Admittedly, I have been known to say that we Homo sapiens tend to elevate ourselves above the rest of the animal kingdom without strong grounds to do so. From our brutal, greedy past to our brutal, greedy present, human beings as a whole can learn a thing or two from less advanced, yet more civilized species. That said I do not want to discount completely our advanced cerebral abilities.
Daniel Gilbert in his book, Stumbling on Happiness, says it is our ability to make predictions about the future that elevates our intellectual status above all other animals. That might make us smarter, but does it make us happier? Not really. The theme of his book is that we might be able to make predictions, but regarding our own happiness, we tend not to be very accurate.
Making informed guesses about the future doesn't do us any good. It is all about the now. Lap it up, people, this is it. Which isn't to say working toward future goals isn't a source of happiness, of course it is. The point is, reaching that goal is probably going to be a bit anticlimactic. From the day after graduation all the way down to the day after Christmas, most of us have experienced the uncomfortable tinge of, "now what?”
Countless self help guides talk about not waiting for something to happen in your life to be happy; be it graduation, marriage, reproducing, getting the kids out of the house, retirement. Putting yourself in a happiness holding pattern is akin to planning to one day enjoy a cake while eating it.
For years, I've wanted to be a potter and a writer. You know what you need to do to become these things? You need to throw pottery and write. And that is it. There is no secret handshake to learn or club to join. That really is it. Now to make my living off of either of those things is another story, but to be them, I just have to do them. When I write or throw pottery, my life is no different from any other potter's or writer's. I might not be as good or as recognized, but if that were the only point I'd be living for a goal rather than enjoying the process, wouldn't I?
The moment I started planting and tending seeds, I became a gardener. Whether or not a single vegetable is produced from my garden, whether I ever sell a pot or a single person reads my writing, I am these things. More importantly, I get to enjoy the process of doing them.
How many people never try something because they're afraid they won't be good at it, or worse, successful? Probably the same people who can't find happiness because they are waiting for the right moment to begin looking. It's here! Right here. Now. Choose to be happy at work, washing dishes, potty training (a baby or a puppy) and you get to be happy. And it's really that simple. Maybe not easy when what you are doing to earn a living is not a process you naturally enjoy doing, but even that seemingly hopeless situation is conquerable.
Sometimes it really is impossible for a person to change gears on a dime to make a living at something more in line with what she favors doing. We tried to predict what would make us happy, we were wrong, and now we have to live with the consequences. Some choose to live with them forever, which I will never understand, but living with them long enough to meet obligations and alter course is part of the reality of being a grown up.
However, enjoying the process is not about being passively happy because everything you do is pleasurable. Pottery is work. So is gardening, writing, child rearing, marriage, life. It is necessary to find satisfaction and meaning within this effort. To recognize you can smile just as easily while cleaning feces as walking along the beach. It is a decision, not just a reaction.
There seems to be a mass delusion that being the best at something or being recognized by our peers is the end all of life. Here I am, writing my little blog, and there are literally thousands of other people out there just like me. Not just writing blogs, but having highly similar thoughts living highly similar lives.
Why is it that when we see a hive of bees we see them as an undifferentiated group, yet we despise the thought that we as people can be seen the same way? It is "the Myth of the Fingerprints" as Paul Simon put it. (Daniel Gilbert talked about this in his book as well, I really do recommend the thing!)
Differentiating ourselves is not the path to happiness. How many famous people have taken their lives after having achieved just that? Happiness is found in choosing to live like our fellow animals, I think, disregarding our suspiciously auspicious ability to predict outcomes. In our toils, in our community with others, in meeting our hierarchy of needs there is happiness if we choose to recognize it. So enjoy the process, for it is life itself.