You really thought you could be forever happy in just three easy steps? At the very least, that means you've been reading way too much pop psychology. Seriously, for millennia our species managed to survive without magazine articles and self-help books promising that you can fix up your own life -- or your children's lives -- without following a step-by-step repair manual. We seemed to have been able to raise children just fine before we were taught to live in mortal fear of our children getting a boo-boo, striking out, or experiencing the nightmare of getting bad grades.
The reason my new book is called The Wisdom We're Born With is because, deep down, you know your truth already. And the advice that touches your heart is not new information, it just awakens the wisdom that was dozing somewhere inside.
But if you're still looking for steps, try these:
Never, ever read anything that begins with: "[X-number] of Steps to..." This whole thing about numbers and steps has gotten out of control. We're inundated with step-by-step advice on how to achieve just about everything. If you followed all the steps, I don't think you would become enlightened; you would just find yourself schlepping around from step to step.
Okay, I don't want to go to extremes. There are certain steps I believe in. Twelve-Step programs for alcoholism and addiction are, for example, very helpful for lots of people. But if you think about it carefully, there is no endpoint to the 12 steps, and the people who participate and believe in these programs are very aware of that. At no point does someone say, "Okay, I've completed steps one through 12, and now I am healthy." The steps are a guide and a process.
The only other steps I really believe in are for cooking, baking and learning how to tie a bow tie.
Okay, time to move to...
Most of these step articles imply that there really is a there there, so when you get there, you stay there. Sounds great, but nothing stays the same.
When I was a boy, I had a cowlick in the back of my head. That little patch of hair had a mind of its own. Its reason for being was to embarrass me -- especially when I hit adolescence. I used everything known to keep that damn thing flat, but nothing worked. I thought I was doomed to have that cowlick forever. Then, some time in high school, without any action on my part, that cowlick got tired and lay down. I was so happy, thinking, "I will finally have the good hair I've always wanted!" What a relief!
But... five years later, that cowlick fell out. And then all of its cousins fell out. Now that I am bald, I miss that cowlick. How could I have foreseen that there would come a day when I would gladly have a cowlick?
That's the way it so often goes. By the time we get what we want, or what we thought we wanted, we are different from what we once were.
In my humble opinion, there is only one thing that is lasting. And that gets us to
Step Three: The Happiness Part
In his best-selling book Stumbling on Happiness (not a book with numbered steps), psychologist Daniel Gilbert teaches us that there are all kinds of happiness. And its sources -- all the things that people associate with feelings of happiness -- are infinitely wide-ranging. It could be an ice cream sundae. Watching a child graduate from college. Falling in love. In other words, we don't quite know what happiness is, but we do know this: When it happens, it's wonderful. And it doesn't last.
So what do we really want? I've given lectures on the concept of dis-ease. Dis-ease is what you feel when anything interferes with your overall well-being, comfort, and ability to give and receive love.
If you are striving for happiness -- or striving to be a better parent, employer, employee, spouse, or lover -- I have one tiny piece of advice. Stop striving! Striving itself is a form of dis-ease.
Instead, hang out with someone you really like hanging out with. Have fun every day. And forget about pursuing happiness: You are not going to make it permanent, no matter how many steps you follow.
What you are going to do is look in that mirror tomorrow and see the same person you've always seen. But when you do look in that mirror, look in the eyes of that person looking back at you. Look at the playful child you once were, and the adolescent who was working so hard to fit in, and the young adult or the adult you are now who has been knocked down and gotten up each time. Look at that person in the mirror with great love and compassion.
Love is the one thing that you are born with and that you can cultivate over a lifetime. It is the only thing permanent in life. The more you love, the better you love, the more people you love, the more you will contribute to making the world a better place. And, who knows, that might even make you happy!