Happiness training

Recently, I was talking with an app developer and congratulating him for having hundreds of thousands of users. “No,” he said, shaking his head, “it doesn’t mean anything until you have a million users.”

“Really?” I said, thinking I’d be pretty psyched if I had that many people on my mailing list. “But, in the meantime, you can be happy with the hundreds of thousands of users you have now.” He was not convinced.

Ha, it’s easy to tell others they should be happy where they are. And it was a good reminder that happiness is a skill  — you can’t convince someone that they are happy any more than you can convince them that they play the violin or tennis.

What I’m starting to really get is that, like any skill, happiness takes practice. If we haven’t practiced how to be happy (i.e. appreciate) where we are now, we’re not going to suddenly and magically know how to be happy when we get the millions of followers/big-time clients/dream job/physical fitness/relationship or whatever else we think might bestow instant happiness.

In fact, if our usual mode is relentless striving and wanting what’s “over there,” we’re essentially training ourselves to always feel lack, scarcity and not-enoughness.


As top performers, we might equate happiness with complacency, as in: “Yeah, but if I’m happy now, the powers-that-be will think I’m satisfied with what I have and I won’t get what I really want.” Or “If I’m happy now (in this lowly place of not having achieved my goal), I’ll lose my drive and motivation to change.” What I started to understand is: one, appreciation of what you already have takes you to a different place, mentally and energetically, where you can see opportunity you wouldn’t have from your place of dissatisfaction.

Two, appreciating what you have doesn’t have to negate the desire for more. In fact, the ideal stance is “happy where I am and looking forward to what’s coming.” Because, if you’re like me, as soon as you reach a goal, you enjoy it for a bit and then your focus shifts to something else – so if you don’t savor the journey to the goal and the satisfaction of reaching the goal is fleeting, then where does that leave you?!

Still, I was holding onto the idea that there must be some particular circumstance that would just be so amazing that it would automatically mean happiness. Then I read this anecdote by Russell Simmons about his brother Run DMC who achieved what he thought would be his dream existence and found it wasn’t enough. Run was sitting in the tub, in one of the most expensive hotels in LA, with a plate of pancakes in one hand and a joint in the other while getting his hair trimmed by his personal barber. He had just finished looking at the latest Rolling Stone featuring Run DMC on the cover.

The phone next to the hot tub rang (groupie!) and, lunging to answer it, Run accidentally ashed his joint onto his pancakes. When he tried to brush the ashes off the pancakes, he knocked bits of hair into the syrup. He then tried to pick the hair out of the syrup, but since he was high, he ended up knocking the entire plate into the water. Instead of feeling on top of the world, he felt disgusted and out of control.

A pretty vivid argument for happiness as a state of being, not circumstances, don’t you think?


So, it’s that “choosing happiness as a a state of being” thing that takes practice and it starts with focusing on the process not an outcome. It means: training yourself to make peace with where you are, accepting that you’re exactly where you’re supposed to be. (Never mind that our culture views acceptance as a weakness. You’re accepting where you are in this moment, not that you can’t change it going forward.) It means: shifting from thinking “why is this taking so long” to seeing the journey itself as the goal. Reframing it as mastery means there’s no finish line.

It means: using imagination and curiosity to find intrinsic satisfaction in whatever you’re doing. Daniel Chambliss says in Champions: The Making of Olympic Swimmers: “The very features of the sport that the “C” swimmer finds unpleasant, the top-level swimmer enjoys. What others see as boring — swimming back and forth over a black line for two hours, say, they find peaceful, even meditative, often challenging, or therapeutic.”

Bottom line: You can be happy anytime if you’re enjoying the process. Training yourself to do that is…part of the process.