Happiness – as observed in a phrase attributed to Rabbi Schachtel – is the art of wanting what you already have.
Somehow, without trying, this is an attitude I’ve cultivated with great success – possibly aided by a dollop of aversion to change.
When I’m living at home in London, I never want to leave. When we’re travelling, I never want to come back. I’m so happy with my menu choice I refuse to try anything different because I don’t think it’s possible to get better. Even when something’s going wrong, I’d never want to swap my problems for someone else’s.
In other words, the grass is always greener on my current side of the fence. And it’s great: I’m happy pretty much all the time, and never experience any kind of jealousy.
You could say it’s easy for me because by any objective standard I’ve been lucky and have a lot – and you’d be entirely right. But there are plenty of extremely unhappy people with wonderful lives and great material wealth, and I believe this “wanting what you have” attitude can be practiced whatever your current situation.
So how do you do it?
Practice noticing what’s great about what you have
Our minds have evolved to notice what’s not good about our current situation, to make us strive to improve it. Of our ancestors had sat around being thrilled about the one bucket of grain they had to get them through the winter, none of us would be here.
So we unconsciously go through our days noticing that our house is too small, our kids are being difficult, and our job can be dreary.
To counter this, develop the habit of noticing what’s great about what you have. Your house is opposite that lovely park, your kids are spirited and inquisitive, and your job has generous holiday and pension benefits.
At the start, this is something you have to consciously force yourself to do – perhaps by listing out 10 things you’re grateful for every day (three or five is too easy – 10 really gets you digging for the tiny things, which is what you want).
Over time, it becomes a habit – crowding out the habit of noticing what you’re not happy with.
Speculate about what’s bad in someone else’s situation
Again, a natural instinct – ramped up to extremes in a social media age – is to look at someone else’s possessions or situation and want it for ourselves.
It’s difficult to want what we have when we’re busy coveting what someone else has.
So, make a habit of “reverse jealousy”: go out of your way to point out what might not be great about someone else’s situation.
“Wow, the logistics of staffing that mansion must be a nightmare”
“His kid might be the youngest chess grand master in the country, but I bet he has to spend every weekend driving him to boring tournaments.”
“He must be constantly worried about getting a scratch on that limited edition Ferrari.”
Long-term, this isn’t healthy: you should be happy for the success of others and mentally wish them well. But as a deprogramming exercise to kick-start your own satisfaction, flipping your jealousy and noticing what’s not good can be helpful. Because…
Remember: you see your own problems in more detail than others’
There’s no such thing as the perfect marriage, the perfect business, the perfect job, the perfect house, perfect health, or the perfect anything at all.
Everyone has worries, insecurities, frustrations, niggles, aches and pains, and myriad ways in which their life is far from perfect.
It’s just that you have a front-row seat for the imperfections in your own life, and only see others’ fleetingly or from a distance. This is magnified a million times over by social media, where others go out of their way to present a filtered, stage-managed image of an imaginary perfect life.
It’s important to remind yourself of this frequently until you internalise it. Otherwise, you can never be happy with what you have because it will never live up to the illusory perfection of what others have.
You need to balance happiness with a drive to improve and progress
Like I said earlier, persistent dissatisfaction is a powerful motivator. If you become too satisfied with your lot in life, will you lose your drive?
I’d suggest that you balance the two.
When it comes to your possessions and family and standing in life, you should want what you have – making sure you keep harmful envy at bay, and appreciate the small moments of each day.
But it’s OK to still be dissatisfied with your professional progress, or your ability in a sport you enjoy, or the amount you understand about a particular subject. As long as it doesn’t become an obsession and it sits within the framework of your overall life happiness, wanting more than you currently have when it comes to realising your potential is a useful and powerful motivator.