Is Sustainable Happiness Possible?

Are you happy?” I was asked by a few family members I hadn’t seen in awhile. “ Is your brother, your mother, happy?” they inquired further. A fair question, I thought. Meant for casual light conversation. Except happiness is something I contemplate…alot. Doesn’t everyone?

Last week I went home to New York. Even though LA has been my home for nearly 20 years, I still think of New York as home. My trips are always too brief. I see a few friends, revisit old haunts, indulge in a few must have foods (a bagel, slice of pizza and a soft baked pretzel with mustard) and suddenly I feel like I’m “home”. If I’m lucky I squeak in some theater and spend endless hours walking around the concrete jungle, now a tourist in my home town. Four days really needs to be two weeks in the Big Apple to make me really happy but alas there is another life I must return to waiting for me in the perpetual sunny LA.

This trip was a little different for me. For the first time in a long time, I went there as a single person. At first this made me sad but, I went with it. Truth be told, I’ve been deeply sad for sometime now. A combination of life events that spanned from several unexpected deaths, to personal relationships ending, family upheavals and overall life reviews came together and hit me like a sledge hammer. It left me in deep despair.

I have spent more time crying over the last few months than this life affirming yoga and meditation teacher was comfortable with.

At odds with what I do for a living and the hopeless pain I felt inside, I decided to change things up this time in New York. “Why not?” I thought.. I had nothing else to lose. I booked a new hotel. Stayed in a different part of town. I booked my first yoga conference and enjoyed and even got the surprise of my life when my Long Island Family actually came into the city for my stepmom’s birthday.  (No, really. You don’t understand, Long islanders think the city is another country. They simply don’t leave Island for anyone or anything. It was truly amazing!)

The joys of my city were immediately clear upon my arrival starting with the chatty Uber driver.  When I sat down at the bar for dinner alone, several conversations ensued with other patrons.  The following morning at Whole Foods my shopping baskets got stuck together. Immediately a nice boy grabbed the one at the bottom to help me pull them apart. (Too bad for him I accidentally clocked him in the chin when they pulled apart.) But still!  I also bonded with a random guy who sells hats on the street. We watched this well-dressed( clearly not a New Yorker) woman by the Sheraton hotel, screaming god-knows-what, clutching her iphone and hand bag literally charge the cab drivers.   The cabbies were terrified avoiding her at all costs.

My sadness was slowly melting away the more time I spent in my home town of New York.  But was I happy?

To understand and appreciate happiness one must realize that sadness is its life-partner. They define one another. As I’ve dealt with my own sadness, wanting to hit the restart button on my life as well as the circumstances (controllable or not) that created it I know happiness is just on the other otherside.  And the tools to get there are meditation, yoga, the love of family and friends and courage to walk straight through the deepest waters of grief. The only way is through…

Meditation has taught me the skills of being in the moment, shifting perspectives and releasing uncomfortable emotions when they arise—the ones that aren’t happiness—no matter how long it takes or how messy it gets. As a yoga teacher and meditator, I don’t get an E-pass anymore than anyone else does from deeply painful emotions or circumstances. But, as a yoga teacher and meditator I do get a survival handbook that helps me navigate the difficult waters of life. ( One I share often with students.)

So, as I sift through this recent wave of painful grief..as I watch my friends and family post their struggles and sufferings on Facebook…the one question I keep asking myself is:

Can we attain sustainable happiness?”

Author Shawn Achor of The Happiness Advantage says we can. So does the Dali Lama and many others “Positive thinking Pioneers”. I think we can too.  But, I think it takes more work and discipline than many of us are willing to do. I also think it takes a certain amount of intense suffering and continual despair to even ask the question, “Is sustainable happiness is possible?”

Isn’t the pursuit of happiness why we work so hard? Fall in love? Create families? Pursue dreams? Keep our health in check? Create art? Buy stuff we need or don’t need? Take trips? We continually make our “happiness sacrifices” today so we can be happy in the future( assuming we are lucky enough to have that future arrive).

The pursuit of happiness is an inescapable part of being human. So why not pursue Sustainable Happiness as stridently as we chase the moments of it?

Happiness is really personal. Happiness is also a moving target. It changes as we change in our lives. But, if we continue to solely generate happiness from the outside in, chasing only the moments and quick fixes without considering the long term effects our moments of happiness generate, we will never get out of the happiness-sadness cycle.

I really fell in love with concept of the middle way when I attended this Buddhist temple in my early twenties. Buddhists understand that to have intense, happiness, love and attachments will only mean an equally intense opposite at some point. The loss of these elements will be unavoidable, unless we practice living the middle way. Not so easy. But, it is possible and worthwhile (especially if you’ve had enough downfalls to last you a life time).

All answers start with asking the right questions. Next time you chat with a friend, family member, or are investigating yourself… challenge yourself . Don’t ask “What makes you happy,” but rather  ask yourself “ How can I generate Sustainable Happiness?

What changes in behaviors need to be made from the inside out? What outside circumstances need to be let go of or changed to generate lasting happiness? What wounds in our hearts need to be healed, forgiven or let go of so there is room for Sustainable Happiness to root itself in deep inside? How do we develop enough personal happiness that doesn’t rely on things or others, which will one day, even if it is fifty years from now, go away, die or be broken and make us unhappy again?

This investigation doesn’t mean you abandon what makes you happy momentarily from the outside in. This investigation will only enhance these moments of joy because it will deepen the appreciation for them.