What does the Dalai Lama’s wisdom have in common with blogging? I ran into this quote from him several times recently, and it was too good to let go: “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” One thing it called to mind—aside from the gut sense that the DL had identified the meaning of life in seventeen words—was a remark that my favorite nutty, always brilliant blogger, Penelope Trunk, wrote about blogging: “Your life is boring. I’m sorry to tell you this. But actually all our lives are boring.” Why, then, does she or anyone else bother to blog? “To give the reader something they want.” It boils down to kindness: “I try to focus on this with every post I write. But in fact, this is advice about how to do anything in your life: Help people as much as you can. Give people what they need, and if you focus on that, the rest will fall into place.”
It’s so counterintuitive: Why should focusing our efforts on other people make us happiest? It’s like saying that an archer will best hit his target by pointing his arrow someplace else. To be happy, focus on someone else’s happiness. How does this make sense?
And what about those other people? Is it okay for them to fixate on their own happiness? You know, the ones you’re busy helping? Of course not, unless they wish to be unhappy. So it seems like we’re all part of a massive circle jerk, each assured satisfaction by not considering his or her own satisfaction. This could’ve been Zeno’s fifth paradox.
Wouldn’t it be easier for each of us to worry about ourselves, since who knows what another person needs or wants anyhow? Actually, no. Think about how well you know what you yourself need and want. Now think about how well you grasp what your child, spouse, parent, or best friend needs and wants. In my case anyway, I honestly feel I can often identify their stuff better than my own. We don’t support a billion-dollar self-help/find-your-purpose industry because it’s so clear to each of us what we need and want. Half the time I have no idea if I’m heading down the correct path, or if I’ll one day regret that I didn’t do things differently. That’s surely why the ancient Oracle at Delphi said that one of the keys to ultimate wisdom is the principle to “Know thyself.” It’s also why so few people possess ultimate wisdom.
Back to the circle jerk, then, which is sounding like a better idea all the time. You cannot succeed at being happy by focusing exclusively on your own joy because you lack the perspective to know what your own joy consists of. You may also lack the self-compassion to really do the best for yourself. I thank goodness for the people in my life who love me and help me along toward happiness. If I had to rely on myself for love and kindness, Social Services would’ve intervened and I’d probably be in foster care by now. I’m kidding (sorta), but we all tend to be our own harshest critics, and, interestingly, critics of a self we so poorly understand.
The lesson in all this is positive: Yes, you can be happy! Yes, life is meaningful and purposive! But don’t waste time obsessing over your own happiness, meaning, and purpose. Direct your attention to others, help them see themselves more clearly and become happier, and through this process, your own joy will evolve.