Happiness is an Outside Job

Modern day self-helpers – of which I consider myself one – face a difficult Catch 22. On the one hand, we tell people happiness is an inside job, not at all dependent on circumstances or possessions. On the other, we tell people they’ll be happier if they’re more grateful for what they have. Which is it? According to emerging research and spiritual thought, it’s actually the second.

Happiness does in fact rely on outside things, and even the rush of good feelings that comes from gratitude for our circumstances is temporary. That’s right. Every day circumstances can lead us to feel happy, and its dependence on circumstances means that we can’t be happy all of the time.

The second part of this truth, though, holds more power. While happiness comes and goes with the changing tides, joy can be present even in the most difficult circumstances. Joy is independent of our external reality. It comes from cultivating a sense of self so deep that we can find value in darkness. After lengthy discussions on the topic, two spiritual leaders (His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Tutu) put forth these eight pillars of joy that can be present even in difficulty:

  1. Perspective – Recognizing current suffering is part of a larger picture.
  2. Humility – Realizing we are only human and therefore will face challenges.
  3. Humor – Finding laughter in our humanity.
  4. Acceptance – Giving ourselves the gift of knowing things will be as they are.
  5. Forgiveness – Absolving guilt for our part in the current situation and instead using the lesson for growth.
  6. Gratitude – Thanking life for giving us dukka (challenges) so we may become better people.
  7. Compassion – Honoring the 7 million other people who also face dukka.
  8. Generosity – Finding our gift through struggle and desiring to share it.

Once we recognize happiness as an outside job, we can stop putting pressure on ourselves to constantly cultivate a happy life. While it may at first sound hopeless, it is actually a huge relief. Because while our happiness relies on other things, our joy is something we alone can influence. And, make no mistake, we can influence it. Through daily practices, we can cultivate deeper meaning, a greater sense of self, and a true knowing about what we are here to share.

Over the summer, let’s employ practices that cultivate these eight pillars of joy. See you on the mat!