How to Find Happiness in an Unhappy World

In yoga, we talk a lot about suffering.  As if it’s assumed that if we can move past suffering, happiness will come. But that’s simply not the case. Because while suffering is inevitable in this life, it seems happiness is not. Happiness is something we must create ourselves.

You see, unlike pain, which can indeed be inflicted upon us – happiness is an emotion that is cultivated in our brain. It’s a feeling that comes from how we interpret our world and its events. Kind of like the glass half full as opposed to empty. Which could lead one to think that if everyone could just get a freakin’ full glass water, we’d all be happy – right?

Wrong. If success or even having all our needs met was enough to make us all happy, then how can we explain the increasing rates of depression and addiction in this world? Think about it, you probably know someone – or many someones – who seem to have it all. And yet, unhappy. Miserable, even.

Shawn Achor is a leading expert on positive psychology. He says we are looking at this all wrong. That the opposite of happiness isn’t even UNhappiness – but really, apathy.

So forget about the glass because happiness isn’t something we can find outside of ourselves at all. And I know you know this already. You practice yoga. So on some level, you get this.

maitrī-karunā-muditopekṣāṇām sukha-dukḥa-puṇyāpuṇya-viṣayānāṃ bhāvanānātaś citta-prasādanam 

Find peace and happiness through a kinship with your experiences of happiness, a compassion with pain, and indifference to negativity. //Yoga Sutra 1.33

But here’s the part we don’t always get, though certainly implied above: happiness also isn’t passive. It’s a teachable, learnable, skill. Something very much in our means to cultivate – and not any more determined by how much water is in our glass than by money or achievements.

The people who can most successfully get themselves up off the mat are those who define themselves not by what has happened to them, but by what they can make out of what has happened. These are the people who actually use adversity to find the path forward. They speak not just of ‘bouncing back,’ but of ‘bouncing forward.’  //Shawn Achor

You know what, though? I didn’t need a psychologist or even my yoga practice to teach me this. I had my father. My dad is no stranger to hardship. And yet, one of the most positive people I know. Growing up, he already taught me all I needed to know to be happy.

3 Keys of Happiness

#1. Find the Good.

My dad really is a professional optimist.  Though just as easily I guess, he could’ve become just the opposite. Because he’s had more practice dealing with setbacks than nearly anyone else I know.

The Twins' First Communion

The Twins’ First Communion: My dad, on the left.

One of seven children growing up in Hell’s Kitchen, New York – when it really was  hellish. His father, an Irish immigrant, drank his paycheck, leaving little for the family. His mother, on the other hand, seemed only equipped to take care of herself. I’ll save the stories for another time – but believe me, they are colorful and deserve to be penned on day. For now, I’ll point you towards the book, Angela’s Ashes – and then you’ll get the idea. That kind of childhood.

But the stories my dad really loves to tell all take place at Ebbets field, where he and his twin brother, John, spent much of their time, hanging outside the outfield, gloves in hand – watching their beloved Brooklyn Dodgers. More than sixty years later, my dad can still tell you every single player on the roster in 1951. Because that was the year he caught a foul ball hit by Hall-of-Famer, Eddie Matthews, in his rookie year.

For my dad – Ebbets field, the Brooklyn Dodgers, and playing stickball in the streets with his brother – this was the childhood he fondly remembers. That ball, a symbol of everything that made him happy, is what he holds on to still.

He looked for the good – and he found it.

Forty some odd years later, he’d manage to snag another. It was in Memorial Stadium at an Oriole’s game, again with his brother – though this time in paid seats. Always the optimist, my dad still attended every game with his own glove. You know. Just in case. And it paid off with a home run hit by the Oakland A’s, Mark MacGuire. That ball was quite a score, as my Uncle John explains. After all, there was some stiff ten-year-old competition up there in the stands that afternoon.

My dad just smiles: “It was a one-handed catch, I made. Such a good catch.”

#2. Look for Opportunities.

My dad’s first car accident happened when my parents were first married. Though it was the second, after a drunk driver hit him … or was it the third when the lady ran a red light? I get them mixed up … that left him permanently disabled. He has a “stiff” leg, as we call it. It was a time before hip replacements so his was fused and thus his leg doesn’t bend at all from the hip down. Seemed his days of playing stickball were forever over.

My dad, after the first accident.

We had a hospital bed in our Baltimore Rowhouse living room where dad lay in a body cast for literally two years. I was in kindergarten and then, first grade. As awful as that sounds, awful is not how I remember it.

I spent nearly every afternoon up there on that bed. His cast served well as our table for lunch. And afterwards, we’d lift the napkin to reveal the checker board he had drawn and we’d play for hours. At some point, he added poker, using match sticks to ante up. Can you imagine? Learning to read and play poker at the same time. Not many kids can boast that!

Needless to say, I’m incredibly close to my dad. In fact, I’ve spent more time with him than most kids ever get to spend with either of their parents. As a kid, I considered myself lucky. Though truth is, it’s only now, as an adult, that I realize just how lucky I was.

My dad always saw the opportunity – even from a hospital bed.

Growing up, my dad was a pressman, working the night shift. So when my sister and I went to bed, he went to work. When we went to school, he slept. And when we got home from school, my dad was there to greet us. He didn’t have to work the night shift – he chose to work it. He saw it as a way to be there for us kids. To be the kind of father he never had.

Plus, it paid time-and-a half. So then there was that too.

Because that’s my dad. He doesn’t deny any of the hardship. But if there was something to be had in it all, he would look and most certainly find it.

#3. Have a purpose

Still, being on his feet so long each night was hard on his leg, which didn’t get much blood circulation. Ulcers would develop and that meant time off work – without pay. These, coupled with lay-offs and union strikes, made raising a family a serious challenge. I remember lots of nights, all of us camped out by the wood stove. I thought they were like sleep-overs but only, with your parents. It never occurred to me they simply couldn’t pay for heat.

Anyway, all this to say, we weren’t exactly poor – but there were definitely times when their sole purpose in life was to make sure my sister and I never felt the weight of those years. And we didn’t.

But even in the worst of it, my dad still worked in the soup kitchen downtown, helping to feed those who were poor. As times got better, he joined FISH (Friends In Service Helping), buying groceries for those in need. The best part of both for him, was being able to slip the kids extra treats either in the shopping bags or on the trays of food. Most of the time, it was chocolate. Sometimes toys. These were things most people wouldn’t think of, focus only on necessities. But for my dad, the little things were just as necessary.

No doubt, those little surprises made the kids happy. But my dad, perhaps the happiest of all.

Doing for others gave him purpose.

The Pursuit of Happiness

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I’ve never seen my dad get down. I have. I’ve known him to be skeptical and even pessimistic at times. Sometimes functional but always temporary. That is … up until the start of last year.

It was then I received an email from my mom. Seemed my dad had taken a fall doing something out in the yard. He hit his head and cracked a few ribs. Yet that wasn’t the worst part …

The real damage occurred in the twenty minutes my father spent outside, trying to get back up – and couldn’t. In those twenty minutes, fear set in. And a despair that was now still winning. My mom said he was just sitting in his chair in a way she hadn’t seen him. Like, ever. Now she was afraid too.

At the time, I was in India, having my own mental crisis. Mostly because I didn’t know why I was there. It felt wrong even before I got my mom’s email.

Me, enjoying some elite yoga experience – part of select group to gain the coveted acceptance into the main shala in Mysore. Privileged in every way. Meanwhile, my friends back home were still grieving the results of a catastrophic election, dealing with the aftermath, and planning marches in protest.

I remember sitting at the pool that weekend – yes, THE POOL! – and listening to a young gal bemoan the fact she’d be leaving soon and hadn’t been moved along in her practice to a place she felt satisfactory. Just a few more poses, and she’d have been happy. I wanted to scream.

All I could think of was my dad. A man who will never be able to bend down and touch his toes – but who has lived more a life of yoga than anyone I knew.

My face flushed with the red of anger. And with eyes widened, I turned to face this girl but just as I opened my mouth, I could see my daughter, begging me with eyes of her own, “Please mom. Please don’t.” And so I didn’t.

Besides, it wasn’t her that really made me so angry. I was angry with myself. And I was already unhappy before she ever sat down next to me to complain.

It wasn’t until the next day, I shifted. It wasn’t planned, more like programmed.

First, remind myself of the good. After all, I am in India with my daughter who is also my closest friend. How ridiculously lucky am I? Plus, I have a teacher and a supportive community and friends with which to practice. In following weeks, I would deepen my friendships there and make life-long new ones.

Next, find the opportunity. Every week, I would listen to Sharath speak of what our real practice is – not the physical one, but a spiritual one. Others deserved to hear this message. So I asked if he would be consider being interviewed for the podcast. Though I admit, I was shocked when he agreed. But he did. And he was brilliant. Sharath’s episode remains the most downloaded episode BY FAR of the Ashtanga Dispatch Podcast.

Finally, give my time greater meaning. Clearly, the last thing I needed were more days at the pool. Instead, Meghan and I joined another group of yogis, feeding and vaccinating the many litters of street puppies. They were everywhere last year. You literally couldn’t turn a corner without tripping over another litter. This work gave us a purpose and connected us with people even outside the yoga community. Families we now consider our own

Of course, we ended up fostering two of them which completely complicated our lives and made our time there difficult. And ironically, so much more joyful. Our last month was both harder and happier than any other I’d experienced.

Without action, the yoga is meaningless. Find true joy by creating purpose.

The Spread of Happiness

One of those puppies came home with us to Montana. Her name is Indie. You probably already know this as she’s perhaps now, the most popular member of the Ashtanga Dispatch team. Besides Moose (our lab), that is. I always feel like communities are always slightly disappointed when I show up without her.

The other puppy went to my folks. I remember Facetiming my parents from India the day we took them back to our apartment. My dad took one look at those puppies and like a kid, asked my mom if they could have one. By the next day, they had already given her a name –  Grace. And it’s a name she’s lived up to. For she was indeed the grace that helped bring life back into my dad’s eyes. The reason he was looking for to get back up.

I visited them last month. Every morning before breakfast, my dad gets his coat and his cane while Gracie waits by the door, tail wagging. They go to the dog park where Gracie meets up with her friends – and my dad meets up with his. And in the evening after dinner, my dad retires to the family room to sit in his chair. Gracie sits patiently until my dad reclines. Clearly this being the invitation she is waiting for. And she takes a running leap onto his lap.

This IS what happiness looks like. Along with the man who taught it to me.

My dad and his saving Grace

Next up: How to apply these same keys of happiness in the yoga practice – especially when injured. Because this is exactly how Meghan scored herself that jumpback that ended up our top 2 posts on Instagram last year. Find out how by making sure you’re on our email list below:

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  1. What an awesome tribute to your dad. My father was a construction worker and was laid off every winter. I thought it was great, because he was home 4 months out of the year and was there when I walked in the door from school. I’m sure my parents thought otherwise. I’ve watched my dad struggle too. We were the lucky ones, to be inspired by such great men. I hold on to that thought when I miss him now.

  2. This is a really lovely post Peg and I loved reading it. My Dad too was my inspiration and taught me many of the things that your dear Dad has shown you – tho he died when I was pregnant with my daughter I am sure that his teaching still runs through me and my family. And bizarrely, his dog was called Grace (a yellow lab) too!!! Claire x

  3. This was simply beautiful and a wonderful tribute not only to your father… but to your mom and the way you were raised and to the person you are now being a mom with a best friend as her daughter ….

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