In the 2015 World Happiness Report, Switzerland was declared the happiest country. The United States was ranked 15th. Lame. Something about the culture of the U.S. is causing us to have a relatively low happiness level. Now, I'm sure we could all make a list of a thousand reasons why this is the case, including the current job market, discrimination of minorities, and that doctor guy who is no longer on Grey's Anatomy. However, there has to be a more personal reason.
I traveled to Boston last fall for a conference. My flight was delayed over two hours, so I had plenty of time to people-watch. I began observing the variety of gadgets people had to occupy themselves. Although other solo travelers surrounded me, no one was alone. They were constantly e-communicating with the world, even if it was with Siri. Everyone was a professional when it came to knowing how to wait, but no one looked totally pleased about it. In that moment, I wondered if the reason why the United States has a lower happiness level is because we spend so much time waiting for something.
We are waiting for the graduation, the job, the marriage, the house, the next thing we can check off of the "I'm An Adult" list. You may have even felt like it will be impossible to continue or to picture the future until this list is complete. Even worse, sometimes we feel waitlisted. We see others passing us in this marathon, and we're wondering why they got first dibs. It's tough to wait.
The conference I was attending was the International Symposium for Contemplative Studies, which is a massive meeting of people who are either neuroscience nerds, contemplative gurus, or both. His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama was also going to be there. Neuroscientists Dr. Amishi Jha and Dr. Richard Davidson would be joining him to discuss the merge of science and contemplative studies.
I realized this might be the only time I ever get to see the Dalai Lama, so I better get a front-row seat no matter what. The dialogue began at 9:00 a.m., so I set my alarm for 4:00 a.m.. People do this all the time to get cheap flat screen televisions, right? This would be worth it. I dragged myself out of bed, quickly got ready and dashed out of my hotel onto the cold streets of Boston. Front row, here I come, baby!
I was greeted on the floor of the hotel by a number of suited gentlemen wearing earpieces (uh...jealous). I didn't want to deal with holding my coat, so I rebelliously crawled under one of the security ropes and hung my coat on a rack. I figured if one of the Men In Black tackled me, it would still be a good story.
I circled the corner and saw...no one. I was the FIRST. ONE. THERE. I only wished someone was around to high-five. I proudly took my place. I looked at my phone. 4:42. I got this. Stand tall. Stand proud.
Two hours later, I was sprawled out on the floor trying to text with one hand so that my other hand could slap myself every 10 seconds to stay awake. I didn't even care when I looked up and saw them rolling away the coat rack that held my lonely coat. This was a stupid idea. No, it wasn't. Yes, it was. No, you're going to see the Dalai Lama. Stop talking to yourself.
When they finally opened the gates, I bolted into the room. I ran to the front row, and my dreams were quickly crushed. Why didn't I realize they were going to rope off the first several rows for special guests? I slid into the closest row I could. I wanted to be annoyed, but it was hard not to smile, enjoy the view and feel thankful anyways.
I knew there was a lesson to be learned in this, but before I could think of it, the Dalai Lama said it himself: "We aren't talking about liberation or future lives; we're talking about leading a happy life here and now." I realized I spent so much time waiting on the future, I forgot about being here right now.
Ask yourself what you're waiting for and then consider how much it may be affecting your happiness level. Whether you're waiting for the traffic light to turn green, the perfect job offer to arrive or the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people to speak, give yourself a breather. Don't consider it waiting. Consider it a chance to be mindful and thankful for life. Happiness can come in a lot of shapes and sizes.
At this point in my mindfulness practice, it was still difficult for me to just sit in silence. I felt like I was just waiting for something to happen. I asked my mindfulness teacher, "How do you know the difference between meditation and just...sitting?" He said, "Well, does it bother you to just be sitting?" I was impressed by his Buddha-like response. And by impressed, I mean confused. But then he continued, "Next time, be content with going one more minute." I now realized I shouldn't call it 'waiting'. It's just 'being'.
John Mayer famously sings, "So we keep on waiting, waiting on the world to change." But Gandhi said, "Be the change you wish to see in the world." If my math is correct, that means you're waiting on yourself. So, get up. Dance. Laugh. Sing. Or, like me, start writing a blog about life. Do something so that you're not just passing the time, but living the time.
(Part 5 of an ongoing crash course on mindfulness in your twenties. Click here for the last post.)