09/03/2014 11:06 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Description, Prescription, and the (Seemingly) Endless Pursuit of Happiness

The strangest thing happened to me recently. A friend gave me a preview copy of what promises to be the latest, cutting edge, bestselling book on the science of happiness -- and I didn't read it. Those of you familiar with my three self-help books a week reading habit (and thank you for your emails of support -- they really helped me through my rehab) may think that this was a triumph of will over weakness and that one day soon I will relapse, crack the cover, and begin once again inhaling somebody else's insights and instructions into becoming a better, happier me.

And perhaps one day I will. Yet what struck me wasn't that I didn't immediately drop everything to read the book -- it was that it didn't even occur to me to do so. In fact, the main thing I've learned so far from the experience is that despite the usual host of difficulties that any family of five goes through and a few unique challenges we were facing that week, I am happier than I have ever been. Better still, I am more secure in that happiness than I have ever been. And for a one-time suicidal depressive, that's really kind of cool...

In order to understand what has put a stop to my (seemingly) endless pursuit of happiness, it seems worthwhile to me to explore a habit of thinking that is so endemic in the self-help world that it tends to happen without even raising an eyebrow:

We turn every description of how successful, happy, healthy/wealthy/spiritual people function into both an ideal state for us to strive for and a behavioral prescription for how to get there ourselves.

For example, here's a selection I've plucked from the second chapter of the 2,500-year-old classic book of wisdom the Tao Te Ching:

Therefore the Master
acts without doing anything
and teaches without saying anything.
Things arise and she lets them come;
things disappear and she lets them go.
She has but doesn't possess,
acts but doesn't expect.
When her work is done, she forgets it.
That is why it lasts forever.

This is a beautiful description of how someone who is aligned with the energy of the universe (in this book, the Tao or "the Way") naturally lives. Now, notice what your mind has already begun to do with it.
Here's what mine made up:

  • I should act without doing anything and teach without saying anything.
  • I would be a better person if I have but don't possess, act but don't expect, and forget about my work when it's done.
  • The way I really ought to handle things is to let them come when they arise and then let them go so that they will disappear.
Now, if this isn't you, please ignore the rest of this tip, lest you turn my description of how this habit of thinking works into a prescription for how yours should work. But if any of those thoughts resonate with you, let's look a little deeper into this phenomenon.

Why do we do this? Why do our thoughts so often tend in the direction of what we should do and how we should be in order to be happy and whole?

As best I can tell, there are two very simple reasons:

1. We do not realize that well-being (the fount of "happiness") is our nature, and not the result of anything we do or don't do, be or don't be, have or don't have.

2. We think change is a causal element and wisdom and understanding are the effect, when in fact wisdom and understanding are the causal element, and change is the effect.

In other words, how you live is the natural product of the way you currently see the world. When your level of understanding shifts (i.e. you "see things differently"), you will naturally and automatically change the way you live. And there's nothing you need to do, be, have, or change in order to be happy.

Now, if you're anything like I was over the past 25 years or so, your next question is some variation on "How do I get my level of understanding to shift?" Which would be a great question if change was what led to wisdom and understanding. But since it doesn't, let me leave you with this somewhat paradoxical thought:

"When you don't know what to do, don't do it."

with all my love,


For more by Michael Neill, click here.