Happiness and obtaining it has been written about a lot in recent years (I’ve admittedly read my fair share of these things), like there’s some secret and complex formula that we all must decode and follow in order to obtain this holy grail of emotions.
Even thinking about writing a post about happiness, how to get it, and posing like I’m some authority on it makes me feel so pretentious I need a shower, but I did hear one great analogy recently that I wanted to share.
Happiness is a bucket with a hole in the bottom.
You can put all kinds of things in your bucket to fill it—food, drink, material goods, romantic partners, a job, pretty much anything—and while it can get considerably full, there will always be that hole, slowly draining everything that comes in.
It often takes a long-term effort to fill that bucket, as in the case of establishing a career you love. Sometimes something as simple as a phone call from an old friend can fill it. And occasionally everything can be going so well that the hole seems temporary clogged.
Conversely, a bad job or relationship can be a complete drain on everything else that is deposited into a bucket, into a life.
For as long as I can remember, I was always waiting for the day that I would ‘arrive’—the day my bucket would be permanently full. I would look at the lives of those much older than I (especially my brother and sister) and think they had it all right then. I wanted their fun dorm and friends, their tight after-school hangout group and spot, their collection of framed memories on the wall.
Then when I got to those once-desired ages, I found myself wanting their grad school life or young professional career in the big city. I impatiently wanted to ‘come into my own’, and I wanted it all figured out right then.
But only recently has it hit me that I will never arrive.
Paradoxically, realizing this has made my life feel more whole than it ever has before. Contentment—having a full bucket—comes by virtue of no longer needing to seek external gratification; the bucket’s saturation remains steady.
To borrow a Buddhist idea, Contentment is the ultimate goal because when it is achieved, there is nothing more to seek until it is gone again. This of course cannot be maintained for very long, as then there would be no balance in life. In other words, my bucket will never stay completely full, and if it did, there would be no incentive for me to do anything.
Arrival and coming into oneself is something only visible in the rear-view mirror. It’s a nice thing to look at now and again, but look too much and you will wreck and destroy what’s in front of you. Focus on enjoying and developing what is had here and now, and the bucket stays brimming.