If there was a simple recipe for being happy, would you follow it? Most of you are probably rolling your eyes right about now, but this is not necessarily a stupid question to consider. I'm going to come back to that question later, but first - I have a little confession to make.
I have spent many years studying theories & tools in pursuit of an ideal life. I have always prioritized being happy as a goal that I could eventually attain. However, I am consistently also faced with many more years of previous training and conditioning – teaching me that productivity is really the key to success (and in many ways, also my value as a person in society).
About 10 or so years ago, I remember my Grandmother, Nana, scoffing at my idea that life was about being happy. "Life is hard!" she would say. The truth is, in some ways, I really came to believe that. And quite honestly, most of the time, life really did feel hard. But in more recent years, nearing the end of her life, my Nana would say things like "as long as you're happy...". I noticed – to my surprise – that her emphasis in conversation had changed from my productivity to my happiness. I never had a chance to ask her about that shift in perspective, but I did notice it, and it stuck with me.
Sometimes I think about my final days on earth... what it would be like to be dying, and to realize that I could have just been happy? That I always had a choice. But instead, I had wasted most of my days stressing out over productivity and expectations that weren't even rooted in reality.
This brings me to Dumbledore's wise words – it's probably one of his most famous quotes from the entire Harry Potter book series:
"Happiness can be found, even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light." — Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
So, what did he mean, remember to turn on the light? When I first read this, many years ago, I think I interpreted the meaning as simply seeing the glass half full. But these days, I have a bit of a different interpretation of "remember to turn on the light", which is: remember to be the observer.
There are many wise people who have taught about the idea of the "roommate" living inside of our head. Simply put, these are our thoughts. Calling your thoughts a roommate is a way of acknowledging that you are not your thoughts. I'll never forget, back in college during my Abnormal Psychology class, when my professor said "Listening to the thoughts inside of your head is like talking to a crazy person." It took me years to truly understand what he meant by that. He was explaining that your thoughts do not live in reality, and that giving them power is like believing a crazy person.
All of the pressures, the expectations, the doubts, the shame, & the limits that we put on ourselves are a product of our thoughts – they have no place in reality and they do not represent our authentic self. I believe that we find true happiness in authenticity, and in the present moment. We are happiest when we are here now – not thinking about the past or the future. The thing is, thoughts are part of our human condition. The thoughts will come, whether we like it or not. We may not be able to control them. So what do we do?
We turn on the light! We become the observer of our thoughts. Simply, we just notice that we're having thoughts. When we become the observer, we immediately separate our authentic self from the roommate living inside of our head. We see that our thoughts do not define us. We notice how quickly they change from one thing to the other... how inconsistent and unrealistic they are. Whether or not we believe our thoughts is entirely up to us.
A few days ago I was posting about this on Instagram, and I came up with a metaphor about a wave. When you're in the ocean, you can see a set of waves coming towards you – there is no stopping them. However, there is still a choice: will you ride the wave, or will you swim under it, let it pass, and watch it fade into the shore? We get to decide which waves are worth riding, and which are worth swimming under.
I challenge you to remember Dumbledore's words and try turning on your own light. Observe the thought patterns you experience throughout your day. The funny thing is, sometimes noticing your thoughts is really all it takes. Because as soon as you notice them, you become the observer, and suddenly the thoughts lose their power.
Now, back to my original question: will you follow this simple recipe to happiness? Simple does not mean easy.