Paradoxically, people are unhappy because they don’t know how to realize the purpose of their lives; which, incidentally, is to be happy. Of course, as with most things in life, being happy isn’t as complicated as many of us have been lead to believe. That may be difficult for some people to read, especially for those individuals who have lived their lives blaming their unhappiness on others. But it would behoove us to remember that happiness isn’t the result of being blessed with favorable circumstances. Otherwise, a good portion of the human family would have been doomed from the beginning, myself included. Rather, happiness is determined, ultimately, by how we respond to whatever circumstance may befall us. In other words, happiness is a choice.
And the key to happiness, in short, lies in choosing to be at one with others; which, ironically, requires us to be true to ourselves. Let me explain:
It was Shakespeare who said, “This above all: to thine own self be true.” To be true to ourselves is simply to do what we know is right. To do otherwise is to act contrary to who we truly are – to betray ourselves. And who are we? In truth, we are love, or at least loving. John wrote, “God is love.” If God is love and if we are his children, then it would only make sense that we share, much like we share our parents physical DNA, God’s spiritual DNA.
Beginning in 1938, researchers at Harvard University began a project to determine what makes us happy. After 75 years—the longest running, most comprehensive study of human development—Dr. Vaillant concluded, “Happiness is love. Full stop.” So what does that mean? Because if we get this wrong, most likely our next step is going to be in the wrong direction.
Love is specifically relational. Most people, however, fail to understand, fundamentally, what it means to love. Because it isn’t a feeling, per se. And it certainly isn’t passive; it doesn’t just happen to us. In other words, love isn’t as much about what we feel as it is about what we do—to include what we do about our feelings.
To love requires that we do what we know is right regardless of how we feel, by others as well as ourselves. It requires that we value the needs of others just as much as we value our own—that we have an outward mindset. It means that we cease emotionally victimizing others by blaming them for our state of mind. It means that being mistreated doesn’t justify mistreating others. That regardless of behavior, we never lose sight of our humanity.
When we love others in this way, we are at one. We are loving. We are being true to ourselves. We are realizing our highest potential. And as such, we are happy.
It’s important to remember that life is intricately and intimately relational, connected. We’re never truly alone. Even when we’re alone physically we’re never alone mentally and emotionally. Our thoughts and feelings are always in relation to others. In fact, our ability to think in the first place, to form words and to communicate was taught to us by others.
Our being is the result of our parents’ union. When we enter the world our first place of residence is inside the womb of our mothers. Consider for a moment what this implies: that our existence on earth begins inside the body of another person. I cannot think of a more powerful example than the procreative process to demonstrate, unequivocally, just how connected we truly are. And it’s not just physically, but emotionally, mentally and spiritually as well. So the idea that we are somehow separate and disconnected from others is rejected by our very being. Without others, not only does life cease to make sense, but we don’t exist. I believe that the human family is much more connected than we, at present, understand.
And next to life, the greatest gift we receive is our freedom and power to choose. Unfortunately, many of us have yet to learn how to exercise this power responsibly—to exercise it in light of who we are. We misunderstand that people don’t have the power to hurt us emotionally by their thoughts, words and actions. When others act outside of what is right, they’re really only hurting themselves. To be offended, for example, is a choice. And to choose to be offended is to accuse someone falsely. It’s to turn over our emotional well-being to others, which, although common, is a bizarre and irrational thing to do.
This understanding should excite and empower us because it means that we can let go of our accusatory and self-defeating feelings. We can see people, regardless of their behavior, as people whose fears, hopes and dreams are just as real and important as are our own. We can choose not to become angry at the angry actions of others, but rather to love and to do what we know is right regardless of how we’re treated.
People may have the power to hurt us physically, but they don’t have the power to hurt us emotionally or spiritually unless we allow them to; unless we give our consent, which is why it is so important to love even our enemies. To do otherwise is to be someone we’re not. To refuse to love, even if we’re not being loved, is to hurt ourselves. Indeed, it’s a betrayal of the highest order.
This isn’t to say that when our spouse, for example, violates our trust that it shouldn’t hurt emotionally. When we’re in a healthy relationship we consent to being vulnerable, and for good reason. However, although we’re broken-hearted, we understand that the greatest damage was what our spouse did to him or herself. It’s the difference between hurting because of what they did to us (which is generally reactionary) and hurting because of what they did to themselves (which, as opposed to being reactionary, is responsive); the latter requiring a high degree of emotional intelligence and maturity.
The key to happiness, therefore, is to choose to love. It is the result of being loving no matter the circumstances.