This post is about one of the fundamental principles of happiness. As I have done my research and reading I have come across several recurring themes that appear to play a major role in happiness and have been identified by numerous philosophies, religions, and individuals as paramount to a joyous existence. I will call these the Pillars of Happiness and over the coming weeks and months will elaborate on each of the pillars, beginning with the first one here.
The first pillar of happiness that I want to discuss is perspective. Perspective is about how we see ourselves, our emotions, the world around us, and our thoughts toward that world. It can be used synonymously with attitude or viewpoint. With the wrong sort of perspective it may be impossible to experience and know happiness. With the right perspective, happiness becomes something that can be enjoyed almost immediately. Let us unpack this idea further.
The reason why perspective matters so much is that there is a tremendous amount of opportunity to feel sadness or unhappiness in life. Suffering is an immutable characteristic of existence. Suffering is the first part of the noble eightfold path of Buddhism, each of the Abrahamic religions acknowledge suffering as part of existence and describe at great lengths the suffering of their followers as well as their religious figures. I am not as familiar with Hinduism, Taoism, or other major religions as with the aforementioned, but I do know that they have a healthy respect for and admission of the presence of suffering in our lives. We don’t need religious texts or philosophers to tell us about suffering, any of us who are old enough to be reading this post have experienced some measure of suffering in our existence, and as such we can agree that suffering is part of life.
The only way that we can experience happiness in light of an existence fraught with suffering is through our perspective. First, we must come to recognize the truth of the following statement by Alan Watts, who said that “all men suffer but not all are unhappy, for unhappiness is a reaction to suffering not suffering itself.” It is easy to understand how one might mistake suffering for the literal embodiment of suffering which is not the case. It isn’t suffering that causes us to be unhappy, but rather our reaction to suffering.
Through the perspective of realizing that it is our reaction to suffering that causes us to be unhappy, we realize that we have the power to choose our reaction and our thoughts around any given situation. This is precisely what Viktor Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning, that “everything can be taken from a man but one thing, the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Those of us familiar with the life of Dr. Frankl will know that he endured suffering on an unimaginable scale through his experience as a Jewish prisoner in Nazi Concentration Camps. Through his willpower and perspective towards his suffering, he was able to endure what so many sadly were not. If he can survive his time in the death camps, so too can we choose our outlook or perspective in the face of whatever suffering will come our way.
We can further change our perspective on life in general, not merely with regards to suffering, by remembering the teachings of the stoics, who remind us to focus only on that which we cannot control. Most of what happens in life is the work of forces greater than any of us are able to understand and thus we are helpless to exert any sort of control. We cannot control circumstances but we can control our outlook through perspective. Tony Robbins is fond of saying “life happens for you, not to you.” This is an excellent way to shift perspective around things that might initially cause us unhappiness, as we choose to perceive them as opportunities for growth and development rather than as harmful or hindering.
We can go a step beyond this by adopting the perspective of the stoics once again and reminding ourselves that events are objective, rather than subjective. Things that happen are not good nor bad, they simply are. Only our reaction to them gives them any label such as good or bad, and only our reaction can allow things to make us happy or sad. Marcus Aurelius once wrote: “Do away with the opinion I am harmed, and the harm is cast away too. Do away with being harmed, and harm disappears.” Pain, unhappiness, suffering, they are all constructs of the mind, if we can adopt the perspective on our existence to be immune to such thoughts or feelings then we can remain happy regardless of what may happen in our lives.
Maintain a positive perspective on life, make yourself impervious to suffering our harm, and choose to see the beauty in all things that are our existence. If we allow our mind to become reactive towards the world around us it may be very easy to adopt a negative and unhappy perspective towards existence. The person who has a happy, joyous, and optimistic outlook creates that very type of life for themselves and for others. Positive people with happy perspectives light up the world around them and are a beacon of hope for those who would emulate them and feel the same way. The Dalai Lama said in the Book of Joy: “Changing the way we see the world in turn changes the way we feel and the way we act, which changes the world itself,” before adding “a healthy perspective really is the foundation of joy and happiness, because the way we see the world is the way we experience the world.”
If our own mind is committed to the decision of being happy, rather than looking to the outside world to behave in such a way that causes us to react happily, then we are able to create a happy existence for ourselves through our perspective. Remember this thought every day, that happiness is a choice, not a reaction. If you perceive the world as cruel, dark, inhospitable, and unhappy, then that is exactly what it shall become. If you are able to permanently adopt the perspective that no amount of suffering can shake you from the possibility of happiness, recognize that the struggles in life make us better, and remember that life happens for you not to you, then you will be able to experience endless happiness.