“I just want to be happy.” I hear it all the time from my clients. In fact I think it’s the ultimate benefit they hope to receive from coaching. But when I ask them to describe what that looks like, I hear answers like this…
“I dream of laying on the beach and feeling like everything is where it needs to be.”
“I want to get home from work knowing I made a real difference. I want to know that my energy was spent seeking my own definition of success, not someone else’s.”
“I see myself living abroad in Ireland with my family, spending a Friday afternoon picnicking in the greenest field, playing games, and snuggling with our dog.”
Take a moment to imagine yourself in one or two of those situations. How do you feel? I’ll bet you feel pretty calm and peaceful. I don’t know about you, but this is an interesting phenomenon. I hear, “I want to be happy,” but I’m shown “I want to be at peace.”
I have a hunch that we confound happiness with contentment, or inner peace.
This is no small anomaly. When you spend countless months chasing a dream, wouldn’t you want to know it’s what you really want? Would you spend years of your life nurturing a peach orchard only to realize you liked nectarines all along? If you’re not aware, how can you know the difference? Take this post as your wake-up-call.
So what’s the difference between happiness and inner peace? Happiness is when you perceive external conditions as positive, whereas inner peace transcends external conditions. Happiness is when your mom sets a plate of cookies in front of you. It’s when you win a free iPad. It’s when an old friend calls you up out of the blue. Inner peace is about being just as content if everyone ate all the cookies before you got any. It’s being ok with calling your old friend and not hearing back for two weeks. It’s walking outside on a windy day while remaining still inside.
Here's the kicker: you can't make contentment a future goal to be achieved. It's available to you only in this very moment. Striving after peace is like taking apart a speaker to find the music inside. It just doesn't work. Peace is available to you only now—one breath at a time.
The beauty is, when you cultivate a capacity for inner peace, you unlock a world of growth that was previously unavailable. “There have been many people for whom limitation, failure, loss, illness or pain in whatever form turned out to be their greatest teacher. […] It gave them depth, humility, and compassion. It made them more real,” says Eckhart Tolle. Whenever something negative happens to you, there is a deep lesson concealed within it. Challenge yourself to uncover that lesson whenever something does go wrong.
All of this is not to say that happiness a less worthy experience. I don’t mean to say that we shouldn’t celebrate successes, that tears of joy are bad, or that it’s wrong to let your heart leap when you win that free iPad. But I would hate for you seek out one thing without realizing you're really after something completely different.
Is peace what you’re really after? Take a moment to look at your own life. Pick an illustrative day from your ideal life 3 years from now. What does it look like? Does it resemble my clients’ descriptions? Be honest with yourself.
Do you confuse happiness with contentment and peace in your own life? I would love to hear from you!