On Being Happy Right Where You Are
We don't need to go anywhere to be fulfilled
I’ve had a long personal journey finding happiness no matter where that journey takes me. When I became of age, I joined the Marines so that I could be as far from home - a place of sadness for me - as possible. I went out searching for something. This quest often resulted in depression.
Fast forward to ten years ago, and I move to San Diego and found some happiness for the first time in my adult life. Even an unhappy soul can be pretty happy floating on a surfboard in the southern California sun all day.
I thought this happiness was due to where I was, so I detested the idea of ever leaving San Diego. But eventually I met a gal and started a family, and we moved across the country to the Atlantic Ocean.
A funny thing happened. Happiness followed me. For the most part. At least as much as I had in San Diego. And it was growing.
I started to explore what was keeping me from being happy all the time. And it turned out it had nothing to do with where I was living. It had everything to do with the peace - or lack thereof - in my own mind.
With the arrival of my third child, I took some time off from my career to concoct a plan. I wanted to see if I could arrange my life so that my happiness was completely decoupled from the “scenery.” In other words, so long as I was living the way I wanted, it wouldn’t matter if I was doing it in Virginia, Bangladesh, Yakutsk, or Mexico City. All that would be different was the scenery.
I started practicing daily meditations and yoga. I read a lot more. I started this website. Writing is one of those things that makes me happy, regardless if it’s a winter storm or a perfect beach day.
And it’s been rather fortuitous timing, to discover the soul has no need for constant travel in order to be happy, as tyrants have done so much damage to our ability to move around. But that’s a story for another blog.
In Letter XXVIII, Seneca discusses his thoughts on the desire to be anywhere but right where we are.
You can read more about the stoic philosopher, Seneca, advisor to Nero, here.
You can read the translation of his “Letter XXVIII” here.
An unhappy soul is a terrible travel companion
Lands and cities are left astern, your faults will follow you whither soever you travel.
Socrates made the same remark to one who complained; he said: “Why do you wonder that globe-trotting does not help you, seeing that you always take yourself with you? The reason which set you wandering is ever at your heels.” What pleasure is there in seeing new lands? Or in surveying cities and spots of interest? All your bustle is useless. Do you ask why such flight does not help you? It is because you flee along with yourself. You must lay aside the burdens of the mind; until you do this, no place will satisfy you.
In other words, finding a new destination won’t provide you happiness - because you’ll be there. And you are the source of your unhappiness. Could anything be more true of my life after I left home? I saw the whole world and had dozens of great adventures, but I was still unhappy. Because I was with me!
Separate yourself from attachment to any locale
That trouble once removed, all change of scene will become pleasant; though you may be driven to the uttermost ends of the earth, in whatever corner of a savage land you may find yourself, that place, however forbidding, will be to you a hospitable abode. The person you are matters more than the place to which you go; for that reason we should not make the mind a bondsman to any one place. Live in this belief: “I am not born for any one corner of the universe; this whole world is my country.”
I love that last line. “This whole world is my country.” What a powerful insight. Where are you from? This whole world is my country. I can be anywhere at any time, and I am home.
Seek a peaceful life but have a soul that can withstand any
I disagree with those who strike out into the midst of the billows and, welcoming a stormy existence, wrestle daily in hardihood of soul with life’s problems. The wise man will endure all that, but will not choose it; he will prefer to be at peace rather than at war. It helps little to have cast out your own faults if you must quarrel with those of others.
When I left home, it was to strike out in search of a stormy existence. I embraced the hardship of the Marines and the international travels that I set upon after I discharged. It was always needing to prove something. To who? To me, of course, though I never admitted that. The man at peace doesn’t need this constant storm, but is prepared for it if it comes. That’s the difference between the wise and the foolish.
Even under the thumb of tyranny
Says one: “There were thirty tyrants surrounding Socrates, and yet they could not break his spirit”; but what does it matter how many masters a man has? “Slavery” has no plural; and he who has scorned it is free, – no matter amid how large a mob of over-lords he stands.
This last point by Seneca is a bit of a tangent. It seems he knows the objection of his audience will be, well that’s easy for you to say, but what if one finds their scenery to be a jail cell? Seneca points out that Socrates never wavered in his joyful spirit.
I look to Ghandi and see the same unwavering joy in the face of tyranny:
Despite being a conscientious objector to oppressive laws, whose infractions could hardly be considered on par with murderers and other criminals, Gandhi was often housed with inmates whose crimes were not politically or morally instigated. At Johannesburg’s Fort Prison, he shared a cell with a dozen others and was made to sleep on a wooden plank, with “an apology for a pillow.” The food, a mealy porridge, wasn’t to the leader’s liking. During another sentence, he was violently lifted by a fellow-prisoner and hurled to the ground. Fortunately, he was able to grasp a door knob on the way down, or his fractured skull would have shattered the past as we know it….
With his philosophical belief that both oppressors and the oppressed were victims of an unjust system, Gandhi often befriended his warders (and famously won the hearts of some judges who pronounced harsh sentences against him). At the Volksrust Prison, before departing, he gifted “a kindly warder,” with a specially inscribed copy of Tolstoy’s book, The Kingdom of God is Within You…
“Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony” - Mahatma Ghandi
Have a wonderful weekend. I hope it’s a happy one no matter where you are.