The Trap of Spiritual Luffing
If you want to be happy, don’t focus on happiness.
To focus on something is to think about it. When you focus on something, your attention flows towards it, and your conscious thoughts are about it. When you think about something, it exists as a thought — a concept.
Happiness, like love, is not a concept, but like everything, it can be conceptualized. It becomes a concept if you’re thinking about it. When I say the word “happiness,” you are aware of my meaning. Thoughts come to mind which to you mean happiness: you have certain associations, definitions, images and ideas of what happiness is that allow you to understand me when I say the word.
When you focus on happiness, your focus is on what you think happiness is. Your mind is on the concept. Your thoughts and attention are on the definitions, images and ideas that, to you, equate to happiness. Because your focus is on the concept of happiness, your focus can’t be on the things that cause you to actually experience happiness.
When we try to be happy directly, we ignore the causes of happiness. I call this phenomenon “spiritual luffing.”
The term “luffing” comes from sailing. If you want to sail a boat in the direction the wind is coming from, you can’t turn the bow directly into the wind. In order for the wind to carry the boat towards it, you have to sail just to the side of the wind so it can catch your sails and work with the boat to pull you forwards. When facing directly into the wind, there’s no surface area for the wind to catch and the sails will luff: the wind pushes against them rather than filling them, they start flapping erratically back and forth, and the boat goes nowhere.
When you focus directly on “being happy,” your focus is on a concept of happiness, and the concept of happiness is not the experience of it. Equating the experience of happiness with the concept of it is like equating a trail map with the act of hiking. If I talk about hiking Half Dome, you might have a certain image of the route in mind. Thinking about the route is obviously not going to move your body into Yosemite and up the trail.
To most effectively head in the direction of happiness, you have turn your focus away from what you think happiness is, and instead focus on aspects of your life that make you happy. Focusing on the concept of happiness, and “trying to be happy” as a result, gives the winds of happiness nothing to work with. Your mind and emotions flap wildly around, confusedly wondering if this is what happiness feels like. It isn’t.
Complete happiness arises as a lived experience when you put your complete attention on things that make you happy.
If you want to be happy, give your full attention to any aspects of your life that bring you joy, and allow those to be what pull you in the direction of happiness. The organization guru Marie Kondo clocked it beautifully: the trick is to notice what sparks joy, keep whatever does, and bit by bit, give up the rest.
If you start feeling stuck in trying to be happy, this is a glaring sign to change course. Put your focus elsewhere, so your proverbial boat does not get stuck in proverbial irons. When you’ve turned out of the wind enough, by turning away from concepts of what you should be doing to be happy, and towards focusing directly on the activities, relationships and experiences that actually give you the sensation of happiness, the winds of joy will fill your sails again.
For many of us, turning away from our thoughts about happiness, or our conditioned beliefs of what we’re supposed to be doing to live a good life, feels like a terrifying leap of faith. We fear that if we put our focus elsewhere, we’ll careen off course, or lose the wind entirely and end up stuck. It can be a lot less terrifying when you understand that this is basic science of working with your environment to achieve anything.
Finding happiness is as simple as sailing: if you’re stuck going nowhere, turn away from the direction you think you want to go. Take your focus off of where you think you want to get to, and focus on things that actually make you happy. Trust the wind to work with you. It will catch you then, and you will glide towards your destination as effortlessly as a sailboat.