I recently received in the mail at work a random seminar solicitation called “Happiness is Within You.” Generally speaking, I am pretty efficient at dealing with the seemingly endless nonsense that finds its way into my inbox which typically involves a quick look and an untimely “File 13” ending, not even worthy of being recycled. However, something about this particular pamphlet caught my eye.
The gist of the pamphlet was the promise of lifelong happiness and success through some basic techniques obtained through a program which promised to “unlock the secret of happiness and lifelong contentment.” Really? Lifelong happiness right there in my finger tips and all I had to do was to write a check. Sign me up, please.
Skeptical but curious, I scanned the pamphlet which explained that each of us is in control of our own happiness solely through the realization of our desire for it. It explained that wealth, healing relationships, and career successes are not a function of anything but your own desires for them. In other words, it’s all up to you and it’s already within you. Self-actualization on mental steroids and available for a modest fee.
Again I say, really?
Now, to be perfectly clear, I absolutely believe each of us does control a measure of our own happiness and success. How we react to and deal with life’s circumstances is within our control. But clearly that is significantly different than suggesting we can control all circumstances and that happiness can be obtained through our means and efforts alone. If anybody believes that, I suggest you tell that to the mother in Haiti who is struggling to feed her children after a hurricane has decimated their home. Or to the homeless orphan in the Ukraine. Or the young father with incurable cancer. I hate to be the one to break the news to you… but we are all circumstantially limited in our capacity to achieve our own happiness and no amount of money, friends, career success or self-help seminars are going to get us there. I don’t care what they tell you on late night infomercials.
It is not in my nature to tell others how to live their personal lives. First, there is a lot I don’t have figured out yet (and probably never will) and thus my hesitancy to write this in the first place. But this is, after all, a personal blog and blogs are just opinions so for what it is worth, it has become clear to me that we are all “wired for struggle,” a concept fleshed out by Professor Brené Brown* in her popular 2010 Ted Talk. This makes sense to me since I believe that we are all born with an empty space within our hearts that we spend our whole lives struggling to fill. Simply put, it is the struggle to move beyond being born “hole-hearted”, and living out our lives “whole-hearted.”
Achieving this wholeheartedness, as Brené describes it, is the real key to happiness, and I am pretty sure you are not going to find that in any self-help pamphlet. It seems counterintuitive, but wholeheartedness can only be achieved when you empty yourself out for others, and not by filling yourself with artificial substitutions available for purchase or striving for popularity, recognition or riches. Think of it as addition by subtraction, or becoming more by being less. Whether it be your family, your neighbors, that orphan in Ukraine or the patient you care for today, living for others empties us of our emptiness, and fills us with something that cannot be taken away when circumstances change (as they undoubtedly will).
Mother Teresa once said that “A life not lived for others is not a life.” Many who have chosen the profession of health care did so because they already knew this secret. She also said: “At the end of life we will not be judged by how many diplomas we have received, how much money we have made, how many great things we have done. We will be judged by ‘I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat, I was naked and you clothed me. I was homeless, and you took me in.’”
To my Capella colleagues, thank you for giving so much of your lives to care for your patients as well as for your families, friends and communities. I hope you’ve discovered the happiness that comes from wholehearted living.
*Brené Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work where she studies vulnerability, courage, authenticity, and shame. Be sure to check out her brief TEDxHouston talk here: Brené Brown’s TEDxHouston Talk