Yeah you read that right: Reaching your goals won’t make you happy. I know, I know we’ve talked all month about reaching your goals. And you should totally resolve to achieve them–but, that alone won’t make you happy. Let’s begin with a quick story:
Once there was a little gray mouse. He lived in the same house as an old gray cat. The little mouse was afraid of the cat.
“How happy I would be but for that old cat,” he said. “I am afraid of her all the time. I wish I were a cat.”
A fairy heard the little mouse say this. She felt sorry for him. So she turned him into a big gray cat.
At first he was very happy. But one day a dog ran after him.
“Oh dear!” he said. “It is not much fun to be a cat. I am afraid of that dog all the time. I wish I were a big dog.”
Again the fairy heard him. She felt sorry for the old gray cat. So she turned him into a big dog.
Once more he felt happy. Then one day he heard a lion roar.
“Oh, just hear that lion!” he cried. “I am afraid when I hear him. It is not so safe to be a dog after all. How I wish I were a lion. Then I would be afraid of no one.”
Off he ran to the fairy.
“Dear fairy,” he said, “please turn me into a big, strong lion.”
Again the fairy was sorry for him. She made him into a big strong lion.
One day a man tried to kill the lion. Once more he ran to the fairy.
“What now?” asked the fairy.
“Make me into a man, dear fairy,” he cried. “No, indeed, I will not. A man must have a brave heart. You have only the heart of a mouse. So a mouse you shall become again, and a mouse you shall stay.”
So saying, she turned him back into a little gray mouse, and away he ran to his old home.”¹
Circumstances rarely change disposition
Several times in the story the mouse gets exactly what he wanted, yet his happiness is brief. Why is his happiness so fleeting? Because with each blessing the mouse focuses on what he doesn’t have. He continues to find a reason to be unhappy and fearful, and at no point does he stop to reflect on his blessings. (Like the fact he has a fairy that grants him wishes.)
We do this all the time. We focus on things we don’t have and find reasons to be unhappy, scared, and anxious. If I only had a new website, I’d be happy or If could just get to that price point, that would be enough. How many of us look at social media feeds and get down on ourselves because others are doing things we would like to be doing?
And as with the mouse, our ungratefulness becomes a habit as we fearfully keep searching for more. If you’re unhappy, achieving more ultimately won’t change that. We often fail to realize that our circumstances rarely change our disposition.
Perhaps worst of all, ungratefulness makes it nearly impossible to enter into other people’s joy. It creates fear and insecurity, which leaves no room for joy and empathy. We become too focused on ourselves.
An attitude of gratitude is difficult to develop (c’mon you knew that rhyme was coming). Gratitude requires discipline, and discipline requires practice. Many of us have formed a habit of comparing ourselves to others, whether it’s social media followings or the amount of work have or something else entirely.
Four ways to be more grateful:
1) Silence and solitude.
Our daily lives are not built around these two principles. We are always connected and we are always “in it.” Silence and solitude allow us to disconnect, refresh, clear our minds, and gain perspective.
In Dallas Willard’s The Spirit of the Disciplines he states:
“It takes twenty times more the amount of amphetamines to kill individual mice than it takes to kill them in groups. Experimenters also find that a mouse given no amphetamines at all will be dead within ten minutes of being placed in the midst of a group on the drug.”
(To be clear, the moral of the story is not to do more drugs alone.) It’s easy to get caught up in life’s busyness, especially when we’re always surrounded by people. Silence and solitude can have a profound effect on perspective, especially if it’s practiced diligently.
2) Stop, look, go.
This is a practice from Benedictine Monk David Reindl-Rast’s TED Talk on gratefulness. The idea is to occasionally stop, and examine the world around you before moving on. We often overlook simple blessings in our lives.
3) Creating a list of gratitude or going on a “gratitude walk.”
It’s difficult to be grateful and unhappy at the same time. Take some time to write down the things for which you’re grateful, or reflect on them during a daily walk. It might sound a bit cheesy, but many successful people have adopted this practice. It’s intentionally used time to create a habit of gratitude.
4) Service work:
If you need to put life into perspective, there are few things better than service work. Helping those less fortunate than you forces you to reflect on your own life. And often you’ll be surprised to find that those with far less are incredibly joyful, which is a humbling experience.
David Reindl-Rast recalls a time he visited an area of Africa with no electricity or clean water. When he returned home, he was overwhelmed with everything he had. Since the feeling faded quickly, he wrote himself notes of reminder to stop-look-go.
Part of being fearless in 2016 means being grateful. As the year picks up and becomes busier, be sure to set aside time to develop this attitude. It has the potential not only to change your life, but to change the world. As David Reindl-Rast explains:
“[Gratefulness] can change our world in immensely important ways, because if you’re grateful, you’re not fearful, and if you’re not fearful, you’re not violent. If you’re grateful, you act out of a sense of enough and not a sense of scarcity, and you are willing to share.”
¹Bryce, Catherine T. (1995). The Mouse Who Was Afraid. In William J. Bennet (Ed.), The Moral Compass (254). New York: Simon & Schuster.