December 23, 2011 § 15 Comments
When I was kid, there was a strange game show on television called Supermarket Sweep. Part of the show was a live-action, timed competitive race through an empty supermarket. Contestants would hurl the most expensive goods they could find into a shopping cart in a given time period. The total value of what was in the cart determined which team won. It did not matter what was in the cart and whether the goods were useful or tasty—what mattered is that you hoarded more expensive goods than others did.
I have found this silly game show is a good metaphor for our modern American life. We spend so much time buying and gathering things that are often entirely unnecessary, and sometimes meaningless. Got a working cell phone—no problem, buy another one just because it is the newest thing. After all, your friends will have one and you need to compare favorably. So you spend money you often do not have, discard the other phone and leave it for the dump, and then move onto the next thing to buy. The television tells you all you need to know—buy, buy buy, and have more than the Jones’ next door. It hardly matters whether you need (or even like) that McMansion or fancy car. You buy it to keep up, only to find that once you have it, you are no happier. Sadly, once you get it, you are soon onto thinking about its replacement—something bigger, fancier, and more expensive. You struggle to get it before the Jones’ do.
It is no surprise we aren’t happy. We are too busy filling the metaphorical shopping cart to pay much attention to anything else. We fail at happiness because we are not focusing on doing those things that bring happiness. There is no time left to do important things because we are so busy running around accumulating and acting competitively with others.
What are the consequences of a Supermarket Sweep life? I’m left to wonder what this way of living has done to our children, to whom we leave a vacuous legacy of mp3 players, video games, and cell phones.
I’m left to ask what this has done to our neighborhoods, where once family helped family, but we are now all to busy to help one another.
I’m left to ponder if in the end, all we are aiming for is a life of shopping carts replete with meaningless things and empty relationships. A life in which we get a winning financial score compared to our fellow citizens, but a losing life score. I’m asking myself if what we are left with are nice houses and beautiful cars that unhappy and unfulfilled people can inhabit.
I’m left to question whether we all see that the end point for all of us is the check-out line, where life’s clock always ticks to a grinding halt, and contestants leave behind items for an estate sale.
I’m left to wonder if there is a better way.
I think there is. I am not suggesting we all live in mud huts or ride in foot-pedaled cars like Fred Flintstone. I am not suggesting we stop eating good food or go on vacation. I am not suggesting we dress in rags. What I am suggesting is that the best life can offer will not be found in the things we meaninglessly own, but in a more balanced approach to life. We can find that way by asking better questions about what we want and why we want it, before mindlessly dropping goods into our shopping carts.
1. Do I really need this? So often the answer is “no,” so the spent cash is money down the drain. Even more often, quiet reflection leads you to conclude that what you were considering as a purchase was baited on a hook by clever advertisers. Most of us listen to ads like they were the advice given by knowledgeable friends with our best interests at heart. Instead, what we are getting are the artificial hunger pangs for things planted in our mind.
2. Will it make me happy? So often the answer is “yes” because we are not thinking about the difference between long-term and short-term happiness. I loved new sport cars. They made me happy for about a week, and then I would forget all about them, though I would be paying for them for 5 years. In a culture that has us conditioned toward purchased, short-term happiness, learning this is not easy. So, be gentle on yourself and start slow, but mindfully. If you have reason to believe that something will make you happy—then perhaps you should get that one thing you want. But then carefully monitor whether it makes you happy. You will learn by trial and error that you were not correct in your assumption, and soon, you will begin to choose differently.
3. What am I hiding from? We are being sold goods that are designed to cover us from reality. The new miraculous makeup, for example, may be hiding the lines on your face, but likely it is hiding something deeper that the make-up cannot fix. It’s hiding the fear of rejection, the inevitability of death, and the desire to be perfect. What is tragically true is that it will fix none of these. You are trying to purchase what cannot be bought.
4. Why do I care what the Jones’ have? The answer is frighteningly simple: you were told to care. You were told to compete with them. You were told that if you had one less item, you were less of a human being, less worthy, and ultimately, less lovable. None of it is true. Accepting that reality will not change the Jones’ competitive mindset, but it will change how you behave. They can compete with someone else. Instead, as William Faulkner noted, your goal is to “Try to be better than yourself.”
5. How can I allocate my resources to help someone else? Once a week, stop focusing on yourself and look outside yourself to help another. The answer is not necessarily to donate more money, but to become a real part of people’s lives. It is not always about feeding the hungry, though this is a good thing to do. So often, we ignore the well-fed souls ripped apart by the hunger for relationships and meaning. Ask yourself if there is a way to spend some of your time (and perhaps some money) for others. Immerse yourself in them Help them. Be there for them. You soon will learn a kind of joy that no fancy car or expensive watch can ever bring.
And there are no doubt other questions. Feel free to suggest them!
December 4, 2011 § 6 Comments
We have all heard the complaints that our stressful and complicated world has made it difficult for us to live joyful, meaningful lives. And there is no doubt—the stress and complexity is real.
But some of these problems and complications are real, some are anticipated, and some are seemingly fabricated by our own fears or the self-interests of people in the media and organizations. The media has effectively convinced us that we are one step away from calamity, either individually or as a nation. Similarly, organizations spend their time, mostly through advertising, convincing us there is something wrong with us, that we are inadequate in some way, and that they can sell us something to fix that “problem.” Sometimes, those with a vested interest invent the problems and complications. Neither the people in the media nor in organizations are bad people for doing this—they are just doing what the culture said would make them happy: Sell more, get richer, and find happiness. Few have taken the time to realize it does not quite work that way or even consider that what they are doing is not nice.
Regardless of the reasons why it happens, when you are constantly told you are inadequate and always a step away from the horrors of serial killers, terrorists, carcinogens, economic calamity, and seeming destruction on so many fronts, it is difficult to find peace of mind. What we don’t realize is that the problems media and organizations show us, whether real or imagined, have us looking largely outside of ourselves, where things are often uncontrollable. It leaves us worried and yearning for things having little impact on our happiness. It has us thinking in ways that actually serve as an impediment to happiness. Indeed, the daily barrage from media and organizations could drive the kindest, gentlest soul into a panic of despair.
If we commit to being happy, we need to think differently, recognizing that path to joy and meaning is found by changing the way we think about how we live. It is not about focusing on, or even isolating ourselves from what is outside of us. If we want to embark on living joyfully and meaningfully, we must make real changes by changing our mindsets. We must ask hard questions about who we are, what we need, and how we live. We must challenge what we have long assumed to be true, and find out what actually is true. We must stop focusing on the distractions, and instead choose the more joyful center of our attention. We must ignore the peripheral issues in our lives and society and instead dive deeply into recognizing and living those ways that bring a happy, meaningful life.
We need to focus on what I call the essence of living. What is the essence of living?
- It’s about living the core of who we are. Who are we, really? Who is the core person inside? What are the core gifts and talents we have that bring us happiness? When your day to day being is focused in this way, you will be happy. But in any given day, the television, our friends and family, and society at large try to define the core for us. This leaves always feeling empty.
- It’s about living a life of love. Not mushy love, not idealistic cinematic love, but rather the love that brings with it caring, compassion, forgiveness, gratitude and the other great virtues.
- It’s about sharing the essence of who we are with others, giving them the wonders of who we are as often as we can.
- It’s about helping others to live their essence, live a life of love, and share their essence as well.
When we live our essence, we recognize that dealing with the complexities and stressors of our world could never allow us to get the happiness and meaning we crave—we could never find fulfillment by getting rid of external problems. We also will not find fulfillment by buying things the media wrongly tells us will bring joy. The reality is that a happy life is not a math equation; we cannot create joy and fulfillment simply by subtracting all of the complexity and stress from our lives. We cannot be happier if we simply rid ourselves of the “wrong” people in our lives, the “wrong” job, and the “wrong” things that seem to plague us. Similarly, we cannot create happiness by adding more work, getting more toys, or winning the most (real or imagined) competitions. We cannot thrive if we are living a math equation.
This blog is about understanding and changing the thinking that leads us in the wrong direction. It is about understanding the pitfalls that take us from the joy and meaning that is our birthright. It is not about judging these things as good or bad and right or wrong, but about recognizing that we think and behave in ways that do not achieve happiness and meaning for both ourselves and others. More critically, the focus is on the kind of thinking and living that fosters a society of goodness and community; about living lives of joy and meaning that will bring the kind of world we would love to leave our children. It is about remembering who we really are, understanding our core, and sharing that with others joyfully and generously.
I have walked and continue to walk this road toward happiness and meaning. It has left me certain that we are not destined to be unhappy, despite the complexities and stressors all about us. There have been problems throughout history and some people have still found ways to be happy. Our era is no worse than others, and in so many ways, much better. What’s “out there” is not the issue—the issue is learning how to transcend it and instead focus on what is within and among us.
I hope you will read The Essence of Living and consider my thoughts. Join me in exploring thinking and behaving that is life-affirming and joyous, in embracing wonder and awe, in committing to being part of a community that believes life can be more joyous and meaningful.