I’ve recently started watching a brilliant Netflix series, When They See Us, exploring lives of five boys who got falsely accused of and convicted for an assault and rape of a female jogger in New York City back in 1989.
I’ve been battling with each episode, as it’s extremely hard to watch five innocent boys go through hell during staged trials, serve their full sentence in juvenile prisons (except for one, who got sent to an adult prison), and have their hope in justice and humanity completely shattered.
Even more heart-breaking to watch were their futile attempts to re-socialise with the world that refused to give them a chance to lead a normal life upon their release. The only people who stood by their side were their grieving families and, in some cases, most immediate community — the rest of the world turned their backs on them.
I couldn’t help but think, as I was watching the series, how minuscule the struggles that the majority of us go through are (though, of course, we shouldn’t undermine them, either).
The loneliness, unfairness, and obstacles that we face simply incomparable to theirs. And I thought to myself:
How do you even stand a chance to be happy in a world that has resolved to treat you so unfairly and mercilessly?
Happiness is having something to look forward to.
‘When They See Us’ is one of the saddest stories I’ve come across lately; and yet I believe that its key message is that of happiness.
Now, happiness is an elusive phenomenon and one that philosophers and academics have been struggling to define for centuries. But in one of the episodes, Angie (a sister of one of the “offenders”, Kevin) manages to capture the underlying feeling with a simple yet powerful statement:
Happiness is available to all of us, no matter how bad our circumstances are, as long as we find something — one thing — to look forward to.
For Angie, ostracised by society after her brother’s conviction, that one thing was her newly met boyfriend. For one of the boys, Yusef, it was his religion. In order to be happy amidst his misery, Kevin had to find ‘his thing’ to look forward to every day.
Being in the moment vs. in the future.
Now, I know what a lot of you will say — isn’t the key to happiness, as mindfulness and meditation experts teach us, being in the present moment and content with what we’ve got right now?
Partly, yes; but what if your current circumstances really do not lend themselves to feelings of gratitude and contentment? What if hope in the brighter future or a small aspect of your reality are the only form of consolation you can get at that very moment?
Whilst it’s immensely important to be able to be in the present moment in the fullness of your experience, good or bad, I believe that humans are driven by hope. We need to believe that our present-moment endeavours ultimately lead us to something good, something better, in the future.
That belief can also sweeten the hardships we face as we go about our daily lives and help us endure feelings of sadness, anger, or discouragement that we’re all subject to at times.
Paradoxically, having something to look forward to, can also make us more present, more engaged in the here and now.
Just like an upcoming holiday makes us try harder to complete outstanding projects at work, the vision of a fitter body motivates us to work out in the gym, or a dream house makes it easier to save money, having something to look forward to helps us show up in the world more fully in the present moment.
Having something to look forward to inevitably gives meaning and purpose to whatever hardships we are going through right now.
Find your why.
In a culture so obsessed with happiness and in the world that is relatively affluent, safe, and stable (at least for the majority of those reading this article), we should all technically be able to define and “find” happiness; and yet, many of us — including myself — seem to be searching for it in all the wrong places.
Over centuries, happiness has been defined in so many different ways, though, that it’s totally unsurprising that we wrestle with the concept so much.
I think that going back to basics and defining our why can bring us infinitely closer to this elusive state.
Although we all crave for the “big why” to our existence, focusing too much on the distant future can deprive us of the enjoyment available to us every day.
And whilst there’s nothing wrong in trying to define our bigger purpose — in fact, that craving occupies the very tip of Maslow’s pyramid of needs — focusing on the “small things” is a powerful tool, enabling us to bring more pleasure and purpose into our daily experiences.
I, for instance, am really looking forward to catching up with my friend this evening, teaching a yoga class tomorrow, date night on Friday, and a restful weekend packed with everything I love to do.
I invite you to take a minute to define the things you are looking forward to today, tomorrow, at the end of the week, or next month. Whilst seemingly insignificant, this mind shift is likely to help you change your perspective and experience of the outer world and, to paraphrase Dan Harris, feel at least 10% happier.