Recently I was driving with my sons and I allowed my oldest to choose the CD we would listen to. He chose “Darkness on the Edge of Town” by Bruce Springsteen. After a song or two I asked him if he was depressed, because that CD is particularly dark (although much of Springsteen is similar). He replied that he was not at all. I discussed with him the fact that I know most of the words because I used to listen to Springsteen non-stop. I reminisced about how in my late twenties I ran into a girl I dated briefly at 18, and as the light bulb came on for her about whom I was, she bellowed “Yeah, you’re the guy who always listened to Springsteen”. All of this got me thinking about how I was when I was in my late teens and early twenties, and what changed.
I remember knowing all the words to many Springsteen songs because I thought he so accurately caught the tone of life. His songs are filled with lyrics about muddling through life, being full of despair and anger, and finding short relief in women, cars, or friends. The tone is always reflective of a dark life. “Life is hard” is evidently Springsteen’s credo. At that time in my life I agreed wholeheartedly. Life sucked. I hated my job, my life, everything. I couldn’t really stand most people. I believed life would stay this way. I probably believed this because my parents felt similarly, or at least my interpretation of their behavior led me to believe so. It seemed to me life was drudgery, and there were brief respites found in whatever activity was fulfilling enough to distract a little from the drudgery, monotony, the malaise of real life.
I recently had a 21 year old client say to me “What if this is it? What if life doesn’t get any better?” While discussing personal growth in a class recently I asked about 90 students the same question. Almost half said it would be terribly sad if this was as good as life gets. This seems to indicate that they may have similar views of life to those described above.
So what changed? Well, I went through some life problems that pushed me toward personal growth. Even then I maintained the same attitude toward life; it’s hard, you escape the difficulty a little when you can, and that has to be enough. But those personal issues did lead me to the path that eventually changed my philosophy of life. In fact, that is pretty much what happened. My philosophy of life changed.
My initial philosophy that life is hard is common in this culture. In fact it is common in most Judeo-Christian cultures. In Judeo-Christian religions one’s reward lies in heaven. You are encouraged to face the trials of today and be rewarded in the afterlife. This is partly why Marx called religion the “opium of the masses”. But, this is not a dissertation of the negatives of religion. The purpose of the statement is to simply point out the philosophy of the west and its influence on happiness in general, and mine in particular. I am aware there are many happy Christians and others in the west, so this is not always true. But it can be a contributor to some of the belief system of life being drudgery.
In Eastern philosophy the focus is not on the future, but the present. Mindfulness is about being completely present in the moment, and seeing it anew. Death is a reality, and Eastern religions work at accepting the reality of death and making the most of this life. Even in Buddhism where there may be reincarnation and new lives, the Buddhas deny entrance to nirvana until all beings experience enlightenment. Enlightenment is a here and now phenomenon. They are not working toward a better next life (although this does exist in some sects of the Buddhist religion), they are working on this life being as good as it can be through right actions.
The second noble truth of Buddhism is desire is the root of all suffering. As I discussed in another post (Acceptance) this is directly related to accepting things as they are. And if you do that, you are happier. The second noble truth of Buddhism seems to ring true; desire for things to be any different than they are leads to suffering.
So this explains some of my change in philosophy. The rest of the change comes from taking responsibility for myself and my happiness. This sounds so simple, but can be a bit complicated. First, I take responsibility for my actions. If I am unhappy I take responsibility for that. I realize my happiness is my responsibility. Taking responsibility for your happiness means determining what you can do to be happy, and putting it into action. This requires some sacrifice. Perhaps you will not be as financially secure. Perhaps you will get negative feedback from family or friends. Should you decide not to act on your inclination for happiness then take responsibility for that. If you decide financial security is a value you cannot let go of for your pursuit of happiness than take pride in that. But take responsibility. Don’t blame it on the wife or kids, or the financial times, or whatever. It is your choice. Own it.
Once I figured out what I wanted to do and began doing it I became more and more happy in my life. I wanted to counsel people that had substance abuse issues. So I made sacrifices, and with the support of those around me I did. When that wasn’t challenging enough I went to graduate school, again making sacrifices and with the support of those around me. Then I took a course in teaching psychology and helped out a professor for free to get experience teaching. With her reference I was able to become an adjunct professor. Hopefully with continued drive I will accomplish the other goals I set for myself. But these future goals aren’t what will bring me happiness. I am happy now, and it is because I make myself happy. I love what I do, and want the challenge of more so I go after it. I have a charmed life, one that is a combination of following the flow of the universe and pushing for what I want, in a balance. If what I want doesn’t happen, I adjust to the flow, accepting it is not the time or it just isn’t right period.
In conclusion, the point is that many Americans would be much happier with a change in philosophy. Stop living for tomorrow and enjoy the day. This doesn’t mean act irresponsibly, but instead slow down and appreciate what is in the moment. Set goals and work toward them, appreciating the path along the way. The present is all you have, and you are responsible for being happy in this moment.