Let me tell you one of my favorite stories of all time.
A long, long time ago, the gods decided they wanted to hide the Secret to Happiness from their human subjects.
Why? I don’t know why. Maybe, they must have thought, that if they took the Secret to Happiness and hid it somewhere humans can’t find, humans will have to continue praying to the gods and making all sorts of animal offerings and virgin sacrifices to gain their favor.
Sounds like a plausible theory to me. But anyway, it’s not my place to question the will of the gods. Let’s continue with the story.
So, the gods, in all their might and glory, held a convention at the top of the highest mountain in the world. The goal of the convention was to find a secret place where they could hide the Secret to Happiness forever.
One of the gods, a strong, handsome god who lived at the top of the mountains, volunteered to take the Secret to Happiness with him and hide it where he lived.
“Dear gods and goddesses,” he began in that booming voice of his. “Let me take the Secret to Happiness and bury it in the peaks above the clouds.”
That sounded like a pretty good idea to almost everyone at the convention, until a little dwarf-like god spoke up.
“Humans are developing their technologies at a rapid rate,” he said. “It’s only a few years before they build something that lets them go capering up the highest mountains every day.”
And so, the other gods agreed, to the consternation of the strong, handsome god of the mountaintops, that they can’t hide the Secret to Happiness in the mountains.
Another one spoke up. This time, it was a beautiful, slender goddess who had the body of a human female and the tail of a blue fish.
“Let me take the Secret to Happiness with me and I will hide it in the depths of the darkest seas,” she said.
Again, the gods were enamored with the idea so much they almost voted for the goddess of the sea to take the Secret to Happiness with her. That is, until the dwarf-like god, who probably looked and sounded a lot like Tyrion Lannister, stepped up to become the voice of wisdom.
“With all due respect,” he said, “but it’s only a matter of time before humans will start exploring the deepest oceans with their underwater vehicles.”
The gods saw the truth in this and were once again stumped. No matter where they hid the Secret to Happiness, it seemed like humans will find a way to get to it.
“Does anyone have any idea at all where to hide the Secret to Happiness?” asked the leader of the gods, a huge, old man with a long, white beard and a golden staff. “Somewhere humans will never dare to look?”
“I do,” said the little god.
“Speak,” the leader of the gods commanded.
“Well, humans will be looking high and low for the Secret to Happiness,” he said. “They will climb the highest mountains, probe the deepest oceans, even fly to surrounding planets just to see if it’s there. They will try to build empires to pass down to their sons and daughters. They will want to get their names in flashing lights. They will even go to war for it, shedding blood for the sake of finding the Secret to Happiness. But there is one thing they will never, ever do to find it.”
“And what is that?” the gods asked earnestly.
“They will never try to find the Secret to Happiness in themselves,” the little god said.
And so, it came to pass that the gods decided to hide the Secret to Happiness in ourselves.
Because the little god was right. Humans won’t dare look inside themselves for the Secret to Happiness. They’ll be too busy looking outside to sit down, be quiet, and turn inwards.
But there’s one thing the little god didn’t get right. You see, clever as he may be, the little god – and all the gods who were on the convention that day – forgot that happiness comes naturally to humans.
They may suppress it, stomp on it, wrap it up in rolls of barb wire and send it to outer space. But, one day or another, humans will find the Secret to Happiness. And it’s all because it’s natural for us to do so, just like it’s natural for us to breathe.
The Secret to Happiness is to simply just be. Be ourselves. Be happy.
There’s no need to go climb Mount Everest if that’s not your thing. There’s no need to go looking for it in the Philippine Trench. And there’s certainly no need to wage terrible wars just to find it. Because what it is is sitting right inside you, even as you’re slumped on a couch in front of the TV watching Netflix all night long or figuring out where to find the money to pay your next bill.
‘What day is it?’
‘It’s today,’ squeaked Piglet.
‘My favorite day,’ said Pooh.
Aristotle himself knew what this was all about when he said it so plainly some 2,300 years ago.
“Happiness depends upon ourselves.”
I know it can be hard to believe. How can the Secret to Happiness, something which we thought was so elusive, be living dormant inside us all along?
That’s because, throughout all the years of looking outwards and not finding what we’re looking for, we have inadvertently taught our brains to believe we have to struggle to be happy.
You know what they say.
“There is no substitute for hard work.”
“You have to sacrifice and work hard to reach your dream.”
“Nothing worth having comes easy.”
You’ve probably heard them all. And, very probably, you’ve also cringed secretly at the thought of having to live a difficult life before you can become happy. I know I have. At some point, I had to admit to myself that it just didn’t seem right to me that happiness can only come after an extra helping of unnecessary suffering.
But nobody wants to admit that. Nobody wants to talk about the huge elephant in the room that’s just dying to be talked about.
Because why would you admit that all you really want to do is to lie down for a nap in the middle of the afternoon in your office clothes, or skip work on Wednesday because you want to go pick shells at the beach, or not have to work at all and just paint pictures of people all your life if the rest of the world is going to tell you you’re being a lazy, immature, entitled brat who thinks the world should fall at your feet?
You know you’re not lazy. You know you’re not immature. And you know you’re not an entitled brat. But you know it’s time to stop beating yourself up and expecting you’re going to be happy because you’ve felt bad.
And this is why I’m proposing to you that you do this one very simple thing. You don’t have to do it. But if, like me, you’ve been bothered by this nagging feeling that keeps telling you life doesn’t have to be hard for you to be happy, you might, just might, find what you’re looking for inside yourself.
Here’s my proposal to you.
Create happiness every day.
You don’t have to wait to win the lottery or marry the man of your dreams or for your business to be successful to be happy. You simply have to wake up and decide that, no matter what happens, you’re going to be happy today because there are a thousand and one reasons to be.
If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world. – J.R.R. Tolkien
It sounds simple enough until you actually get down to doing something about it. How do you just decide to be happy? And more importantly, how do you just decide to be happy in a world that’s full of violence, hatred, and prejudice?
I wondered about the answer to that question for a good long time – perhaps one-third of my entire lifetime. And what I found out is there’s no easy answer to that. But there’s a simple one, and simple is good enough.
When I couldn’t, for the life of me, figure out what just being happy was all about, I decided to go for something I could wrap my stubborn head around. I began with a small, seemingly inconsequential practice that has had a massive impact on how I’ve come to see the world – not through rose-colored glasses but through a new understanding that how I see the world will ultimately be different from how others see it. And this helps me release my fears around not receiving validation from others so that I can go on and create my own happiness for myself.
The path may look a little bit different to you. You may find your own happiness by freeing yourself from the worries of the world. You may want to create loving relationships with others. I create my own happiness when I put myself first.
However, the little day-to-day things we start with will almost always be the same for everyone. And I promise you, if you begin doing this practice every day, you will feel something inside you shift to make room for something better in your life. I’m talking about gratitude.
If you could just be grateful for one thing every day, bit by bit, your life will improve in every way you want it to.
For a long, long time, I struggled with gratitude. Everyone, from self-help gurus who hold million-dollar seminars in Las Vegas to Buddhist monks surviving on corn and water and meditation, tell you to practice gratitude every day.
But I didn’t know how to do that. Thirty years of going around the sun living a fairly privileged life hasn’t taught me a thing about saying thank you and meaning it. Until, one day, I realized I was fed up with complaining about every single thing and I told myself, “Screw it. Just sit down and try saying thank you for once.”
In the end, though, maybe we must all give up trying to pay back the people in this world who sustain our lives. In the end, maybe it’s wiser to surrender before the miraculous scope of human generosity and to just keep saying thank you, forever and sincerely, for as long as we have voices. – Elizabeth Gilbert
So I did. I took out my favorite pen and a brand new notebook, turned to a fresh page, and started to ask myself: “What’s the easiest thing I can enjoy right now?”
I specifically used the word “enjoy” because I couldn’t wrap my head around what it meant to be grateful. I didn’t know how that felt. And you know what? My brain insisted on having a hard time because that’s what it’s used to.
The intellectual part of me, the part that has read so many self-help books and blogs in the past, instructed me to write the following:
“having a roof above my head”
“being able to eat three times a day”
“having a good job” (even though I didn’t have one)
Those were all the usual things people tell you to be grateful for. But I couldn’t find it in me to start saying thank you for those things… yet. My brain was hell-bent on taking my house, my food, and my money for granted.
So I asked myself again: “What’s the easiest thing I can enjoy right now?”
I absent-mindedly ran my fingers over the page of my notebook, and then it hit me. I loved notebooks. I’d been hoarding notebooks all my life. On my shelves, you’d find lots of notebooks of all kinds. Spiral-bound notebooks with pretty floral covers. Leather-bound notebooks with gilded pages. Tiny notebooks with brown pages for jotting down ideas that come to mind while I’m away from my desk.
I love notebooks. I enjoy them a lot. And most of all, I definitely enjoy their existence. And that was where it started. I was (and still am) grateful for my notebooks. And from there, things just started rolling.
I could appreciate the sparkly purple ink of my pen, the handmade chair and table I was writing on, the music I was listening to, Spotify for giving me the opportunity to listen to that music, and on and on and on.
On the very first day I decided to say thank you and mean it, I came up with 25 things to be grateful for. And every day, I did the same thing until I could finally be grateful for the things I took for granted – the roof above my head, the three (sometimes four) meals I eat every day, and the business that makes me good money each day.
And from there, things got even bigger and better. I learned to be grateful that, despite the violence in the world, loving souls are always willing to come out to help other people. That, despite how much damage we’ve done to the environment, Mother Earth is now taking her power back from us. And that, despite my past (we’ve all had some aspect of a dark past, we just don’t like admitting it), I’m still here stronger than ever.
All of that came from one simple thing – the willingness to look for something to be grateful for and finding that in something as ordinary as a notebook.
And you don’t have to worry about not being able to be grateful for 25 things all the time. The mere fact that you’re even looking for something to say thank you for will work wonders. Trust me. I’ve seen this happen a lot of times. It will happen to you too.
And if you can be grateful for those things, if you can fully enjoy what they bring in your life, you won’t need to go looking outside for other things or people to make you happy.
Did things outside of myself change? No. Donald Trump is still President of the United States. Rodrigo Duterte is still President of the Philippines. There’s still violence on the streets. There’s still hatred towards the things we don’t understand.
But I realized I didn’t have to change all of that to make me happy. Hell, I couldn’t change all of that if I wanted to. And you can’t either. Because we have no control over other people’s voting preferences, their behaviors on the streets, and the fears they have yet to let go of.
All we have control of is how we look at our lives and the world through our own eyes. We can choose to look at a world that’s full of despair, or we can choose to look at the things that bring us hope. It’s all up to you, so I hope you make the right decision for you.