I feel like this is a principle we’ve heard loads of times on the radio, seen loads of times as the moral of a film or TV programme, and read loads of times as Instagram captions.
It gets to a point all the inspirational quotes and motivational pep talks floating around the ether start to just wash over us. But this shouldn’t diminish the importance of this teaching.
It sounds so easy, but it’s also surprisingly easy to overlook. I’m definitely guilty of it, and I feel like most of us probably are. We always think the grass is greener on the other side, that we should aim for a better house, a better car, a better job.
And of course, to an extent this is a really positive mentality to have. It fuels us in striving for better things and a better life, and is the source of our ambition, and often our hope - the belief that things can be better.
But on another level, it can also be a negative mindset, in the sense of it leaving us constantly dissatisfied with how things are at present. And seeing as happiness is something that can only ever be experienced in the present (because when it comes down to it, we only ever experience life in the present), we’re focussed on improving happiness for us in this moment, now, today - not in five years time.
There’s a Tibetan Buddhist meditation technique that relates to this. Its aim is actually to improve compassion, something that will come up later in this project, but it seems relevant to this principle too. It involves visualising somebody that is suffering, whether through illness, poverty, injury - whatever the form of suffering might be. And you just focus your mind on that person, seeing their suffering, really trying to empathise with them.
This is how it builds empathy, but it also draws our mind to how fortunate we are not to be in their situation. No matter how bad we might think our situation is, the chances are there’s someone out there with it a heck of a lot worse.
This isn’t so that we can gloat about being better off. It’s about being appreciative for what we do have, and not always focussing our energy on what we don’t.
That’s why I’ve chosen ‘A-Team’, because it’s kind of like the meditation I was talking about before. Ed Sheeran details the struggle of a prostitute, living on the streets, and battling a drug addiction. I love this song because it’s so perceptive, as some people wouldn’t really think twice about the suffering of a prostitute, perhaps thinking that ‘well, they chose that life, so it’s fair enough that they suffer the consequences’.
But this is a really cold and flawed way to think about it, and I feel like ‘A-Team’ draws our attention to the extent of this one person’s suffering. Ed is amazing at painting vivid pictures through his music, and this means it’s easy to imagine the person he’s singing about. We can use this in the same way as the Tibetan meditation involves visualising someone who is in pain, and then imagining yourself in that situation. This will hopefully help us realise how fortunate we are, whilst also cultivating feelings of compassion towards the person who’s suffering.
When it comes down to it, life isn’t always greener on the other side. Robert Downing wrote this quote that I have always tried to live my life by - “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp. Or what’s a Heaven for?”
But I’m starting to learn that it’s not all about exceeding your grasp, it’s also about appreciating what’s already in your hands.
The Oxford University professor Michael Plant wrote a really good piece on happiness, and in it he recommends writing down three things you are grateful for each day. This trains your mind to adopt a more appreciative mentality, and one that can improve your chances of achieving happiness.
As the quote from 5th Century BC philosopher Diogenes goes:
“He has the most who is most content with the least”
What's your song choice for today?