly worthy of a life, worthy of our life. We seek the happiness and joy of others by giving our energy to justice, peace, beauty, love. We are living for something that will outlast us, something that will contribute to many, many lives, not simply our own.
We call it “transcendent” because it gets us in touch with that which is beyond us. Those who are happiest become the kind of people that naturally use their signature strengths, in a virtuous fashion to make a contribution. I commonly see people who gain power, control and money in their business lives thinking this will make them happy. Most of them will tell you it’s an illusion. Those who don’t, haven’t thought about it.
The poem by Oriah Mountain Dreamer, The Invitation, moved me. I will copy it and keep it close by.
May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.
Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC
President, LifeTrek Coaching International, www.LifeTrekCoaching.com
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School Transformation, www.SchoolTransformation.com
Immediate Past President, International Association of Coaching, www.CertifiedCoach.org
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a Time, Online Retailers
Address: 121 Will Scarlet Lane, Williamsburg, VA 23185-5043
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