I’ve always wondered. What does it really mean to take responsibility for your own happiness? At the most fundamental level it means this – nobody or nothing on this planet can make you happy. But is this true? We have all instinctively felt really happy when one our friends unexpectedly visited us or when we had a good time with family and friends. Even alone, there are clearly times when external things can indeed make us happy. Doing some sport or Yoga or even watching a movie can be quite enjoyable. Then why are we told again and again that nothing can make us truly happy?
I think the key here is the amount of our subjective involvement in the activity, person or thing. Always notice that when we are in a bad or a low mood, the same person or the same book fails to light us up. When we are beset by a depressive low energy, nothing seems to charm us. This means that we need to be receptive enough to be able to actually enjoy things. This indicates that there is a very real subjectivity to all experience. I believe, this is where most of us go wrong. When we are in dull moods, we do not ask ourselves, why is it that I am unable to enjoy the thing that I usually enjoy. You see this in children most starkly. When it is close to bedtime, kids usually get very cranky. No amount of toys or distractions can elevate their spirit. All they need at that moment is a good night’s rest to recharge their batteries. Therefore, our mental, emotional and energetic states of the being are critical in order for us to enjoy anything at all. This suggests that there are two components of every experience. One, the external thing itself which triggers something in us. And us, the thing that is triggered by every experience.
Therefore, when we feel happy at meeting our friend, we are actually experiencing joy in ourselves, triggered by the other. A repeated exposure to this friend, will gradually dull the feeling of happiness that we initially experienced. Therefore, what is important is to try and understand how we can prepare ourselves in order to be vibrant enough to engage in this world. This preparation is the work that each one of us must do on ourselves. This is like calibrating a sensitive instrument before a measurement can be made with it. Keeping ourselves in mental and emotional shape is the sadhana, the spiritual discipline.
Taking responsibility for our happiness and indeed for all states of our mind means that we realize that we are the containers in which happiness can come about. We do not depend on the other person or thing to make us happy. Yes, the external thing has a role in engaging with our internal states – but it is not an essential condition. The majority of our time and attention goes in working towards fine-tuning our internal perceptions. This re-directing of our mental energies towards improving our own abilities is what is meant by taking responsibility for our own state of mind. Let’s look at a real example. Let’s say someone we love said something very hurtful to us. The instinctual reaction is to get offended and to start accusing and blaming the other person. The focus of our mind goes towards what the other did and how bad they are . This is giving up the responsibility to the other. On the other hand, taking responsibility means, looking at why this is hurting me? Why does this person’s words affect me so much? Am I looking for people all around me to always praise me, or at least hold me in good stead? Do I derive my sense of self-worth though praise and appreciation and kind words? Do those hurtful words actually change me? Do I become what the other says about me? We need to start introspecting our reactions and not on the other’s words or actions. This shift in perspective is what is meant by taking responsibility for our emotions.
One point often asked at this stage is Do I put up with anything and everything that the other might do? What if we are stuck with an abusive partner? Do we accept this and focus on only working on ourselves? Absolutely not. We can be very clear about our “No Go” list of values. If our value system is breached by the other, we can communicate in a non-accusatory fashion and give time and room for the person to improve. If we see improvement, then that’s okay. If not, we will have the courage to move on. This decision, while it may pain us, will not leave us with a sense of regret. For we know that the decision came from a calm deliberated space. We realize that while the situation may create emotional pain and sadness in us, it does not take away anything central to us. It does not erode our value system and our ability to constantly introspect.
Taking responsibility for our emotions begins by accepting ourselves as we are. When we can accept ourselves as we are, we can begin to see ourselves without any sort of filters. We see ourselves fully and in a bold and naked fashion. Only through this sort of courageous acceptance can we begin to introspect and ask the hard questions in life. This honesty with oneself is the beginning of acceptance. And through acceptance we take responsibility to change those aspects of us that could do with improvement. Life then begins to be based on a continuous learning and not on arriving somewhere, on showing others that we have arrived. This turning of our attention inward is the beginning of all wisdom in life.