The Happiness Equation
Here’s how to live a happy life: do more of what makes you happy, do less of what makes you miserable. For a long, long time I thought that the only route to happiness was to work tirelessly to lift others up. I believed that it would only be through helping others out of their own misery that I, myself, could ever live a life of happiness.
One of my first “real” jobs was working in a chemical dependency facility. I worked admissions where I strip-searched women for drugs and contraband and held the garbage can so they could vomit up whatever they had most recently swallowed, injected, or snorted. Later, I would write down their life histories which, once the client was gone, left me doubled over with tears of compassion. It was tremendously gratifying knowing that I was helping people fight demonic addictions, but I would never say that it made me happy.
Fast forward ten years. I moved to Saudi Arabia to teach young women English. While I was forbidden to discuss politics or religion, I did my best to inject the notion that Westerners aren’t the enemy and that in fact, we’re all very much alike. My students taught me about their values and I was delighted to discover how happy most of them were. I believe I contributed in a small way to peace between our cultures. That said, it wasn’t an easy life. I lived in a Westerner’s compound where I was isolated with 55 men and 8 women, was forbidden to drive in a city with no public transportation, was required by law to wear a cloak that covered me from head to toe, was compelled to cover my hair, not allowed to speak to men, nor to sit in a public restaurant without being behind a door or a curtain. It wasn’t fun but I’m glad I did it. I’m proud that did something to build peace, but I cannot say I was “happy.”
When I came home, however, I focussed on the other side of the coin. My fiancé (now husband) and I bought motorcycles and rode across Canada that summer. I have rediscovered the joys of my sailboat. I spend more time enjoying my camera and all the places it takes me. I’ve reconnected with those people whom I enjoy and unloaded some dead-weight “friends.” Now, I’m working at a job on the water with a great group of people and I’ve never been happier. While I still volunteer for things, I’m not feeding the hungry or sheltering the homeless. I am, however, contributing to the happiness of the world by helping people enjoy their lives and by being happy myself.
I’ve come to learn that one side of the equation is just as important as the other. Doctors, psychologists, firefighters and aid workers are just as important as musicians, athletes, novelists and actors.
Millions of men and women in the Canadian Armed Forces devote their lives to fighting misery. As I write this, there are Canadians risking their lives to help people in Syria and Iraq. Let us not, however, forget about the other side of the equation. Let’s remember that life is about fighting misery AND that it is about cultivating joy.
Question: How do you fight misery and how do you cultivate joy?