Being in pursuit of happiness or seeking inner peace are very different goals. They make very different assumptions about life and require different practices and tools.
Here are some ways in which our journeys differ depending on what we’re pursuing.
First, basic definitions:
~ Attaining happiness is reaching a point where we enjoy our lives. This is a product of an enjoyable life situation (things go ‘well’) combined with an ability to appreciate our circumstances (a positive mindset).
~ Attaining inner peace means that we feel at peace with life irrespective of our life situation (whether things go ‘well’ or not).
How we view external circumstances:
~ Part of attaining happiness is to focus our efforts on improving our life circumstances so that we can enjoy our lives.
~ Instead of trying to change our life situation (as is the case for happiness), in the case of inner peace the focus is on changing our attitude to life towards acceptance.
How we view positive experiences:
~ Seeking happiness assumes that we can reach a point when we have mostly positive experiences, it’s a search for ‘feeling good’.
~ A pursuit of inner peace is not a pursuit of enjoyable experiences, it’s building an attitude of acceptance, outside the notions of positive and negative experiences.
How mindset plays into it:
~ To be happy, we need to approach life with a positive attitude. Some argue that a positive mindset not only affects how we experience life, but can also change our life circumstances (using practices to ‘manifest’ a certain type of life). Thus, mindset is critical in one’s ability to experience happiness.
~ Inner peace goes beyond the mind – it’s not a matter of changing ‘how we think about life’, it’s a different approach to experience and relate to the process of life.
Role of suffering:
~ The pursuit of happiness seeks to eliminate pain and suffering from our dictionary of experiences. Life can be mostly enjoyable, and pain is an avoidable part of life.
~ The inner peace pursuit assumes that pain is an unavoidable part of life so we should not attempt to eliminate it; that would be futile. However, by adopting an attitude of acceptance, we can eliminate suffering from our experience of life.
If you’re pursuing happiness, you’re on a self-improvement journey.
If you’re pursuing inner peace, you’re on a spiritual journey.
Both happiness and inner peace can be cultivated. Consequently, depending on your type of journey, you’ll likely be reading different books and using different tools and practices.
Tools and practices:
~ We learn to be happy by cultivating a positive mindset; we do so by practicing gratitude, empathy, forgiveness, connection, optimism, and more. These practices assume that we can direct our thoughts and actions in directions that foster a positive experience of life. For details on practices to cultivate a positive mindset, see Greater Good In Action at the University of California, Berkeley that offers a collection of evidence-based practices that can help us become happier people.
~ Unlike in the case of happiness, where the work is mostly at the level of the mind, in the case of inner peace the work is at the consciousness level, by practicing presence and open-heartedness.
~ Happiness: Look for books on how to improve your life situation and your mindset. Some favorites are:
Playing Big: Practical Wisdom for Women Who Want to Speak Up, Create, and Lead by Tara Mohr – a book catering to women.
Search Inside Yourself: The Unexpected Path to Achieving Success, Happiness (and World Peace) by Chade-Meng Tan, Daniel Goleman, Jon Kabat-Zin.
~ Inner peace: Look for spiritual books that teach us how to practice presence. Some favorites are:
The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment by Eckhart Tolle
The Untethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself by Michael Singer
Happiness Is an Inside Job: Practicing for a Joyful Life by Sylvia Boorstein
Pursuing happiness and inner peace are not mutually exclusive, and for most of us they are likely to merge over time.
For example, my journey started by seeking happiness through changing my external circumstances (engaging in more meaningful work). However, over time, my journey changed focus. I now long for inner peace more than I long for happiness, and my practices and readings changed as a result.
In practice these two types of personal development pursuits are less distinct as outlined above. However, it’s helpful to be aware of what we’re truly seeking as well as the underlying assumptions of our goals. What are YOU currently pursuing?
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