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Happiness: the Fuel for a Meaningful Life

May 8, 2009 | by Rabbi Tom Meyer

How to find happiness by living in the present and anticipating the future. An excerpt from the new book "Powers of the Soul".

In order for soul to lift us into awareness and inspiration, it's got to have fuel. Happiness is the fuel.

Happiness is like gasoline in an airplane. Take it away and nothing gets off the ground.

Happiness has two frames, the present moment and the future.

Some of the spiritual gurus advise people to live only in the present. If we would just live in the "now" and not think about the future, they say, life would be bliss. But I've found that doesn't really work. People think lots about the future and they should.

On the other hand, if you only think about the future, you're never going to enjoy what's right under your nose.

I once had a friend who took a vacation with his family to Hawaii. When he got back, I asked him how it went.

"Lousy," he said.

"How could a trip to Hawaii be lousy?"

"All I ever did was take photographs," he said."I got three albums out of it, but I barely relaxed for a moment."

That's what you call living in the future.

So we're going to focus on how to achieve both present-moment happiness and joy about the future.


Let's start out with how to be happy in the present moment. I'm going to give you an assignment, which I really encourage you to do. The results will be fun and surprising.

Make a list of 25 things you think you need in order to be totally happy. Don't censor yourself, just write freely without worrying about how your list looks.

Here are some things people often put on their lists at my seminars.

One million dollars
One billion dollars
A six-month cruise around the world
To be President of the United States
A Porsche
The perfect marriage
To be famous
To have my own TV show
Healthy children
Parents that get along
A mansion
My own private jet

You've got to admit, this is some basket of goodies. But will their acquisition make you happy?

That depends on what happiness means to you. I think this is a good time to define our subject: Happiness means taking pleasure in what you have.

You're certainly not going to be happy about the things you don't have. Happiness is when you walk outside on a beautiful summer day, look around and suddenly feel a rush of pleasure. Or when you come home from work and your child runs to greet you at the door.

When you sit down to a great meal at a fancy restaurant you definitely feel good. That's because you're happy –- you're enjoying what you have.


Yet look at the things that appear on people's lists. One fact is clear: if they want to be happy, they are going about it the wrong way. They are focusing on what they don't have. If most of their attention is directed toward what they don't have, are they going to be happy? Of course not. I'm certainly not saying that they shouldn't strive for all those things. But they also should take pleasure in what's in their own backyard.

Strive for all you want, also take pleasure in what's in your backyard already.

Look at your own list. How many of the things on it do you presently have? If only a few of them or even none, then you're saying, "My happiness depends on getting X, Y and Z." I certainly hope you get them. But what about being happy in the meantime?

Want I want you to see is that you already have many wonderful blessings. It's enriching and productive to notice them.

Therefore, I want you to make another list. This time, write down 25 of the greatest blessings you currently have in your life.

These are some of the things people commonly put on their lists:

I have hands
I have feet
I have eyes
I have ears
My parents are alive
One of my parents is alive
I am alive
I have children
I have a good friend
I own my house
I love my wife or husband
My wife or husband loves me
I learn something new every day
I know how to read and write
I live in America, Canada, etc.
I am relatively sane

Now you have two lists:

List A: The things you think you need in order to be happy.
List B: The blessings you already have.

Now I want to show you something remarkable. Which of your two lists do you think has better things on it? For example, let's say in List A you put one million dollars (or one billion if you're really ambitious). And let's say you put "eyes" on List B.

Which would you rather have –- eyes or one million dollars? Or even a billion dollars? Would you give up your legs for all that money?

What's the price tag on life itself?

Without exception, I have shown people that the list of what they have is much greater than the list of what they think they need in order to be happy. So if people already have a list of incredible blessings and are grumpy and dissatisfied, why should they believe that they would be happy if they had more things?

You might be surprised to hear that I've even had people with terrible problems acknowledge the pricelessness of their blessings.

The only ones who were reluctant to acknowledge how many wonderful things they had in their lives were people close to suicide. Being suicidal, by the way, comes from obsessive focus on what is lacking in one's life.

What can you learn from all this? It's wonderful to want new things, but you also have to take pleasure in the present moment. If your formula is "If I only had X, I'll be happy –- you'll never be happy. When you get X, you'll focus on not having Y. There's nothing wrong with wanting X and Y, but how about enjoying what you have in the meantime?


I remember the first time I ever taught a class on happiness. At one point, I asked the students to make a list of some of the pleasures they'd had during the day. "Pick things about which you really felt strongly," I said.

Guess what was on the list? Things like "awareness of God" and "helping an old lady cross the street."

"Come on everybody," I said."Those are things you think you're supposed to say. I want something you really felt." One girl in the back of the class shyly raised her hand."Does this count?" She asked."I had a really great cup of coffee this morning."

"How did you feel when you drank it?"

"Terrific," she said.

"I sat in the sun and felt really good just before class," someone else said.

"I got a call from my sister a few hours ago," said a third.

Those were really good examples.

When I ask for people to remember a moment of happiness, they think I am looking for something extraordinary or saintly. They pick giant things they think they should feel, but probably don't. And not too many giant things happen to us during the day. Life is composed of thousands and thousands of small moments.

Happiness is the natural state of a human being -- just watch a baby for a few minutes.

The truth of the matter is that happiness is the natural state of a human being. Watch a baby for a few minutes. They don't seem to have too much trouble being happy.

To make the point, I bring ice cream into seminars. Everyone's mood suddenly perks up and they're all smiles. The ice cream does the trick –- it got them to forget their worries and focus on the goodness of life. Being happy should be a pleasure felt in the gut, not some abstract concept that stays in the mind.

Spend three days looking for your moments of happiness. Every time you feel a true shot of pleasure, notice it. You'll see that sometimes they are few and far between – not because there aren't many chances to feel them, but because you're worrying or focusing on what isn't going right.

Each moment can be filled with pleasure. If you were suddenly able to see or hear for the first time, you'd be filled with joy for at least a whole day.

Looking at a flower, seeing a friend walking toward you, enjoying something you're eating –- all of these are moments of happiness.

People often ask me whether they should write down their happy moments and look at the list every day. The truth is, we don't have to hang onto the old ones. Every second is bringing new ones. Why look at a list of what happened yesterday?

Happiness is an attitude of noticing the good constantly coming our way.

Happiness is an attitude of noticing the good constantly coming our way. There's so much good coming every minute, there's no need to hand onto the past. We don't need to grasp onto a rope to prevent ourselves from drowning when we are standing on dry land.

The trick of it is to get into the habit of looking for good things, instead of griping all day about what's going wrong. I refer to this as a kind of boot camp. In boot camp, the army teaches a soldier how to instinctively do things he's never done before in his life, like marching or loading a weapon. We need to work at getting the same habits in happiness. We're often so consistently programmed to look for the bad or take our blessings for granted, that we become oblivious to all the interesting, pleasurable and good things around us.


Human beings live in time. I've found that it's not enough for people to just feel good about the present moment; they also need to feel optimistic about the future. This optimism is called "joy."

Joy means being excited about the future.

A person who feels that life is wonderful today but will be crummy next week will quickly get a case of the doldrums.

I took my kids on a trip to Disneyland a few years ago. They were so charged up the night before, they could hardly fall asleep.

Wouldn't it be great if we could live like this -– so excited about the next day that we almost wish we didn't have to go to bed at night?

Joy gives us a feeling of power and energy.

There used to be a TV game show called "Supermarket Sweep." Contestants were given a shopping cart and let loose in a department store. They had two minutes to grab anything they wanted. Whoever's cart ended up stuffed with things worth the most money won all its contents. People dashed around the store like wild kangaroos.

This is one exaggerated example of the power of joy. (By the way, if you have joy about the future but no happiness in the present, you'll also be operating at half speed.)

People use a lot of methods to achieve joy. Some of them work great, but others are doomed to failure. Let's take a look at a couple:


I have to be very careful how I explain this one or I'm going to get myself lynched. Professional sports are a very good example of this kind of joy. What happens when a baseball team wins the World Series? The city goes wild. Thousands of people pour into the streets chanting,"We're number One, We're number One."

In my sophomore year at college, the Detroit Tigers won the Series. Detroit was my hometown. The year before, the city had the worst race riot in American history. I drove downtown with friends. Streamers were being thrown out of windows of buildings, people were dancing on the roofs of their cars, strangers were hugging each other and flashing"V for victory" signs. It was great fun.

The reason I call it illusion is because if it's not turned into something meaningful, it dissipates quickly.

The joy came from feeling a kind of power –-"Look at what we've just done. We can do anything if we work together." That's what joy is about. But just because 25 guys on a baseball team won the world championship doesn't mean that in the future I'll be able to accomplish much of anything.

That's why it doesn't last.

Another example of this would be winning a million dollars in a lottery. The joy is that now you'll be able to do anything you want. But if you don't know what you want, you spin out of control, and the opportunity fritters away.

I've read a number of stories about people who hit it big in a lottery. They buy boats, take vacations, get a new house and are besieged by opportunists. Before they know it, their life is worse than it was before. Hard to believe, but true. It is a real opportunity, though.


People truly feel joy when they get married or have a child. Life becomes more meaningful. The joy comes from the anticipation of sharing a lifetime with someone you truly love. The future is bright. There will be strolls in the park, baby carriages, little league games, teenage years, a wedding.

It does contribute to a better life –- the underlying reality is true.

This comes from feeling that you are doing something with your life that will give you meaning forever. It's what we humans are looking for. This kind of joy comes when, for example, you feel that you are growing in wisdom, making a difference in other people's lives or changing the world.

When people think they are just cogs in a machine or that their existence makes no difference to anyone, they cannot feel a sense of joy, therefore, we need to feel that our relationships have permanence, and that our knowledge and good deeds have lasting value.

Many people feel –- and I am one of them –- that belief in God and in an afterlife are a helpful part of this feeling of optimism and joy.

To purchase Tom Meyer's book Powers Of The Soul, you can click here.


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