For a number of years in the early 2000s I read hundreds of self-help books. Literally hundreds. I trained as a Stress Consultant, and qualified as an NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming) practitioner. I even considered training to be a therapist and councillor. But in truth, looking back now, I was completely missing, or unconsciously ignoring, what I needed to do, and that was to go and see a therapist myself. In the end I did and our year together was a gift that helped me to clear the fugue my mind had entered into. My therapist was trained in Transactional Analysis (TA) and Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), both amazing ways to help an air head like me to understand what might be going on in this lump of meat in my head. It’s amazing the little tricks our minds can play on us, self-talk suggesting how just sitting down and talking to a stranger could possibly help the way I’m feeling, but that self-sabotage can be paralysing, and make a step towards real change take some time. Even when we plant our backsides on the couch and begin to talk there can be some resistance – I felt that too – but I knew something was not right and, over time, I began to feel the difference. It still amazes me, that the simple act of expressing our feelings out loud, in words, can make such a difference. But it does.
One of the things I noticed in those self-help books was the idea that happiness is the ultimate quest of life. Nearly two decades later and I’m really not sure that’s the case. It seems to me that the human world, and life in general, is a roller coaster ride of emotion, and that maybe having happiness as the bench mark of how our lives are progressing is actually damaging. Just as looking at Instagram feed photos suggest that everything in the lives of those we follow are simply peachy is a huge distortion of the reality of life (including theirs), so the endless search for continued happiness can be exhausting.
Maybe happiness isn’t the aim of life at all. In fact making it the benchmark of the perfect life can make things much worse.
Maybe life is about finding meaning.
Finding meaning can be much more sustainable than the endless search for happiness. Many of us can find meaning in simple things such as watching the sunrise on a new day, or the flight of a gull, the sound of birdsong right now outside my window announcing the arrival of Spring. The smell of decaying leaves in the Autumn, the way that a song or piece of music makes us feel. The company of friends and the connection with our family. So many things can add meaning to our lives. Obviously another is a spiritual practice like meditation or walking the land on pilgrimage. Making the decision to look after your body by making better choices of food and drink. The list is endless. And guess what – a life lived with meaning can open the doors to that illusive happiness so many seek. Not that happiness should necessarily be the goal of finding meaning. If that happens we can find ourselves back at square one once more, feeling unfulfilled and down.
Don’t get me wrong, happiness is great. I love a good laugh, and the feeling that everything is just right, and all is good. The thing I’ve found is that it just doesn’t last. As the great sages say, Shit Happens. Things bring us down, sometimes with a big heavy bump. I’ve heard some people say things like life gets in the way. And this may be another problem. If all of the things that get in the way are seen as life, then all of the things that make us feel good, well, what are they? Isn’t it all just life?
So here’s a thought to end with. What are the things that bring meaning into your life? Let’s talk meaning and purpose and see if those things ultimately bring us more balance, perspective, and in the end, happiness.