I have been thinking a lot lately about happiness. While I have always been fascinated at the different ways people and culture define and pursue happiness, this latest round of happiness-searching was triggered by reading Eric Weiner’s fabulous The Geography of Bliss. Eric is a veteran NPR foreign correspondent who wanted to research something positive after tiring of reporting on the terrors of the world. The book is a great read, and offers incredible insight into the way different cultures construct happiness. It really allows you to see different worlds, and encourages you to reconsider your own relation to the concept of “happiness.” I couldn’t put the book down. The entire time, I was thinking about what a great documentary project this would be. Exploring the world and talking to people about happiness. Wouldn’t that really be an opportunity to effect change? Because if you are able to convince people that happiness is intensely personal, then wouldn’t people compare themselves to others less and decide what happiness is to them? I would then think that people would be happier, as they redefine their own relation to the happiness in their lives. Sounds great, right?
I also just returned from Burning Man for the third time. It is always such an intense experience, and no year is the same. You never know what transformation is going to occur to you before you leave - you just know that something profound is about to smack you in the face. And smack me around it did. It is difficult for me not to constantly think about happiness at Burning Man, because it is a city created for people to live like they want to live. Burning Man is a city where it is always ok to say yes. You live according to your own needs, your own principles and your own desires. You do not have to worry about paying rent, or making meetings, or any of the other crap that really takes away from enjoying everyday life. Granted, this makes Black Rock City an indulgent place where hedonism is the default way of life. Nonetheless, it allows people to be free to just be - and the average human, if given the choice, will prefer to relax, socialize and enjoy themselves then struggle, work and fight to exist.
But Black Rock City is unsustainable. There is no way that I could live like I do in the desert there for 365 days a year, year after year. It would just be too much. So does that mean that the Burning Man version of happiness is unreal or unachievable? Or does it simply mean that it is an extreme version of lifestyle design, similar to the unfettered capitalism that infiltrates almost every aspect of our modern Western lives?
Regardless of how we answer these questions, the cruz is this: happiness must come from the inside in order to be lasting. True happiness, felt at the core of one’s being, cannot come from a material thing. It cannot come from comparing yourself to someone else. It cannot come from simple wealth or anything else simplistic. It must come from a place within yourself, as happiness is a state of mind and a state of being. I have met poor people who are intensely happy; I have met rich people who are intensely happy. And I have met the reverse.
Happiness is all about what you make of it. It is up to each of us to define our bliss, and to take steps to pursue it. While many of us are not lucky enough to know exactly what will make us happy - or unable to pursue if because of external limitations - we can still live our lives oriented towards happiness. We can stay open to possibility, aware of the present moment, and we can laugh, smile, hug and love as much as humanly possible. I know that if we all did that, this would be one happy planet.