The Three Thieves and Four Pillars of Happiness

The First Thief of Happiness:
Reacting Emotionally instead of Responding Rationally

You wouldn’t fire a gun without aiming, would you? So, why would we act without thinking? When we live as robots acting on impulse instead of rationally, there is a heavy price to pay. Replacing thoughtful behaviour with thoughtless acts leads to mental and physical suffering: lost dreams, emotional turmoil, and bodily pain and illness. Let’s look at the sequence of events that creates so many problems in our lives.

First, there is a stimulus or event. Perhaps my wife frowns at me and rolls up her eyes in exasperation. Or maybe my boss yells at me. Or someone throws a half-eaten hamburger out a car window, and it lands smack in my face.

Second, the event triggers a thought such as, “Oh! Oh! My wife is mad at me again!” Or, “My boss doesn’t like me.” Or, “I’d like to get a fat, juicy hamburger and squish it in that jerk’s face.”

Third, the thought immediately brings up an emotion. I might become angry, surprised, perplexed, confused, excited, or frightened. Although I don’t realize it, the emotion I experience is not caused by the event that just took place, but by a memory of a somewhat similar event in my childhood. For example, if my boss yells at me, this may trigger a childhood memory of my father yelling at me. And the feelings I had at that time of helplessness, anger, and fear are suddenly relived. I think my boss is the cause of my racing heart, sweaty palms, and anxiety, when, in fact, my dead father causes it!

Fourth, we take some action. This is the crossroad. One of two things can happen. One is stupid and the other, intelligent. The stupid thing to do is act in the heat of the moment, without thinking things through. In other words, we behave emotionally rather than rationally. For instance, I may shout at my boss, “I’m sick of your griping; I quit!” This is stupid because rather than solve a problem, it creates a new, and bigger, one. How will I raise my family and pay my bills, if I quit?

Sadly, acting emotionally instead of rationally is commonplace and the cause of much needless misery. The smart thing to do when emotions grip our imagination is to stop and think before we act. Okay, so my boss yelled at me. But why is he my boss? Isn’t it because he has more experience and knowledge than I do? Doesn’t he present an opportunity for me to learn more, grow more valuable, and become a team player? If this is the case, rather than creating a problem by quitting, why don’t I solve a problem by telling my boss, “Whoops! Sorry for upsetting you, boss. When you have a moment, can you review with me what I’m doing wrong and how I can improve? I’m sure with your guidance I can become a valuable team player.”

The Second Thief of Happiness:
The Fight or Flight Response

How does an animal behave when it is attacked? If escape is possible, it flees. If it is in mortal danger and finds it impossible to escape, it has no choice but to fight. If the attack is not a matter of survival (such a lion attacking a zebra for food), but of dominance (such as rival male baboons struggling to become leader of the troop), the weaker of the two will surrender to avoid death. Some animals surrender by rolling over on their back and exposing their throat, as if to say, “My life is now in your hands. I submit to you. Spare my life.”

We have inherited these primal drives, and unless we are being attacked by enemy soldiers or vicious criminals, they are more of a hindrance than a help. These three urges are known collectively as ‘The Fight or Flight Response.’ Fleeing, fighting, and surrendering are usually inappropriate behaviour for Homo sapiens. To make up for these shortcomings, we have inherited a powerful brain that allows us to modify our behaviour. The only problem is the rational part of our brain can not help us unless we choose to use it. That’s why failure to use rational thinking is the first thief of happiness. Now, let’s take a closer look at the three components of the second thief, The Fight or Flight Response.

1. Fleeing (also called the flight response). Animals flee from imaginary danger as well as actual danger. For example, the sound of rustling leaves blown about by the wind may cause an animal to flee because it misinterprets it as an enemy stalking it. We also misinterpret threats, but on a much larger scale. An innocent glance at us by a stranger may be construed as a menacing look. We may feel uncomfortable and avoid those of different races or religions. And the slightest problem may cause us to panic and run. We may seek escape in drugs, alcohol, sex, TV, and other addictions. The inclination to run away from the smallest discomfort greatly hampers our happiness.

2. Fighting. The misdirected use of this urge is the cause of most of mankind’s suffering. War, violence, road rage, bullying, vindictiveness, hostility, and hatred are manifestations of this drive. Although it is usually misdirected, it is admirable when used for a just cause. Acquiescing to evil doesn’t help humanity, fighting it does. However, when we unjustifiably attack others, whether by word or deed, we injure them and ourselves, so both sides are robbed of their happiness.

3. Surrendering. Infants depend on their parents for survival. Fearful of being abandoned, they acquiesce. They submit to their parent’s demands and surrender their will. Adults who continue to behave this way see themselves as helpless and powerless. They are crybabies. They love to wallow in self-pity. They may move from job to job for every time they try something new, they feel overwhelmed and quit. They believe the world owes them a living and they can’t cope with struggling.

The Third Thief of Happiness:
The Pleasure-Pain Principle

We have an innate desire to avoid pain at all costs, and a powerful attraction to pleasure. It is called The Pleasure-Pain Response or Pleasure-Pain Principle. We came preprogrammed with the Flight or Fight and Pleasure-Pain responses. Their purpose is identical, self-preservation. While the Fight or Flight Response protects our species by causing us to immediately run from danger, The Pleasure-Pain Response takes a slightly different tack. By welcoming pleasure, we enjoy eating, the warmth of a fire, and procreation, all of which insure our preservation. Similarly, our distaste for pain encourages us to avoid placing our hands in fire, boiling water, or the mouth of an crocodile, all of which helps us to survive.

These two responses worked well for primitive man. But today we are not faced with the same dangers as our ancestors. Consequently, more often than not, both responses hold us back more than they protect us. The Pleasure-Pain Response is a notorious cause of procrastination and failure because we are drawn to the pleasure of TV, alcohol, shopping, and playing while we are repelled by anything that requires work or effort.

Imagine cavemen sitting in comfort before a fire in a communal cave being urged by their mates to go hunting for food on a cold, snowy, winter day. They are being called on to make a sacrifice. They are being asked to give up the comfort of their cave temporarily for greater rewards. Of course, there is initial resistance. But by accepting the task, they discover their rewards far outweigh the comfort they temporarily set aside. For they will come to experience the joy of victory over the foul weather, the exhilaration that follows a successful hunt, the praise of their mates and offspring, the sharpening of their survival skills, the camaraderie of working as a team, and the intense pleasure of returning to the cave.

Life has changed in many ways since the cave dwellers. Yet, in many ways it remains the same. After all, we are bound by an immutable law of the universe that states all achievements require sacrifices. Those who refuse to make sacrifices refuse to grow. They refuse to succeed. They refuse to discover the joy of accomplishment. They refuse to establish meaning and purpose in their lives. And when they do so, they pay a heavy price. For the pain of future failure will be far greater than any discomfort a sacrifice would have required. Don’t join the ranks of those who have yet to learn that it’s not what we take up, but what we give up, that makes us successful.

The First Pillar of Happiness:
Doing What Is Best, instead of What Is Easy

The First Pillar of Happiness is the opposite of The First Thief of Happiness. In the case of The First Thief, we act without thinking, automatically guided by our emotions, and engage in self-defeating behaviour. But when we follow the principle of The First Pillar of Happiness, we think before we act, taking the time to ask ourselves, “Is what I am about to do best for me, or am I inclined to do it because it is safe, easy, and pleasurable?” Note how we can support and maintain our happiness by acting rationally, thinking things through, analyzing our behaviour, and acting in our best interest.

Doris is unhappy because she thinks life is unfair. Hal is always angry because everyone he meets is a jerk. Beth is always getting into arguments because everyone is trying to take advantage of her. Frank can’t hold a job because he refuses to put up with office politics.

It’s time for the truth to be known. Doris’ problem isn’t that life is unfair, but that she thinks it is. Her problem isn’t with life, but with her thoughts. Hal’s problem isn’t due to jerks, but to his feelings, which he is responsible for. Beth’s problem isn’t that she is exploited by others. Rather, it is her own actions that bring her so much grief. Finally, Frank’s problem isn’t office politics, but his own poor attitude.

What is attitude? It is our perspective or view of life and is composed of our thoughts, feelings, and actions. The cornerstone of everything, however, is our thoughts because without them there would be no feelings or actions. Our thoughts, then, are the building blocks of our reality. Or as Buddha (568 ~ 488 BC) expressed it, “We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts, we make our world.”

Things happen to us. We then interpret events and take action. In other words, life acts and we react. We are free to interpret events in a positive or negative manner. If we’re wise enough to look at things in a positive light, we lead happy lives. If we allow ourselves to get bogged down in negative thoughts, we lead miserable lives. That’s why it’s time to think about what we think about. It’s time to monitor our thoughts and control them, rather than have them control us.

The Second Pillar of Happiness:
Living Courageously

The Second Pillar of Happiness, Living Courageously, is the antidote to the Three Thieves of Happiness. You see, when we act automatically (The First Thief), we act out of fear; The Second Thief is how we express our fear, and The Third Thief deals with the fear of pain and its escape (pleasure). Living courageously is about facing our fears and overcoming them. Living courageously is how we respond to life’s call to become a champion, a winner, a hero, a success.

It is important to occasionally reflect on the principles of life. If we remember that the way we respond to fearful situations determines whether we become timid individuals or models of strength, we would choose our actions more carefully. Whenever we are struck by fear, we are standing at a fork in the road. One branch of the road leads to cowardice, the other to courage. One fork leads to our desires and dreams, the other to disappointment and despair.

Fear is a beacon, pointing the way to a new opportunity. It is an invitation to stretch ourselves and experience more of our potential. If we’re not watchful and succumb to fear, it will inhibit our growth. Growth is synonymous with change. How can we make progress by standing still? Yet, many of us resist change, preferring to remain in our comfort zone. For those who choose to do so, Stan Dale has this to say, “Comfort zones are plush lined coffins. When you stay in your plush lined coffins, you die.”

Imagine a developing butterfly refusing to leave its chrysalis (cocoon). Unless it’s willing to spend a great deal of energy to break free, it will not reach its potential and become a butterfly. But for those that make the effort, the rewards are great. The exhilaration of flight! The joy of becoming fluttering flowers, shimmering with colour! What about us? Are we willing to break through our chrysalis (comfort zone)? If we want to soar badly enough, we will make the effort.

The Third Pillar of Happiness:
Getting along with Others

To experience happiness to the fullest, we need to share it with others. People are the gateway to knowledge, wisdom, and love. Can you imagine living in a world without people? Would you want to?

Are you fortunate or unfortunate? How would you know if there was no one else to compare yourself to? Are you kind or unkind? You couldn’t know in a world without people. After all, every noble human characteristic needs interaction with others for its development. I can gauge whether I’m kind or not by the way I act toward others. Can you see how we need others to understand ourselves? Moreover, people are the source of our power. The more we can get along with others, the more powerful we become. By powerful I mean the freedom to be, do, and have our heart’s desire.

Life gives back to us what we give to it. So, if I help others, what do you suppose they will do? That’s right, they will help me. Because we need the help of others to reach our goals, one of the most important things in life is to help others, thereby receiving their help. But don’t misunderstand. The purpose of helping others is not because we need their help, but because they need our help.

How do you feel when you are served by an ingratiating waiter in a restaurant? It is not pleasant when a waiter fawns on you because he wants a big tip. But when the waiter is sincere and offers impeccable service because he takes his job seriously, it is a delightful experience. For this simple reason, when we help others, sincerity and the desire to always do and be our best must be our guiding principles.

The Fourth Pillar of Happiness:
Transcendence, Moving beyond Ourselves

When all we think about is ourselves, we focus on an infinitesimally small part of the universe. But when we expand our view and look beyond ourselves, we come to experience the full depth of life and the grandeur of the cosmos. Awakening to the glorious nature of life requires more than opening our eyes and mind, for we must also open our hearts. Although it is possible to be happy without transcendence, this pillar can elevate our happiness to the level of unimaginable ecstasy and almost unbearable bliss.

Isn’t it miraculous how the universe can express itself by creating a Pablo Picasso, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, or a Michelangelo? The universe is performing miracles every day. Here’s how Ray Bradbury describes the process: “We are the miracle of force and matter making itself over into imagination and will. Incredible. The Life Force experimenting with forms. You for one. Me for another. The Universe has shouted itself alive. We are one of the shouts.” “Everything is a miracle.” says Picasso (1881 ~ 1973), “It is a miracle that one does not dissolve in one’s bath like a lump of sugar.” And Einstein adds, “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”

Part of the miracle of existence is the interconnectedness of all things. As I walk through the park, I can smell the roses. How does that happen? Well, the fragrance of the roses is actually a stream of molecules wafting through the air and entering my body through my nose. Though separated by distance, the roses and I are connected. Speaking of distance, what about that star I was gazing at? It’s light-years away. Yet, photons streaming from it enter my eye, excite the optic nerve, and cause my brain to create an image of it in my mind. That star and I are connected, “touching” each other! And, of course, you and I are connected in a special way, for all humans share a common gene pool. We’re made of the same stuff. We’re related. We’re interconnected.

These facts also impressed Einstein, for he wrote, “A human being is a part of a whole, called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest… a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”