Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.
~ John Lennon
Do you think you should be happier? In his recent autobiography Shoe Dog, Phil Knight, founder of Nike, recounts a major milestone in both his life and the life of Nike. The year was 1980, it was the night of Nike’s wildly-successful IPO and Phil’s shares in Nike were valued at $178 million. As he rested his head on his pillow to go to sleep he had one overwhelming and unexpected feeling, regret. He knew that while the IPO marked the beginning of a new and expansive stage in the life of his company, it was also the end of one of the most exciting parts of his life. He knew that never again would he experience the thrill and aliveness of building Nike from scratch.
Too often we expect something to bring more happiness than it does or we fail to appreciate and experience it until it has passed. We climb the proverbial ladder of success, reach the top and realize the ladder was leaned on the wrong wall. I built three companies to prove that I had the right stuff. I wanted to be noticed and each time was convinced that when I reached the illusive lofty rung on the ladder I would feel happy. I felt progressively worse each time. Was I searching for happiness in the wrong place or is the chase for happiness futile no matter where we look for it?
The Science of Happiness
There is a lot of information coming out of the field of positive psychology about what makes us happy. A large portion of our happiness is preset by the personality we are born with. External circumstances like cars, houses and money contribute less than 10 percent to our general well-being and happiness. However, things we can change like attitude and beliefs account for 40 percent of our happiness. But what if happiness is an elusive goal for all of us. Are we resisting a deeper truth? What really matters may not be how happy we are but how present we are.
Happiness will always be elusive. Life is characterized by change, fleeting moments of joy, periods of hurt and betrayal, pain and loss. There is no getting around this. Building companies, raising kids, caring for the poor are all potential sources of happiness and they are also potential sources of sorrow, disappointment and resentment. Happiness is a choice and has less to do with what we do and more to do with how we are. For most of us, it’s not what we experience but how we relate to our experience that matters most.
Living in the Now
Have you had a Phil Knight experience? A time when, after the fact, you realize that as difficult, painful and uncertain your experience was, it was rewarding and meaningful because you felt alive and engaged? Why is it that the camping trip on which you got lost or rained on, or had forgotten the stove is the one about which the family keeps reminiscing? It’s the experiences that we complain about, blame others for and resist the whole way through that are the most transformative and memorable. Imagine how meaningful our encounters would be if we were fully present to experience life while it’s happening.
It is hard for us to grasp the reality that nothing happens in the so-called past or future and that everything happens in the present. We remain resolutely committed to our story that begins, “I’ll be happy when…” The truth is, if you can’t be happy now, you can’t be happy. Freedom is letting go of the hope that retirement, the sale of the business, the purchase of the business, the marriage, the divorce, will make you happy. Anything or any person you are counting on to make you happy will either not live up to its promise or not last. Pursuing happiness is a recipe for unhappiness.
What Really Matters?
What really matters is being right here, right now. Being present requires letting go of your thoughts of unworthiness, your fear of failure, your judgments and interpretations, the old stories and resentments, and your grudges and disappointment. Being present means breaking through your tolerations and expressing your authenticity and truth in the moment.
Our resistance to the reality of our experience is a red flag warning us that we have work to do. When we want to escape into the future the universe is letting us know it’s time to wake up and grow up and work with what is happening right now. When the noise in your head quiets down and you stop focusing on what’s missing you will experience what’s unfolding right in front of you. When you slow down enough to be present you can’t help but be amazed. Amazed at the simplest of things. A smiling face, changing skies, nature’s beauty, the synchronicity of life, and the improbable, mysterious nature of your own existence. This perspective results in a feeling of gratitude for the pursuit, not attachment to the destination.
It is when you live your life right here, right now, feeling grateful and alive, that you are a blessing to those you lead, love and interact with every moment. Maybe this is what really matters.