With our evolving instant gratification culture and our instilled desire to climb the corporate ladder, men today often find they're chasing happiness the wrong way down a one way street. Can you appreciate the present while still working towards your goals of tomorrow?
By Francis DiClemente
Happiness is elusive. It often escapes us as we wrestle with burdens of our daily lives. Yet between all the dreaming, striving, yearning, grumbling and struggling, is there a way to achieve lasting happiness – or even the fleeting illusion of momentary happiness? Is this at all possible? In short, can we enjoy, or at the very least appreciate, the present while setting our sights on future goals that are still unrealized?
Humans have likely grappled with this concept for centuries. The quest for happiness pulsates in every person with a heartbeat. Let's face it – our needs and desires form the basis of our existence. We can't help it. We all want things – a better job, a bigger house, more money, a new car, a wife and kids. But we also want to be at peace, even if it seems impossible.
I am no New Age philosopher, and there is no magic formula for attaining happiness. But in my progression from a rabid self-hater to a positive realist, I have discovered some unassailable requirements for living happily, right now.
One of the most important things I have learned is that negativity is the enemy, and once you surrender to it, you are lost. In other words, hang up the goalie pads.
Now I am not saying you have to be sunny all the time or even give up being cynical. But ask yourself this: where has all the sarcasm gotten you? Is it helpful? At times perhaps, such as when you find yourself in stressful situations and laughter is needed to maintain your sanity.
But I am not talking about that. I am talking about the incessant, surging onrush of negative thoughts drumming in your head. Thoughts like: “This job sucks. My life is useless. No one will ever love me.” This is when you have to turn off the faucet. Because one thing is for sure, as long as you think like that, your life will be the manifestation of your thoughts – bitter and unhappy.
My stepfather, William Ruane, a contractor in Rome, New York, is the most positive person I have ever met. If you ask him how his day is going, invariably he will tell you “wonderful.” What I find interesting about him is that he just decides to be happy and then follows through, regardless of circumstances or problems. He says, “I was born that way. That's my makeup.”
He says his attitude benefits him because it makes people think he is self-assured. He also notes that his cheerful disposition can be contagious at times. “It kind of makes people a little more positive,” he says.
I guess in some ways happiness is a choice, and you can choose to be positive despite life's many challenges. As Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy once said, purportedly, “If you want to be happy, be.”
Much of our self-esteem is derived from our skill in the workplace. We are identified by what we do: sales manager, lawyer, mechanic, airline pilot, traffic reporter, neurosurgeon, pastry chef, etc.
I hate mornings, and like most people, I require that first cup of coffee to be fully awake and ready for the day ahead. But I find simple joy in going to work, interacting with colleagues, completing tasks and feeling useful.
It's no secret that America's fractured economy has left countless workers without jobs. And in these rough times, people do whatever they have to in order to get by.
However, apart from the harsh economic conditions in the US today, I believe happiness can be found on the job if you do what you love or follow your passions. My stepfather concurs. He says the key to happiness is “being able to do what you want to do.” He adds, “I would say you need to have employment, but it cannot be a J-O-B. Do something you like.”
It's also important to set career goals and strive every day to get closer to those goals. Maybe you are an account executive or administrative assistant and you want to be the CEO of your company. You can do your job well, broaden your skill set and pay attention to those ahead of you. Maybe you will never be CEO, but in staying positive, working hard and setting goals, you will see professional growth and secure a higher position.
As a result, your job will not just be a way to pay the bills, but a path to achieving your dreams.
But you should also realize your job is not your life. You are more than your title and it does not have to define you. What I mean is that sometimes it helps to consider your work as just one potential source of happiness. You do not have to rely on your work alone to make you happy. Remember, roughly two-thirds of your life is spent away from your place of employment.
Existentialism may be chic at coffee house poetry readings, but believing in nothing does not go very far in real life. We all need something to hold on to during dark times or the mundane passing of weeks without any noticeable change (for example, winter in upstate New York). This could be a belief in a merciful God, a belief in true love, a belief in the healing power of art or music or a belief in the decency of all human beings.
Believing in something other than yourself gives meaning to your life, and that in turn, can make you happy. I am Catholic and my belief in Christ helps me to see that loving others can bring happiness on Earth. You may believe in being a vegetarian or raising a family. Life can seem a little easier when you have a core belief to rely on, or something that makes you unique. I think when we are passionate about our beliefs we truly live, as opposed to merely existing.
However, I also feel it's necessary to understand and appreciate other people's beliefs. In doing so, you will find we are not so different from one another. And connecting with people and valuing their beliefs can also make you happy.
Accepting yourself is the swiftest path to happiness; in fact, you can't get around it.
Surely no one is perfect, but when you finally accept yourself – your good qualities and your failings – you can find inner peace and harmony. And happiness seems like a logical extension of a positive self-esteem. Personal growth is necessary for happiness, and acceptance is the one of the first steps in this process.
“People must be willing to explore and accept their negatives to become positive,” says Dr. Will Wittlin, a clinical psychiatrist in upstate New York. He adds, “We also have to accept that unhappiness is as important to accept and grow from. If we accept our own suffering, we can relate with compassion to others.”
Acceptance also allows you to mature and learn to let go of the trivial things in life. And just as important, when you come to accept others and their shortcomings, your relationships will strengthen and this can also lead to happiness.
Do you remember the last time you had the flu and you were bedridden? How about when you broke your ankle in pickup basketball? Do you remember how you felt? If you're anything like me, you couldn't wait to get back to normal.
I can point to an example in my own life. I recall a damp Saturday in April in the late 1990s, when – for no apparent reason – my legs and arms failed to work. In the course of an afternoon, I became weaker and weaker until I ended up sprawled out in the narrow, carpeted hallway of my sister's second-story condo in Toledo, Ohio. I was staring up at the ceiling, and I realized I could not move.
I was rushed to the hospital, and after a series of tests, was diagnosed with hypokalemia, or low potassium. However, once I was given a continuous IV drip of potassium, my arms and legs rebounded and I regained almost full strength. And in the course of a few days, I went from having severe periodic paralysis to being able to walk out of the hospital. And I remember feeling so thankful just to be able to move on my own again.
We all want to be whole and overcome the infirmities that plague our lives. Sometimes it's useful to just stop and be grateful that you can walk, breathe, see, hear, smell and taste – that you have two working hands, a beating heart and healthy brain function, not to mention access to indoor plumbing.
It makes you appreciate your life, what you have, as opposed to what you lack. At its essence, gratitude allows you to see the value of your life. And this has even more significance when you extend your gratitude to your loved ones, because none of us would be much of anything without our family and friends.
Simply put, laughter helps us to endure the hardship of this modern existence. I believe being able to laugh in the face of difficult ordeals is a sign of maturity. Despite divorce, job losses, illness and even death – life presses onward. You can't escape it. You can't overcome the forces of the universe, but you do not have to feel swallowed up by them.
I often think that if we didn't laugh, we would all end up crouched in the middle of the street, pulling our hair out, or banging aluminum garbage can covers against cinder block walls.
Here is one example of the saving power of laughter. I used to work the overnight shift at a broadcast news wire service in Arizona. Many times on early Friday mornings, when we would get slammed with incoming copy sent from bureaus all over the country, our senior producer would stand up behind the desk and announce to the frenzied newsroom, “OK guys, it's Fuck-It-Send-It Friday,” meaning all editors were free to post directly to the news browser. This statement – spoken with confidence and sarcasm – would always crack us up, calm our nerves and help us to get through the rest of the shift.
Now I am not exactly proud of the copy we produced on those nights; however, by laughing and pitching in together, we always survived.
Sharing humor connects us on a deeply human level. When we laugh with others, our barriers are broken and we are more open to interacting with people.
Some of the happiest times in my life have been funny moments shared with my parents, siblings, co-workers and friends.
We all need to love and be loved. And here I mean people and not things or more abstract concepts of love. A black Ferrari may bring you a lot of pleasure driving on the freeway, but it can't reciprocate affection.
We need people in our lives to feel fully human and truly valuing the love that others give us is one way to be happy.
Just the knowledge someone cares can make a huge difference in your daily life, e.g. “Yeah work may suck today, but my girlfriend is cooking me eggplant parmesan tonight.”
I think when we really get down to it, love is as much a necessity as food, water and oxygen. Who can live without love? I certainly can't.
And although it sounds corny and like some line of dialogue from a movie on Lifetime, I believe you have to love yourself in order to be loved by others. According to Dr. Wittlin, one thing we can do to be happier is “try to judge ourselves less.” He says, “The key to happiness is a state of balance. This allows one to love family, friends, community, country, world and planet.”
Francis DiClemente is a writer, photographer and video producer in Syracuse, New York.