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The Only Dependable Source of Happiness

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I once wrote about a peculiar practice I do to help me become a less judgmental person. Whenever I’m out in public and I catch myself judging a stranger—for such offenses as poor sidewalk-sharing, or imprecise parking—I resolve instead to temporarily become their secret ally.

Unbeknownst to the other person, I’ve gone from silently resenting them to silently watching out for them. For the short time we’re in the same vicinity, I’m prepared to leap into action should they need any sort of help. If they appeared to need directions, I’d offer. If their grocery bags were to tear, I’d help collect the rolling fruit.

I’ve almost never had to actually spring into action, aside from helping people reach things in grocery stores, but that’s not the main purpose. Essentially I’m training myself to view others with goodwill, rather than judgment.

And it works. My helping reflex is stronger and my judging reflex is weaker. Becoming a secret ally also makes me feel happier right in that moment.

Part of what’s so empowering about this practice is that it’s totally portable and self-contained. It doesn’t matter what happens, or what the other person does. Simply assuming the role of a helpful person, in any situation, helps me become a more naturally helpful person, and also creates an immediate sense of well-being. It’s like I’m making goodness out of nothing. It almost feels like cheating, like some kind of alchemical secret.

Summer is waning now, so I’m soaking up as much warmth as I can, taking a long walk down to the Forks every evening I’m free. Lots of others are out too at that time, so I do my little practice as I go, trying to maintain a sense of quiet goodwill towards my fellow citizens the whole way there.

Occasionally I’ll listen to a few passages from an inspirational audiobook as I set out, to help create a benevolent mindset. Recently I threw on Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, from wherever it was paused in the middle, and the old philosopher king turned out to be the perfect tutor for this particular skill.

Essentially, he spent his whole life doing more sophisticated versions of what I was trying to do. I had been practicing one virtue, helpfulness, in certain situations, and over time this benefited me immensely. Aurelius described practicing a whole list of virtues—namely courage, prudence, temperance, and fairness—every day, in all situations.

His repeated advice is to always be honing your capacity for these qualities, whenever you do anything, not so that you’ll be recognized as a great or saintly person, but because the embodiment of these qualities is the only reliable source of happiness. Every other source of happiness, such as acclaim, wealth, health, or access to pleasure, can be lost or taken from you, and even when you do have them, you live in fear of losing them.

Why not, then, invest all your efforts in cultivating the best and most durable source of happiness—a strong, unshakable character—given that it naturally aligns with the best of your goals and intentions anyway?

He believed in concerning yourself with this project alone, and finding your contentment in it, because nowhere else could contentment be dependably found. Everything else you need to do—working, raising a family, solving problems, having friends—will be accomplished by practicing these qualities.

The great truth my “secret ally” practice hinted at, and which Stoics like Marcus Aurelius understood through and through, is that there’s a certain kind of happiness you can create by practicing being a certain way in the world. And the work that you do on that level—unlike everything else in life—is impervious to circumstances.

Aurelius described this process of cultivating your character as carrying within you an invincible fountain of contentment. At this point, mine is barely a sprinkler. But it will only grow, and will remain flowing no matter what happens to my life situation.

Our intuitive happiness-seeking strategy is to try to steer external conditions such that they somewhat reliably produce happiness for us, if we’re lucky. Accumulate and protect a certain amount of wealth. Worry about what people think of you. Avoid pain. Don’t think about death. Strategize about how you will keep all this going.

I’m not sure how many of us are ready to renounce all that worldly strategizing. Few of us grew up knowing any other way. But in the mean time, we can start building that invincible fountain beneath it all.


Image by Rob Coates

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Paula October 5, 2019 at 7:33 am

When the mind tempts me to join its judgementalness then I am quickly reminded of the Truth – there is only myself here, eternal nothingness which can not change. I am perfect emptiness as is the ‘others’ who are also myself. All that moves fades into my nothingness. Only nothingness is what never changes and can be relied on. And there is the Peace that I am. This is What Is before anything. This is What I am. I am the nothing that the everything moves on.

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