04/27/2012 06:43 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Ira Israel: Happiness


Is the glass half full or half empty to you?

Any time we wish something transpired differently in our lives, that engenders a resentment.

Whenever we hear the words "should have" or "should not have," that is the manifestation of a resentment.

For example:

"I shouldn't have been in that car accident."
"My wife shouldn't have cheated on me."
"My dog shouldn't have gotten cancer."
"My parents shouldn't have gotten divorced."
"My mom shouldn't have put me up for adoption."
"I should have been a banker."
"I shouldn't have bought that house."

Very few people can convincingly say, "My life is perfect. I accept it 100 percent, including the things that I did not want or expect to happen." We all harbor resentments. However, many people hang on to the stories of their resentments as if they were life rafts in the middle of the ocean.

But as Nietzsche said, "It is terrible to die of thirst in the ocean. Must you salt your truth so heavily that it does not even quench thirst any more?"

If we want to change our glasses from half empty to half full then we have to learn to embrace all aspects of our lives and have gratitude for the gifts we receive every day. The problem is that many of us would not know who we are if we gave up the narratives we have constructed around our resentments.

What is often called a "mid-life crisis" is really a problem that occurs when someone actually accomplishes the goals they set out to accomplish. Tacitly, many of us were taught that if we found a spouse, made a few bucks, bought a home, and raised children, we would be happy. But after accomplishing these things many were still not happy -- we were just unhappy parents and homeowners with innumerable daily pressures and concerns. Then we feel betrayed; the voice in our heads say, "I thought if I accomplished these things then I would be happy, but I'm not."

George Bernard Shaw said, "There are two tragedies in life. One is to lose your heart's desire. The other is to gain it."

In our culture we are taught to perpetually want MORE, so even when we achieve a high level of success, the bar is quickly raised to a higher level that we think we need to attain; thus, for many people, any feelings of satisfaction and happiness are relatively brief. This is why the Buddha's second noble truth is that the root of all suffering is desire. Because even when we attain something we desire, that desire is soon replaced by another desire. Desire is insatiable.

Once I heard that the formula for happiness is what you have divided by what you want.

Happiness = What You Have / What You Want

One will never attain happiness by increasing the numerator; rather, one must learn to decrease the denominator and be happy with what one has instead of perpetually desiring more. This is why satisfaction is often fleeting for individuals in our highly competitive culture.

But if you need any more incentive to give up desiring things to have transpired differently in your life, just remember what Malachy McCourt said: "Resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die."

So how do we give up our resentments?

Rick Hanson says, "You can't pull all of the weeds in the garden, but you can plant flowers."

It is impossible to tell someone what NOT to think about. Each time someone utters the command, "Don't think of X," our minds put X into our mindscreens and then remove it. So instead of focusing on the things our minds think should have transpired differently in the past or should be different in the present, we can guide our minds to focus the positive.

For example, we can write gratitude lists, lists of things that we are grateful for:

1. I'm alive.
2. I can breathe.
3. I'm not in imminent danger.
4. I can see.
5. I can smell.
6. I have two legs.
7. I have a few close friends and family members.
8. I have the means to read blogs on the Internet.
9. I had a roof over my head last night.
10. I've eaten a meal within the last 24 hours.

The mind, like a garden, is limited. Although we cannot weed out all of the resentments, we can replace them with simple flowers of gratitude. We can learn to cultivate acceptance of the way our lives are in contrast to how our minds trick us into thinking they should be.

Whether the glass is half empty or half full depends on the observer, not the glass.