What is the Key to Happiness?

Antigua Steve WEB

Stephen F. Dennstedt

Photographer, Writer and World Traveler

Currently in South America

What is the key to happiness?  I suppose it’s different for everyone.  I’m not even sure its the question that should be asked; happy automatically implies its reciprocal, unhappy.  So maybe a more subtle question would be: what is the key to contentment?  In the movie City Slickers, with Billy Crystal, the old cowboy Curly (played by Jack Palance) says (holding up one finger):  Life is about just one thing.  Crystal’s character naturally asks:  What’s the one thing?  Curly smiles a knowing smile and says:  That’s for you to find out.

That question haunted me for years, until I found the answer for myself.  Perspective.  Life is about perspective.  With perspective, the ability to put one’s life into a meaningful context, comes wisdom (or what we like to think of as wisdom).  Wisdom, I think, is nothing more than experience; the ability to learn from our experience(s).  Experience is often the direct result of pain and loss, to gain something we must often lose something first.  I’ve shared this City Slickers anecdote many times before, but it always seems to ring true somehow.

I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well.

– Henry David Thoreau

So back to happiness and its key.  Happiness in an extreme emotion, like unhappiness. Therefore, maybe contentment is the more realistic goal.  Happiness comes and goes, unhappiness comes and goes.  But beneath it all we can achieve a steadfast core of contentment.  From this static perspective we can view our happiness and unhappiness roll through our lives like waves upon the ocean, without completely losing our equanimity.  So then, semantics aside, what is the key to contentment.  I think it’s simplicity.

Wisdom teachers throughout the ages have shared this simple truth; with sufficient perspective I think we know, intuitively, that this is the key we are searching for.  Listen to Lao Tzu, the Buddha, Confucius, Jesus, Mohamed, the Dali Lama, Tich Nhat Hanh and the thousands upon thousands of mystics and gurus who have discovered this truth for themselves.  The Buddha says:  Don’t believe me, prove it to yourself.  Empirical evidence would strongly suggest the efficacy of this insight, but we must prove it to ourselves (sometimes over and over).

[A] life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust.

– Henry David Thoreau

Simple does not mean easy.  Simple is conceptual, execution requires action.  Simple implies thought, action implies work (often hard work).  An apt metaphor for this concept might be Buddhist meditation: sitting quietly amidst chaos.  Sitting quietly in contemplation might seem to be non-action (simplicity), but it is anything but that.  While sitting in meditation thoughts and feelings naturally arise, the practice requires that we do not attach ourselves to those thoughts and feelings, we must simply observe them as they come and go.  Simple but not so easy.

I am re-reading (for the ba-zillionth time) Henry David Thoreau’s seminal work:  Walden. Thoreau, a leading transcendentalist, influenced such notable luminaries as:  Leo Tolstoy, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.  His original thoughts on simplicity and civil disobedience are milestones in critical thinking, and have had a huge impact on my life and life-philosophy.  Along with the teachings of Lao Tzu, the Buddha, the Dali Lama and Tich Nhat Hanh, I have distilled my own mantra:  Live Simple, Live Cheap, Live Free.

Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.

– Henry David Thoreau

Final thoughts:  with perspective comes simplicity; with simplicity comes contentment.  To attain the simple life requires loss, the giving up of things (material stuff, thoughts and routines).  Simple does not mean easy (it’s work), and that’s why Buddhists call their path: practice.  To live a deliberate interior life requires introspection and thought (and study). From personal experience I can tell you that in losing everything (materialistically speaking), I have gained the world and contentment.  Read Thoreau, over and over again if necessary, you won’t be disappointed.  I will leave you with one more profound insight:

The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation.   

– Henry David Thoreau

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