The Lost Art of a Happy Life: The First Step Toward Living the Real

Photo of Christopher McCandless in Alaska.

Photo of Christopher McCandless in Alaska.

The day began like most days during this chapter of my life. Feeling the financial burden of recently finishing an MA with a significant sized student loan overshadowing my future, along with rejection letters streaming in from universities refusing to accept me as a PhD student, I was seriously wondering whether my future would consist of being a Starbucks barista for the rest of my adult life. Mornings were just a reminder that my dreams were on the verge of collapsing. To add salt to the wound, any sense of permanence in a love life seemed to be far from a realistic possibility. I was in my middle-late 20’s and the myriad of hopes and expectations for my life appeared untenable. Nonetheless, I stepped one pale leg and then the other into a pair of syrup stained khakis, put on a washed out black polo, grabbed my green apron and made a b-line for my 1988 Nissan Maxima which continuously poured gas fumes into the cabin whenever idling. But, somewhere between the apartment and the car, something happened that as I reflect upon the moment now, provided me not just ‘a’ key but ‘the’ key to genuine happiness.

As I was crossing the street to get into my car, I became aware of one of the most sublime truths of humanity. That truth was and continues to be ... that in the darkest hours of life the birds still sing, trees maintain their posture and the mountains reflect their radiance. In other words, amid the dark clouds in my own life, blue skies are always just above. That’s it! For some reason when this reality sunk in, an enormous weight lifted off my chest and I felt as if I could float upon the songs being sung by the surrounding birds. At the time, the only thing I knew was that this realism was freeing and being freed from my mental anguish was what I was pursuing. Now, ten to twelve years removed from that day I recognize one foundational truth about this event and three additional principles supported by the foundation:

The Foundation of Our Need for Permanence

Have you ever tried to reposition yourself while free falling? It is exceptionally difficult and the likelihood of landing in a precarious position is high. Navigating life without a sense of permeance often feels like launching yourself off a cliff; it may be initially exhilarating but in the end you are likely going to find yourself in a perilous position. The need for permanence in our lives is all the more critical today in our technocentric culture where the item we buy now becomes obsolete before we even leave the store. A lack of permanence in our life makes the fight-or-flight sector of our brain the dominant one and this have tragic consequences. At best, such a stimulus will mute our pre-frontal cortex (where we reason) and at worst put it into a full blown paralysis. The result of this is an inability to see life for what it is but rather look at it as simply a threat to our existence. Without a sense of permanence in our life, we have lost the race to happiness before we are even out of the gate.

What then is this permanence we are seeking? I can tell you what it is not: love, career, hobbies, money, friends, family and just about anything else we horde in daily life. As good as these things are, they are not permanent. What we need is something unshakably permanent. It is for this reason that studies show that Church goers are generally happier. By no means does imply that you must be spiritual to be happy, but it does mean that this permanence in our lives must result in the recognition that life objectively meaningful. Meaning is not something we project into the world, but rather something we receive from the world.

Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, today is a gift of God, which is why we call it the present. — Bil Keane

The Gift of Discovery

Another way of looking at the world as something to be received is to approach life through a principle of discovery rather than dominance. It is from the unstable insecurities of our lives that we often approach life as something to dominate. We cannot bare to think of what consequences may result from engaging something or someone with complete authenticity and vulnerability. So we put walls around ourselves to protect our vulnerabilities. These walls manifest themselves through disengaging from reality. Instead of being truly present to ourselves, others, creation (and even God for many), we contaminate the present by either harboring regret and resentment for our past or using the present simply as an instrument for some pleasure that (for some reason) can only be in the future. In the end, we lose the only thing that is truly real and our own: the present.

The solution is to begin encountering life … present life that is … as something to be discovered. This approach is rooted in the belief that life has meaning, and that this meaning is a gift to be discovered. Another way of saying this: life looked at, through the lens of discovery, offers the greatest opportunity for each person to enter into greater self-awareness, and every act of self-awareness is a gift.

The problem is that we live so much for the “next moment” that we need to retrain ourselves in the most basic of ways to live in the present or as I would say, Live the Real! I cannot emphasize enough that this is one of the biggest if not THE greatest deterrent of our happiness. All other sources of unhappiness flow from our inability to live life as discovery rather than dominance. A few helpful tips to begin living this way are:

  • Try mindfulness when eating a meal. In your mind, repeat everything you are doing. If you grab the fork say, “I’m grabbing the fork.” As you chew, repeat to yourself that you are in fact chewing. The purpose is to try and stay focused during one meal on the present circumstances.
  • With friends or family, play the awareness game. Let’s say you and some friends are in line at Chipotle. After you go through the line and are sitting down, ask questions like, “What was the color of the cashier’s shirt? How many people were working the assembly line? How many girls and how many guys? Without looking now, how many people are sitting next to us?” You get the picture. This is a great game if you have children, and it will really help them early on focus on the present.
  • Journal! Here is the key though: Do not journal about what you have to do today or the pressures in your life. Journal about the present moment, being mindful of your current emotional state without judgment or speculating why you are feeling this way. One way to do this would be to journal through your five sense; what you are hearing, touching, tasting, seeing, and smelling at the moment. The goal is to focus on the present, no more, no less.
  • When meeting with friends, approach them as if you are approaching uncharted territory. Simply go into the conversation with the desire simply to discover who they are and leave all preconceived ideas of who they are at the door. This is incredibly challenging, so I do not recommend doing this all the time. Pick a time and practice it. Instead of giving an opinion about some matter, ask evocative questions; questions that help you understand the person in front of you better. Questions like, “Why do you feel that way? When was the last time you felt this angry/jealous/happy?” Notice that these are affective questions; questions that maintain an inquiry about their present emotional state. This will not only help you live the real, but it will make you a great listener/friend!
  • Get out of the city! Seriously, you need to get away and go sit by a stream for an hour or so. At least once a month, take a trip to the mountains, ocean, lake, stream, or some other place in nature and just sit (or hike). Nature reorients us toward reality like nothing else.
  • If you haven’t tried meditation, I strongly encourage you to do so. Let me first make a disclaimer that I’m NOT in favor of the “new age” type of meditation with all its energy fields and such. If that's your preference, so be it. What I’m talking about is meditation that is strictly about mindfulness. I use an app called Headspace and I LOVE it. I highly recommend downloading the app today and purchasing the full year subscription once you’ve finished the first ten free meditations. Mindfulness meditation is all about creating space in your mind so that you can truly be present to yourself. It is NOT about suppressing your thoughts or emotions with the goal of achieving some kid of mindless bliss. It is about embracing every thought and emotion without judgment. If you struggle with maintaining your cool in time of conflict, wrestle with anxiety or depression, then this is all the more useful. Get it and I promise, you won’t regret it!
  • I would be remiss not to add one of the most personally important parts of my day: prayer. I recognize that a number of my readers do not come from a spiritual background, but this has been the most important routine of my life. So I have to share. Entering into a daily routine of prayer (which I struggle with) is mindfulness on steroids. The goal in prayer here is to enter into it mindfully. In other words, having a time of prayer that is only about the present moment is indispensable for living the real. One hallmark way of entering into this kind of prayer is to pray through your emotions. Allowing God the privilege of receiving the gift of your emotions and allowing Him the time to speak into them. If you are of the spiritual type, I highly recommend incorporating this into your daily discovery routine.

That Gift Leads to Gratitude

Happiness is not achieved through a life of discovery alone. We still have another step. If we are truly living lives of discovery, then we are going to experience one of the most powerful, influential, and motivational experiences: gratitude. Study after study has shown that what separates unhappy people from happy people is the person's ability to display gratitude. If we truly see the world through the principle of discovery which is also through the lens of gift (that life is gift and discovery is the means by which we become aware and appropriate the gift), then we will be grateful.

If you are like me, being grateful on a daily basis can be challenging. If you are in a similar boat, and feeling a little “gratefully challenged” then I highly encourage to try two things but these practices must done every day:

  • Keep a gratitude journal. Every day, whether morning or evening, write down three things for which you are grateful. The key is that you must really try to find something for which you are truly grateful that corresponds to the day. I tried this once with my wife who is probably the most empathetic person on the planet. I remember her saying for consecutive days, “I’m thankful I have arms and legs.” If you know my wife, you would understand that such a statement of gratitude comes from a strong source of empathy for those people who do not have arms or legs. However, I had to challenge my wife not to rely on such statements as she was defaulting to that too often and not challenging herself to dig deep to find some unique areas of gratitude. So … Dig deep and find three things you are grateful for each day no matter how big or how small.
  • Once you have three things you are grateful for, journal about one of them each day. The purpose for this exercise is to force yourself to think more deeply about why you are grateful allowing the opportunity to sink in deeply.

Gratitude Leads to Generosity

We are nearing the home stretch now. To be truly happy, we must live lives outside of ourselves. This is the gravitational force of gratitude. When we are grateful there is nearly an uncontrollable compulsion to want to share the event with others. I’m reminded of the end of the movie “Into the Wild” which was a true story about a young man who left his family and friends to pursue happiness on his own. It was a journey of self-discovery that ended traumatically. The young man [Spoiler Alert], Christopher McCandless, ended his journey in a remote area north of Denali National Park in Alaska. He took refuge in an abandoned school bus and lived off the land for many months. When he sought to leave his location, he was confronted by what use to be a small stream turned into an uncrossable raging river due to the spring melt. It was during this unfortunate time that he ate poisonous berries. As he slowly died, he wrote the last line in his journal which said, “Happiness only real when shared.” A profound and beautiful statement of truth but a terrible time to be realized. In the end we are made from gift, for gift! Less succinctly, life is search, and this search finds its culmination in the discovery of self-awareness, self-understanding, self-acceptance and ultimately self-gift. It is in the supreme act of generosity (i.e. self-gift), grounded in gratitude, supported by a life of discovery, and rooted in permeance that offers us the greatest opportunity for happiness.

Starbucks Revisited

Returning to my moment of awakening on my way to Starbucks, I was happy because I was presented with an awareness that their is permanence in my life. No longer did I feel like I was free falling, trying to grasp at anything to keep me from falling into an abyss of an identity crisis (i.e. Who am I? Where am I going?). Being sure-fitted, I was now able to see soberly, and in my sobriety I saw that the present moment was not an enemy to be man-handled so that my self-imposed expectations of how life ought to play out could come to fruition. Rather, the present moment became a friend, and this friend is constantly in pursuit of my good no matter the situation in which I find myself. From this realization, came an overwhelming feeling of gratitude which translated to desire to share this happiness with others.

This is what I felt, although I was not aware of it at that moment, and this gave me great consolation and confidence in my future because the present moment was sufficient. For, it was the one thing that was truly real in my life. In other words, for a brief moment in my mid-20’s, I was immersed in living the real.

The Three Pillars of Living the Real

While this is the bedrock of a life lived in the real, it is only the first of three pillars of an integrative, intentional, and purposeful life. Even if we live a life from a strong sense of permanence, pursing life through the lens of discovery and expressing gratitude and generosity in our daily lives, we still lack direction. Questions still remain: What are my priorities in life? What is most important to me? What is my direction in life? If life is meant to be a sharing of one’s gift(s) with others, then how do I determine what gifts I have and I how can use them in my career? The second pillar concretizes our lives by paving a particular road that is grounded in the constant pursuit to live the real.

The third and final pillar offers us a tried and true system that provides accountability so that we never get sucked into things that are unessential. Even if we do create a clear plan for our life that affords us the greatest opportunity for happiness, the mundane responsibilities of life can easily overcome our time, leaving us with little-to-no room to pursue our passions (more on pillars two and three will be coming out soon). With all three pillars, I’m confident that we will be able not only to realign our ourselves toward that which gives us life but we will also be able to maintain our efforts until the very end with little to no unwanted distractions.