What your Happiness Depends On

“It isn’t about you” was a constant message that I received from my parents when I was growing up.  As a result, I can’t recall a time when that wasn’t a recurring thought for me as I was deciding what steps to take next in my life.  I am sure that the memories I am resurrecting of how I behaved in my teens and twenties are cloudy at best, and that I was as self-focused as anyone that age. But for the years after that, I believe this mantra was subconsciously active in my mind, guiding my actions toward others and myself.

Holding a mirror up close, in front of your own face continually, can have some tangible downsides. When I look in my magnified mirror every morning, I am confronted with signs of age and genetics that are undeniable.  I come from a wrinkled lineage and since a facelift is not in my future, am destined to see a face that has lines and creases all over the place.  (A quick story to prove that this isn’t just me being hyper critical…When I was in high school, I had a part time job a few nights a week working in the Adult Education Department.  The head of this program was kind of a cranky guy and one day he walked into the office, looked at me, and told me to “get the rubber band off my head”.  I reached up wondering if in fact I actually did have something on my head only to realize that the horizontal wrinkle that was already evident on my forehead at age 17, looked like a rubber band!  No kidding.)  This has moved me to a somewhat peaceful acceptance of the physical “Who I am”.

The downside to figuratively holding a mirror in front of your face all the time, is that you can’t see the landscape around you in a way that offers the perspective you need in order to live your life fully.  If “It’s all about me” is your story, you will deny yourself and others the opportunities to engage in the world in ways that only come with true connection with others. As humans, we have a finely tuned sense of other’s priorities, and trust – the building block of high quality relationships – cannot exist if there is suspicion around intentions.

I had the good fortune of seeing the Dalia Lama when he came to Madison in April.  It was a moving experience in many ways, but the message that resounded so strongly for me was “You can only experience true happiness through offering kindness, compassion and caring to others.”  (A more eloquent way of saying, “You gotta give to get”). He went on to clarify that this doesn’t typically apply to what you do in your paid job.  This is what you do without any expectation of pay back. Since then, I have been attempting to be more aware of those times when I believed I was offering something to someone that they would really appreciate. When I reflect on how I felt at that moment – well, the Dalia Lama was right!

If you suspect that you are holding your mirror too close, ask someone who can speak honestly to you to give you some feedback.  Or, seek out someone you perceive to be happy most of the time and have a conversation with them about this.  

“Happiness is not something ready made. It comes from your own actions.”


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