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Real Happiness Is There For The Taking

From eDiets - The online diet, fitness, and healthy living resource

One reason we have so much trouble attaining happiness is that we don't even know what it is! We keep trying to annihilate anxiety and other disturbances in the belief that eliminating the negatives from our lives will leave us in some pure positive state.

But happiness has more to do with broadening your perspective, says Mark Epstein, M.D., a psychiatrist who is fusing Eastern and Western ways of thinking about happiness and why we find the concept so elusive.

It's a matter of inner development, he insists. We're never going to find it in technological advancements no matter how many toys and gadgets we own. In short, he suggests that we “clean up” our mental environment so that real happiness can be uncovered -- because it's right in front of us if we want it.

Americans have a peculiar relationship with happiness. On the one hand, we consider happiness a right, and we are eager for it. We do everything in our power to try to possess it, particularly in the material form. On the other hand, we tend to denigrate the pursuit of happiness as something as shallow or superficial, something akin to taking up scuba diving or woodcarving.

But the pursuit of happiness is not a superficial endeavor. On the contrary, it is a fundamental drive as basic as those of sex, aggression or security.

Materialistic comforts by themselves have not lead to lasting happiness. Having reached that conclusion, however, we do not often see another way, and retreat into our comforts, barricading ourselves from what appears to be a hostile and threatening world.

Acquiring and protecting, we continue to crave a happiness that seems both deserved and out of reach.

Our first mistake, says Dr. Epstein, is trying to wipe out all sources of displeasure in search of a perennial state of well being that, for most of us in our deepest fantasies, resembles nothing so much as a prolonged erotic reverie. This approach to happiness derives from our earliest experiences in the world.

When our intense emotional states of pleasure and gratification were inevitably interrupted by absence and frustration, we experienced equally intense states of rage or anxiety. So our first response is to try and preserve feelings of satisfaction and well-being and avoid the unpleasing ones.

But we'd be better off acknowledging that happiness and sadness are two sides of one coin. Those who make pleasure possible are also the greatest source of our suffering.

The search for happiness in pleasure is like chasing our own shadow, although we can see it, we never quite get out hands around it. We continue to grasp at the objects that have previously disappointed us. We tell ourselves, this time it will be different, this time it will work out. We think only of manipulating the external worlds, without stopping to examine ourselves.

Why are we so intent on avoiding everything but pleasure? But as long as we continue trying to eliminate all displeasure and preserve only feelings of gratification, no lasting happiness is possible, Dr. Epstein insists.

At the core of our unhappiness is our inability to observe ourselves properly. We are too often prisoners of our own perspective, unable to appreciate the many perspectives of those around us.

It is our unawareness of our own brilliance that keeps us from feeling happy. We insistently project our interpretation of things onto everything we see and do. But this way of perceiving blinds us from the joy that is already in our lives.

We'd have a better shot at happiness by coaxing the mind to deal with frustration in a new way -- experiencing life more as an interested observer rather than a victim asking “why is this happening to me?”

Of course, we all have needs, observes Dr. Epstein. But when our thinking becomes fixated on obtaining what we feel we must have in order to be content, we open up a bottomless box. Happiness becomes some far-off thing completely different from our lives at the moment.

Life is always filled with unavoidable disappointments and letdowns. Everything we cherish comes in a two-for-one package deal of change and eventual loss. When we can learn to accept our situation for what it is, rather than struggling to make our lives fit an idealized mold of what we think happiness is, then we can begin to experience it.

In other words, it's impossible to savor the sweet pleasures of life without tasting the sour. Trying to split the two off from each other only mires us deeper in our own dissatisfaction. By letting go of a view of the world with ourselves as the center, we begin to appreciate what Einstein proved: that the world and all reality, as well as all points of view, including our own, are relative. That happiness has more to do with acceptance than gratification, and it becomes available to us.

True happiness is the ability to take all the insults of life as a vehicle of real contentment. Pleasure and displeasure can then be appreciated for the ways in which they are inextricably linked. Happiness, then, is the confidence that pain and disappointment can be tolerated, that love will prove stronger than aggression. It is the release from attachment to pleasant feelings, and faith and the capacity of awareness to guide us through inevitable letdowns and pain. We don't have to look very far to find happiness; it is in every one of us, now.

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