Is There a Better Path to Happiness?
By Deepak Chopra, MD, FACP, FRCP
If the holiday season offers a chance for self-assessment, this season poses challenges that seem to have piled up since the COVID years. Insecurity prevails, and the evening news exhibits the worst aspects of human nature becoming rampant. Human beings are unique, in that we can be ashamed, guilty, frightened, depressed, and even terrified simply by our own nature.
In every age, this problem has been addressed by spiritual teachers and guides. The path to finding God or achieving enlightenment is entangled with a much more basic issue: how to be happy.
I’d like to propose that solving this most fundamental problem would go a long way to digging ourselves out of every kind of pain and suffering. The answer begins at home. Right now, the American way of life defines happiness along lines that are quickly being outmoded:
You will be happy if you stay on the bandwagon of consumerism.
You will be happy if you have money, the more the better.
You will be happy if you can distract yourself with video games, television, the Internet, and movies.
You will be happy if you fall in love with “the right one” and raise a family in a house you own paid for by a secure job.
The pandemic and waves of economic woes have affected all of these formulas for happiness, and even before that happened, life was already difficult enough. So, why not go to the root of the problem, which is that we need a new way of being happy?
What do a host of seemingly different problems — high divorce rates, terrorism, job stresses, financial insecurity, and climate change, — have in common? They all show that happiness can easily be taken away because when you depend on anything outside yourself to make you happy, your happiness is vulnerable.
A new way to be happy would be based on the following new principles centered on being happy from the inside:
1. Life has a purpose. When you live up to that purpose, inner happiness develops.
2. Inner happiness can’t be taken away once you establish it.
3. In place of consumerism, you can base everyday happiness on relationships.
4. In place of distractions, you can engage in activities that make your heart grow.
5. You can find a place beyond fear that the inevitable crises and anxiety cannot touch.
6. You can find a place of peace that stress cannot wear out.
7. Wellness in the mind will also make your body happy.
If people took a look at their lives and made real attempts to follow these seven principles, a new kind of happiness would be born that no one can take away. Let me go through each point briefly.
1. Life has a purpose. Every life needs a meaning, and the more inspiring that meaning, the better. What erodes happiness more than anything else is the loneliness and emptiness that results when you feel that your life has no meaning. We constantly hear the slogan, “Family is everything,” but it’s not. Meaning and purpose are everything.
What kind of meaning should you seek? Here are some accepted choices.
Most people select a few of these, primarily family, friends, hobbies, and work, which they hope will be enough. But what about the higher values, which will bring far more lasting, secure happiness? Among these I’d select love, giving, service, and personal growth. If you leave these out, your happiness can be snatched away by losing your job or your friends. You run the risk of becoming an empty nester as your family grows up and moves away. Establish a higher purpose early in your life — preferably starting today — and your future won’t be so vulnerable to change.
2. Inner happiness. We hear this phrase a lot, to the point that it sounds meaninglessly vague. Real inner happiness is easy to measure, however. If you can sit by yourself, doing nothing to distract yourself, needing no one, and still feel happy, then you have achieved inner happiness. It is marked by feeling safe, knowing that you are enough, and finding a core of peace and calm. I sometimes put all these factors into a single phrase: You are truly happy if being here is enough.
3. Focus on relationships instead of consumerism. America is a consumer economy driven by insatiable appetites for whatever is bigger, better, newer, and more expensive. You and I aren’t going to change that fact, but we can see through the hollow promise that consumerism makes you happy. It doesn’t. Nor do heaps of money. Studies show that after a person has achieved enough money to cover life’s necessities, the returns begin to diminish.
If you define yourself by what you own and how much you earn, trouble lies ahead, because you have left a hole where a self needs to be. It is far more important to have a secure, loving relationship that mirrors your true self. I know that this sounds much harder than buying a new computer or a faster car because it is. But relationships can bring inner fullness; expensive things simply wear out.
4. Stop being distracted. Distractions are nice for whiling away the time, but the more hours you spend bent over a smartphone, video game, or the Internet, the less time you have for things that matter. All of us know that having a full heart is important, but it requires time and attention. As children, we counted on our parents to be warm-hearted. Secure in that knowledge, we could play and be carefree. But when you grow up, no one can replace your own heart and its needs. By “heart” I mean emotional fulfillment, compassion, kindness, bonding — the whole emotional core of life. Distractions will never bring you these things, which are among the most necessary aspects of a happy life.
5. The place beyond fear. Modern life is marked by instant communication and global outreach. These are good things, but they also make everyday life seem much more fearful. We live in a world where total strangers living far away can harm us. There is no place safe from fear — except inside. You can’t do much to reduce the causes of external worry; bad people and bad things have always been with us. But you can take care of your tendency to be afraid, worried, and anxious. There is a place of safety inside, and if you can find it, you will find the kind of happiness that bad people and bad things cannot shake.
6. Peace instead of stress. We all know that life is stressful, but many people think of stress as an outside element such as traffic, pressure at work, kids who won’t pay attention, etc. Actually, stress is a response. How you react to the outside world is far more important than any outside stressor.
There is a stress-free zone inside you, a place of peace. When you find this inner core of the self and learn to know it, external stress will not make you its prey. I don’t mean that you zone out and become self-absorbed. When you find your inner peace, outside stressors will still exist, but you will have a far different response to them. You will know what to fix, what to put up with, what to walk away from. Those are the basic decisions to maintain your own happiness.
7. A happy body based on the wellness of the mind. As part of the American way of life, people wait until they are sick before turning to fix-its, meaning drugs or surgery. We ignore wellness even after decades of being told how valuable it is. What’s needed isn’t more time in the gym but a change of mental attitude. Your mind needs to accept that your body wants you to be happy and is constantly sending signals of either contentment or distress. By turning our backs on these signals, we are depriving ourselves of a major ally in the campaign to find happiness.
Your body doesn’t need to be thin, fit, and beautiful to make you happy. It needs to talk to you, and you need to listen. All the things you can do to find inner happiness require the body; the mind isn’t living in a separate balloon. You will never stick with the best regime of diet, exercise, stress reduction, and meditation until your body is comfortable with your state of mind, and vice versa. Wellness is a mind-body alliance. What I’m proposing is that you form such an alliance.
In the end, wholeness is the keyword if you want the kind of happiness that can’t be taken away. I’ve written much more about this in a book, The Ultimate Happiness Prescription, but here in capsule form, you’ve heard what it takes to be happy in a new way. Having spent so much time trying to be happy the old way — and not truly succeeding — we should realize that there is a new way. It could change your life right now.
DEEPAK CHOPRA MD, FACP, FRCP, founder of The Chopra Foundation, a non-profit entity for research on well-being and humanitarianism, and Chopra Global, a whole health company at the intersection of science and spirituality, is a world-renowned pioneer in integrative medicine and personal transformation. Chopra is a Clinical Professor of Family Medicine and Public Health at the University of California, San Diego, and serves as a senior scientist with Gallup Organization. He is the author of over 90 books translated into over forty-three languages, including numerous New York Times bestsellers. His 91st book, Total Meditation: Practices in Living the Awakened Life explores and reinterprets the physical, mental, emotional, relational, and spiritual benefits that the practice of meditation can bring. Chopra has been at the forefront of the meditation revolution for the last thirty years. His latest book, Living in the Light co-authored with Sarah Platt-Finger. TIME magazine has described Dr. Chopra as “one of the top 100 heroes and icons of the century.” www.deepakchopra.com