The Master doesn’t seek fulfillment. Not Seeking, not expecting, she is present, and can welcome all things.
I’ve often thought that the happiest people I know don’t seem to try all that hard to be happy. They don’t read self-help books. They don’t talk about happiness all that often, nor do they seem to spend much time thinking about it. And they typically don’t give out lots of advice about how to be happy.
One explanation for this is that chronically happy people don’t try to be happy because they already are happy and don’t need to try. After all, if you don’t feel like you need much help, why would you spend your time reading self-help?
Obviously there’s something to this. There are many layers of privilege that make it more likely that some will feel happy while others won’t. It’s hard to feel consistently happy when you’re worried about making rent each month or you feel trapped in an abusive relationship.
On the other hand, it’s comparatively easy to feel consistently happy when you were born into loving and compassionate parents, inherited excellent genes, and had access to high-quality education, for example.
Still, there’s something about those unflappably happy people that doesn’t quite add up. Luck or privilege may explain some or even much of their happiness, but it does seem like they do things a little differently than the rest of us—even if they can’t themselves articulate it.
The negative way
After quite a bit of time observing and trying to think carefully about these chronically happy people, here’s what I think makes the difference:
Happy people have a knack for avoiding things that make them unhappy.
For example, most happy people I know don’t spend much time worrying about future calamities or ruminating on past misfortunes. That doesn’t mean they’re naive. In fact, they often spend a fair amount of time thinking about troubling things. But they seem especially skilled at knowing when negative thinking stops being productive and are able to shift their attention onto something that is.
Happy people also seem especially good at accurately assessing costs and benefits and being willing to leave a pretty big benefit on the table if there’s too much cost that goes along with it.
It’s unwise to put blind faith in much of anything your mind throws at you.
For example, imagine two possible vacations: One is an epic trip to some exotic destination; the other is a quiet weekend getaway at a little fishing village an hour away on the coast.
No doubt the exotic trip halfway across the globe would be more fun. But if it also includes a tremendous amount of stress—financial cost, jet lag, travel mix-ups, using up all your vacation time for the year, the mountain of catch up work to do when you get back to the office, etc.—maybe the net happiness gain favors the weekend getaway?
What if the ‘secret’ happy people know is that happiness has more to do with minimizing downsides than maximizing upsides?
From an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense that there would be an asymmetry in the pursuit of happiness that favors the minimization of negatives over the maximizing of positives.
If survival was the historically dominant instinct for our species, an evolved negativity bias would seem natural. That is, when your hunter-gatherer ancestor stumbled on a new type of mushroom, a reasonable decision would be to forego eating the mushroom since not dying is far more valuable than the few brief moments of potentially mind-blowing pleasure that might come from a new flavor of mushroom.
Subtracting your way into happiness
This is all conjecture, of course. And the optimal strategy for attaining happiness probably depends a great deal on how you define happiness in the first place.
I’ve heard people say, for example, that they’re only truly happy when they’re passionately wrapped up in an exciting project. Others have described their vision of happiness as a general feeling of connectedness and unity with other people and the world.
As for me, I think of happiness as something closer to contentment or peace of mind. And while I enjoy feeling excited and joyful from time to time, those states of peak pleasure don’t seem particularly desirable as baseline moods. Ever been around one of those people who’s excited all the time? I find it exhausting.
Maybe it’s boring, but for me happiness is what’s leftover when I subtract the negative experiences in my life from the positives, as I’d rather be consistently +5 than erratically alternating between -40s and +55s.