Tuesday, October 12, 2010


You think you know where you want to go. It’s hard enough just trying to get there. That part you know too well, and you’ve learned to accept it, mostly. But what if a Harvard professor, the Harvard College Professor of Psychology, Daniel Gilbert, told you—supported by about 350 references—that you were pretty much clueless about what would make you happy in the future? Gilbert starts his book with a quote that pretty much sums it up:

One cannot divine nor forecast the conditions that will make happiness; one only stumbles upon them by chance[.]” 
Willa Cather

If you thought the book of your life might, if you were lucky, be entitled Sailing Towards Happiness, Gilbert argues you’d be lucky to have a life where you were Stumbling On Happiness, the name of his book.
Gilbert’s stated intention is “to explain why we seem to know so little about the hearts and minds of the people we are about to become.” And because we know so little about who we are to become, we know little about what will make us happy tomorrow.
I think he’s right.
I wish I could accept his premise right down to the core of my being. It would be radical to really get what Gilbert is saying. In a sense it would put an end to the future psychologically. It would put an end to becoming. It would put an end to the idea of tomorrow being better than today. If we really got that we have no idea about what would make us happy in the future, we would see that our only choice is to be happy now.
It would put an end to any sentence that began, “I will be happy when…”
Gilbert argues from oodles of psychological studies what mystics and wisdom teachers have been teaching for millennia. There’s only now to be happy. This is not to say that there isn’t suffering and pain. It’s not to say all moments are happy. They are not and never will be, though I think there are radical possibilities here nonetheless.
The point is if you are going to be happy, it better be now, and since you don’t know the conditions that will make you happy, you must free yourself from your happiness being conditional on circumstances outside yourself.
“I will be happy when I get my driver’s license.” Remember that one?
Or how about, “I will be happy when I graduate college, or get married, or have children?”
I will be happy manana. I will be happy someday, but not today.
A haiku by Basho, translated by Robert Hass, captures so much of what we struggle with even when we get what we’ve longed for.

Even in Kyoto --
hearing the cuckoo's cry --
I long for Kyoto.

Don’t you know that feeling? I’ve experienced it a thousand times. How hard it is to simply be in the moment and be happy, even while walking the very streets of the old city you so longed to see.
In the first few pages of his book, Gilbert makes his great statement, what he half-jokingly calls The Sentence, and which he italicizes. “The human being is the only animal who thinks about the future.” Gilbert finds this capacity for consciously imagining the future to be humankind’s greatest achievement.
It’s also the root of a good deal of our unhappiness.
You can set this book aside, and ignore it, or simply find it of casual interest, but the danger is your life may pass and you will never be happy. Happiness is here and now, if it’s anywhere. It’s an inside job, which you’ve heard before. And the good news is you can work the inside.
Tibetan monks seem to smile a lot, the Dalai Lama included, so does Robert Thurman, a former Tibetan monk, and Uma Thurman’s dad. The venerable monk and teacher Thich Nhat Hanh told a gathering of western meditators that he wouldn’t come back again unless they started smiling more often. Sounds silly, but it’s not. These practitioners spend time each day engaged in practices meant to open the heart and lead to acceptance and gratitude and happiness for the moment just as it is.

Daniel Gilbert states, “Despite the third word of the title, this is not an instruction manual that will tell you anything useful about how to be happy.”
            I could not disagree more fully. Gilbert offers us an invaluable, though very difficult, lesson to swallow.
You do not know what will make you happy tomorrow.
So, you cannot effectively plan for your future happiness.
            Therefore, my conclusion, which I stole from countless wisdom teachers, is you must learn to be happy now, and give up the illusion of being happy tomorrow.
            I think that’s a pretty useful lesson.

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