Let Dogs Remind You of the Shortness and Beauty of Life

“It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it…Life is long if you know how to use it.”

Seneca

It is well known that dogs are masters of living in the moment and giving unconditional love. They teach us to see joy wherever we look and whatever we do. We may be completely safe and comfortable in the company of our dogs, for in their eyes we could never be a disappointment. It is more than their grand enthusiasm for life, the fact that our caring for them nurtures our compassionate self – making us happy, or that a hug can boost our oxytocin to induce joy as if we were hugging a loved one. There is another lesson that dogs teach us, and it is a tough but important pill to swallow. That is that time is brief, and life is doomed to end.

Sadly, dogs do not live long in comparison to we humans who love them, and in the wake of their passing we are left struggling to pick up the pieces of our broken hearts, move on, and search for meaning and approval in their absence of our biggest fans. Whether it was pure chance or an intentional act of intelligent design by the creator(s) of the universe to teach us this harsh truth, the brief time which we get to enjoy with our dogs is a painful reminder of the fragility of life and of the unstoppable march of time.

As much grief as we may experience through our learning of this lesson, it is one we must be ever mindful of, and will ultimately be forced to learn whether we want to or not. The time of all living things on this earth is doomed to end someday. Life has yet to show any possibility of escaping death, and in fact life could not exist where it not for its equal opposite, death. Whether we live a few days as if we were a mosquito or hundreds of years like trees and turtles, life will end, as will the lives of everyone we care about.

At this point you are probably thinking: hey Matt, chill the fuck out man, this blog is supposed to be uplifting and if you’ve made it this far you’re likely on the verge of tears, a panic attack, or just plain depressed. My intent is quite the opposite. Knowing the brevity of our time should encourage us to live happier lives, to savor every moment, to spend every second loving and supporting our fellow beings, and to view every instance with profound wonder and joy. Time is too short to fear death, and we have precious little of it left (however much that may be) to waste any more of it not being completely and wholly happy in the beauty of our existence. If life were everlasting, then there would be no joy or meaning in anything. There would truly always be tomorrow, and no moment would hold true value or importance. The very finite nature of existence is what makes it special.

Dogs perhaps our best reminder to make the most of our time. I was struck by this idea while enjoying an early morning cuddle with my dog, Floyd. For the umpteen-hundredth time, I was struck by just how much love and appreciation I have for him, which made me want to savor the moment even more, knowing that someday, hopefully in the distant future, I will be left with mere memories such as this.

Let not the tone of this post cause you any worry over Floyd’s wellbeing. He is quite alright and thriving. As I type this my left elbow is resting on his back as he snores loudly beside me on the sofa, after having spent a long day enjoying the company of my sister and her boyfriend’s dog Moose. He is doing great. But not for the first time his presence and spirit have been a muse of sorts for me, inspiring certain revelations or reminders about happiness which I was encouraged to share.

When I look at him as I am doing now I see compassion, love, and kindness anthropomorphized. I also see a close friend, whom sadly even under the most optimistic of expectations will likely be parted from this earth within the next 15 years, likely sooner. I say this with little trepidation as I know that short of giving him love, affection, care, exercise, and healthy food, there is little that his mother and I can do to change this fact. What we can do is commit ourselves to enjoying every moment we have together, such that when that inevitable parting comes, we may say goodbye without a regret about the things unsaid or the memories we never made together.

Seneca the Stoic once said: “it is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it… life is long if you know how to use it.” Funnily enough, death is the only certainty in life (along with taxes if you ask Benjamin Franklin) yet most of us live as if we were destined to live forever. We prioritize that which matters little, which brings us neither joy nor enhancement of our character nor the betterment of society, and when we lie on our death beds many of us reflect with pity and regret that we didn’t enjoy or make greater use of our time.

I am reminded of this reality every time I look at Floyd. Knowing the compassionate nature that he and his fellow canines have for us, I would not be surprised if there was some conversation in another realm between dogs and the creator(s) of life, wherein our beloved four-legged friends agreed to sacrifice their time on earth, living shorter lives, in return for reminding we humans of the importance of making the most of whatever time we have got.

Whether this is accurate or merely my attempt to make sense of the cosmic injustice of short lives for dogs, the importance of the lesson remains. Time is short, if you waste it. If you make the most of it, appreciate what you have, live with virtue, treat others with kindness and respect, then you will have made the most of your time and lived a full life, whether you die at 50 or 100. Let not this lesson in love be lost at the expense of our beloved dogs. Hug the ones you love, say I love you often – and mean it, take a chance on yourself, prioritize health and happiness, and make the most out of this crazy ride on this weird blue rock that flies round the sun which we are all on.

Perspective, the first pillar of Happiness

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.

The Temple of Happiness is Your Soul

“Years later, I understood that my goal of owning a physical house was not going to satisfy me. What I really wanted was a spiritual house, a place inside me where I could feel fulfilled at any time.”

Anelia Gregorek

It likely comes as no surprise to any of you that happiness is a spiritual rather than physical state of being. We feel and experience happiness in the depths of our soul, from whence it emanates outwards and enlivens every facet of our existence. Many of us look for happiness or the causes of happiness in the wrong place, in externalities. We look to our dream home to create the setting where we can finally be happy, isolated from distractions and physically removed from the harshness of reality. We chase the perfect body, impossibly unmarked by any signs of aging or existence, as if it were created from a fantasy. We fill our rooms with possessions, adorn ourselves in the most sought after garments, transport ourselves around in the sexiest vehicles, or we simply pickup and move our self to a new location believing that the perfect vacation or the next purchase will finally deliver us from sorrow and fill the void of our unhappiness.

The problem is that this void is unfillable. It is a blackhole of imperceptible depth, consuming to no end and from whence nothing escapes. This tactic is misguided because it is the wrong map to the right destination. It would be like trying to summit Mt. Everest using a map of Mt. Kilimanjaro – it will take you to entirely the wrong place.

The Dalai Lama once said “I believe the very purpose of our life is to seek happiness.” I believe that whether consciously or coincidentally, all human thought and action is directed at the goal of happiness although we differ in our definition of happiness as well as the correct way of achieving it. While the definition of happiness varies between us, the feeling we experience is similar. The problem is we attempt to achieve that feeling through incorrect thoughts and actions.

Many of us believe we are unhappy because we lack something. We can’t be happy because we haven’t achieved enough success yet. We are unhappy because our home does not offer us the opportunity of fulfillment. Once we move over there: the beach, the mountains, a new country, anywhere but here, then we can be happy. Or perhaps once we upgrade our wardrobe from TJ Max or Target to Gucci or Prada, then we will finally be garbed in the clothes that can unlock happiness and our soul shall be at peace.

Those of us who have fallen into this trap and pursued happiness through such means realize the futility of such endeavors. The attainment of certain misconstrued understandings of happiness will provide momentary sensations of excitement, pride, and joy, but will ultimately fade as we return to our default level of happiness determined by the state of our spirit. Dr. Dan Gilbert, whom has been written about previously in this blog, taught us that future expectations of happiness based on certain outcomes are often overestimated. Additionally, whether we experience tragedy or extremely good fortune, either occurrence will ultimately leave us unchanged and within a matter of years we have the same outlook or measure of happiness as previously held.

Dr. Gilbert’s research specifically compared two groups, lottery winners and people who became quadraplegics. The briefest summation is that winning the lottery and all of the material gain therein provided, brought less happiness than people would think and that those who had accidents rendering them paralyzed were surprisingly not as depressed as one might think. In both examples the subjects returned to what can be considered their “baseline levels of happiness” in a matter of years. Thus reinforcing the idea that happiness is not the result of accomplishments, success, fame, or wealth, but rather a state of peace found in the spirit.

This concept has been discussed previously in this blog beyond on multiple occassions. The catalyst for this particular discussion was from an interview with Anelia Gregorek. Anelia and her husband Jerzy are both accomplished poets, writers, coaches, inspirational figures, who came to the United States as political refugees from Poland and have had to rebuild their lives from scratch together, on more than one occassion.

The most meaningful part of the interview with Anelia was when she described having to cut their losses and move from a house that she and Jerzy had worked diligently to restore. Anelia then discusses moving closer to the beach, where she felt she would finally be able to feel happy. Upon arriving at this goal she had a revelation. “Years later, I understood that my goal of owning a physical house was not going to satisfy me. What I really wanted was a spiritual house, a place inside me where I could feel fulfilled at any time.”

Anelia’s revelation is the answer to the question that many of us may have when we ask why we cannot seem to find happiness. The problem is that we are looking for or attempting to manifest it from the wrong places. Anelia understood that what she needed was not a home where she could enjoy beautiful weather and enjoy the views and smells of the ocean, but rather that she needed a temple in her mind such that from any time and place she could seek refuge and experience happiness.

I have had a similar revelation several times. The first was during a vacation I took with a good friend of mine to Nicaragua. It was a trip we had planned well in advance, and to which I had long looked forward. During the trip we surfed, we partied, we met interesting people from all over the world, we escaped the drollery of our “normal” lives and we saw some beautiful natural beauty in the Nicaraguan jungle and beaches. One night while lying on the roof of our hostel, I was admiring the stars and suddenly became consumed with dread by the idea that in just a few days I would be back home in the States, doing my job and living my normal existence. I was awed by the fact that I was not only so fearful or distraught about the concept of returning, as well as the revelation that despite being in the incredible setting such that I was, that I was still unhappy. It occurred to me at this time that no amount of vacationing and adventure would ever deliver me from fear and unhappiness. The only way to become truly happy was to build a refuge in my soul wherein I could spend eternity, while simultaneously still participating in society and the world at large.

Consider the ways in which you attempt to create happiness for yourself. Do you think happiness will be found in taking a dream vacation, or moving to a foreign country? Do you think you are just a few purchases away from having enough to finally be happy? Are you one promotion away from finally being able to relax and allow yourself to feel contentment and happiness?

Everyone’s idea of happiness looks different but the best way for any of us to realize our understanding of happiness is in building a temple of happiness in our soul and mind. Material attainment, success, fame, temporarily escaping reality, or trying something new and exciting will provide moments of levity and joy but they will fail to properly nourish our soul. I do not suggest that we not take vacations, or that we throw away the idea of our dream home, or that we forego promotions. These can absolutely add value to our lives if we properly understand their limitations. But the best way to be happy with or without such adornments is to build a temple of happiness within our soul. This temple will be readily available to you at any time and under any circumstances. Once properly constructed it becomes impermeable to disaster, strife, worry, poverty, illness and more. With access to such a temple you attain the power to be happy under any circumstances, regardless of where you are, who you are, or what you may possess. Build this temple through right habit, thought, action, and meditation, and you will possess a permanent state of lasting happiness.

Pillars of Happiness: Gratitude

I recently introduced the first in my series of posts on what I am calling Pillars of Happiness. Each pillar represents a concept fundamental to the realization, experience, or attainment of happiness. The intent is to introduce a new pillar every week or so, but this depends largely on my ability to properly articulate my thoughts, which of late I have had difficulty doing.

The first pillar discussed was perspective, with the focus being that we may experience joy and happiness by shifting ones attitude towards themselves, others, and life in general,. The right perspective places the power to choose happiness squarely within our own reasoned choice, rather than leaving it to be subjectively influenced by externalities that are out of our control.

Today we will discuss the second Pillar of Happiness, which is gratitude. Gratitude is akin to perspective in that gratitude is an attitude or perspective on life wherein one chooses to be thankful and accepting for what they have rather than despairing at what they lack. Two people may consider the exact same experiences, but whereas the ungrateful person will be dissatisfied and unhappy, the grateful person is thankful for whatever they may have and is happy because of it.

Ingratitude is a state of dissatisfaction that holds permanently in unhappiness. People who are ungrateful are always wanting more, believing that their life is somehow lacking and that their happiness will be realized whenever they fill the void. Our state of ungratefulness is deliberately exacerbated if not intentionally created by elements of society that seek to profit on our insecurities with the promise that happiness is just a purchase away. Billions of dollars of marketing are spent convincing people that they are not good enough as they are and that they should feel a sense of shame and unhappiness because of it, while offering products and experiences that can finally give us the happiness and sense of gratitude we lack presently.

Because we are convinced that happiness will be ours once we have the perfect body or clear skin, the shiny sports car, the mansion, or the impressive job title, we exist in a state of unhappiness in the meantime. Happiness becomes not something that we can enjoy here and now, but something that must be obtained or earned. For those among us who do obtain their dream physique, purchase their favorite car, or buy a nice new house, we find that we are surprisingly dissatisfied with our new state, and we quickly begin searching afresh for the next level up as it were – scanning the horizon yet again for something better, nicer, and newer. This is precisely the problem with ingratitude. It becomes a permanent state of being and no amount of achievement or possession can ever fully satisfy us.

A lack of gratitude creates a problem in that we believe happiness is ever on the horizon. A practiced state of gratitude is needed to fix this problem. When we experience gratitude we feel a sense of fulfillment, and joy, realizing that ourselves and everything in our life is not simply enough, but more than enough. An old proverb says: enough is good as a feast. If you practice gratitude, enough will be exactly that, as good as a feast.

“Enough is as good as a feast.”

Thomas Malory

The grateful person doesn’t covet the neighbor with the fancy new car. They are grateful for the car that they have because it gets them to work on time, allows them to run errands quickly, and presents the opportunity to see far away friends and family. The grateful person doesn’t see the model in the beauty magazine and feel shame, she feels grateful for the body she has and for all the wonderful experiences it has allowed her to feel and for carrying her through the journey of life. The grateful person doesn’t see an Instagram post of their neighbor enjoying a vacation at their lavish 3rdhome in the mountains and feel shame. They reflect inwardly at how grateful they are to have even one house, knowing that it is more than adequate at keeping them and their family safe from exposure to the elements. The grateful person takes stock of what they have and is thankful for it, not focusing on that which they don’t have. Seneca the Stoic once said “No person has the power to have everything they want, but it is in their power not to want what they don’t have, and to cheerfully put to good use what they do have.” Through this quote we are reminded of the first pillar of happiness, perspective, reminding us to shift our perspective from what we don’t have to what we do, this being gratitude.

Gratitude isn’t just about the things we own like our possessions, as much as one actually owns anything anyway, or our bodies which we temporarily inhabit. Think about the things we know we don’t own that are one day destined to end. Think about our friends who can’t be bought, think about the beauty of the sunset in the sky, and think of the beauty and wonder that is life at all. Life itself is a gift that we have inherited against incalculable odds, and it is one that we may only enjoy for the briefest of time before our experience must end. Be grateful to wake up every morning and be alive. Be grateful for whatever may happen to you that day, be grateful for what you are about to do. Good or bad is merely a matter of perspective, but the appropriate condition in either case is gratitude because without good or bad there is nothing, and then there is no life to be grateful for.

Catholic Priest David Steindl-Rast once said “It is not happiness that makes us grateful. It is gratefulness that makes us happy” and he is absolutely correct. Gratitude allows us to be happy in any circumstance. We do not first experience happy and then realize that we are grateful for being happy. We first take stock of our lives, for this beautiful experience that is existence, for which we become grateful and then experience happiness because we are grateful.

“It is not happiness that makes us grateful. It is gratefulness that makes us happy.”

-David Steindl-Rast

PS

One of the most helpful tools I use to cultivate gratitude is to keep a gratitude journal. I did this for prolonged periods during some of my darker days and in many ways it helped me feel a sense of joy and happiness when all else seemed dark and doomed. Even today in a better place I still occasionally utilize this practice when I find myself slipping. The idea is that you pick 3-5 things from your day, I usually write mine at night so I have the whole day prior to think about, and write about something in that day for which you are grateful. It can be as simple as exchanging a few pleasant moments of small talk with a cashier, enjoying a meal, or a funny joke. The idea is that even on the worst days, we can find something to be grateful for and realize that life is in fact beautiful and great and that we can be happy.

Happiness is a Skill

“Happiness is a choice you make and a skill you develop.”

-Naval Rakivant, CEO and Co-Founder of AngelList

For the last several weeks this blog has focused on the idea that happiness is an intentional decision and that it requires effort. We discussed the need for understanding ones core values, something you must have to serve as a moral compass guiding you to good decision making. We discussed practicing good habits that allow us to exist in a positive state of mind, body, and spirit. We also discussed that it is not a destination one reaches but a journey, and one that requires constant attention, drive, and focus.

Just like any skill, happiness requires effort. Happiness begins as a decision and it is strengthened by the decision to continue building good habits, to continue learning, to continue searching for meaning and understanding, and by continuing your work to be a good and compassionate individual. Like any other skill it becomes rusty when we do not practice.

Make the choice to be happy, refine good habits and nurture it as a skill. We develop this skill by practicing generosity and compassion to others. This can be done through random acts of kindness, charity, meditating on how to be kind, or simply smiling at a stranger. We develop our skill at happiness when we read inspirational content, learning from the lives of great men and women who spent their lives helping others and working to make the world a better place. We develop this skill when we practice self care, learn how to understand and accept ourselves, and nurture our own spirit.