"The lucky never realize they are lucky until it's too late...People are never happy with what they have. They always want what they had, or what someone else has."
-"The Rabbi" in Lucky Number Slevin
I'm on my couch watching a movie that would become one of my favorite movies of all time, Lucky Number Slevin. If you're not familiar, this is a dark comedy/thriller about a case of mistaken identity.
One particular scene sticks out. The main character is brought to a mob boss who goes by The Rabbi (played by Ben Kinsley). The main character tries to explain to The Rabbi that he's unlucky because they've got the wrong guy. The Rabbi responds by telling him that he was better off yesterday, but it took today for him to realize it. The Rabbi's speech is a profound look into happiness and gratitude. We can manipulate our viewpoint by shifting where we focus. We can change our reference points.
Happiness is a hard word to define. Many people equate happiness with smiling and giggling. People can laugh and smile and not be satisfied with their lives, though. Another way to view happiness is to consider your life satisfaction. Viewed in this way, it's entirely possible to be happy without giggling and laughing.
As hard as happiness is to define, for our purposes here, I'm defining happiness as the difference between what we have and what we want. People who are never satisfied with what they have are always reaching for more. People who are always reaching for more tend to not be happy with what they have. What they have will never be enough.
Alternatively, there are happy people out there who have far less than what you have. In other words, some people are happy with what they already have.
The difference between these two opposing types of people is what they choose to focus on. They have different reference points. Are you happy today? You can't really answer that question without specifying what you're comparing today to. Are you happy today compared to how you were yesterday? Are you happy today compared to how you were five years ago? Are you happy today compared to how you think your life ought to be today?
Our choice of reference points matters for our happiness.
It's easy to complain about everything that's wrong with our lives. This is, in fact, how we are wired. Our brains have a built-in negativity bias. That means that we have a mix of both positive and negative experiences that happened to us, but we will notice and remember the negative experiences more. Author Rick Hanson says that our minds are like velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive experiences.
It makes sense why this would be the case. Back in tribal days, people who were experiencing gratitude and happiness in the moment were unaware of the dangers that were around them. In other words, those people who focused on the good experiences didn't survive to become our ancestors. You can think about it this way, we can't be right all the time, so when we're wrong, we want to err on the side of caution. So if we see a snake and we think it's a snake, we're right, and we can take appropriate action. If we see a stick and we think it's a stick, we're right, and we don't have to do anything. But, if we see a stick but think it's a snake, we run away and the worst that happens to us is we get a little bit embarrassed. But we survive to be embarrassed again tomorrow. However, if we see a snake but think it's a stick, it's no guarantee that we'll be around tomorrow. We had to place more emphasis on the risks.
We no longer live in tribes, however. A lot of good happens to us. We just may not notice it. Gratitude is the practice of paying attention to all the good things that happened to us. In the United States, we do this once a year on Thanksgiving. We give thanks for everything that we're thankful for. I propose that we do this every day of the year.
Consider this, on your worst day, there are at least a billion people who would consider their prayers answered if they could trade places with you in your worst moment.
Things are almost always better than you think they are. There's a lot of good around you; you just need to notice it.
Mindfulness is essentially the practice of paying close attention to the present moment without judgment. That's it. Paying attention is all mindfulness is. The opposite of mindfulness is mindlessness and is our default state. We spend a considerable amount of time lost in thought, talking to ourselves. That's not the issue in and of itself, but thinking without knowing were thinking, identifying with our negative thoughts, limits our happiness.
Slowing down and attending to the present moment helps us be more aware of the positive aspects of our lives. Similarly, paying close attention to the contents of negative feelings and emotions - without judging them or identifying with them - reduces the length of time we are stuck in these negative mental states.
You don't have to meditate to be more mindful, although mindfulness meditation is great practice for living a mindful life. All you have to do is slow down and be aware of your experience.
Within your awareness, you get to choose where to shine your light of attention. The reference points you choose to compare your current situation to will make all the difference in the world to your state of mind and your happiness. Focusing on what you don't have will keep you feeling deprived. Focusing on what other people have will keep you feeling envious. Focusing on what you used to have will keep you feeling sad. Shining your light of attention on what you have and feeling grateful for it will help you live a more happy life.
There are two things I want to bring up concerning your reference point choices. Some people believe that focusing on what we have instead of what we don't have will lead to laziness or cause us to lose our drive. This need not be the case. You can still have ambitions and aspirations in life and work towards them. But while doing that, you can feel grateful for how far you've already come. You can still keep climbing a mountain while feeling satisfied that you've already climbed up most of it.
Others feel guilty for taking pride in what they have when others don't have as much through no fault of their own. Again, this need not be the case. You can and should work towards making the world a better place, whatever that means to you. But you don't have to feel bad while doing it. Everybody has different strengths and weaknesses, and using those strengths to make the world a better place is one of the best things you can do. Feeling bad that you have those strengths doesn't help anyone.