As an adult I have gone through treatment for leukemia. Twice. I would never have chosen this for myself. There were aspects of it that were uncomfortable (nausea from chemotherapy), there were aspects that were painful (bone marrow biopsy), and there were aspects that were frustrating (travel restrictions and fatigue).
And, having cancer was one of the most positive experiences of my life. I spent a lot of time feeling deeply grateful and appreciative for people and life. I was overwhelmed with the depth of human kindness, the breadth of human commitment, and the sheer miracle of existence. Dare I say that, overall, having a cancer that I did not want was a good thing? Having cancer helped me see firsthand how much of wellbeing is independent of circumstances.
I know that happiness gets a lot of press these days – good and bad. I am very reluctant to use the word, because there is a lot wrapped up in it that is not helpful. Many people think of happiness as feeling good –pleasure. However, it turns out that the pursuit of good feelings and the avoidance of discomfort can lead to a host of unintended negative consequences. Chronically chasing pleasure for pleasure’s sake can lead to stress, addiction, debt, loneliness, depression, heart disease, stroke, diabetes…the list goes on.
There is another major aspect of happiness – purpose. Purpose and pleasure have a complicated relationship. Sometimes being purposeful is pleasurable, and sometimes it is not. Sometimes activities that are pleasurable serve a larger purpose, and sometimes they do not. What we do know is that the blind pursuit of pleasure leads to diminishing pleasure over time – it’s how our brain is wired. We also know that having a sense of purpose for what we do on a daily basis leads to greater overall wellbeing.
Is wellbeing completely unconditional? Absolutely not. Your circumstances definitely have an impact on your wellbeing – access to healthy food, clean drinking water, shelter, healthcare, education, and a supportive social network all make a big difference. However, many people who have access to all these things suffer because we have come to believe that these things are not enough. We have come to believe that we are not enough. We have come to believe that the answer is more.
So what is unconditional wellbeing? It is the health and happiness that does not depend on your circumstances. It comes from access to internal resources such as acceptance, compassion, love, gratitude, and awe. It comes from working peacefully with your circumstances and purposefully with your choices. It comes from using your attention, time, and energy to contribute, to connect, to serve, to learn, and to grow. It comes from doing what you are capable of with what you have.
Why is your unconditional wellbeing good for the planet? Our manic, conditional pursuit of pleasure is not working for us as a species – children born now in the United States will not live as long as their parents. Despite advances in medical technology and greater materal wealth than ever, our lifespan is declining because of our behavior. And, our pursuit of pleasure through consumption is not sustainable for the planet. We cannot produce enough shiny things and glowing screens to create lasting happiness, but in the attempt, we are stripping our hillsides and polluting our air, rivers, lakes, and oceans. Tapping into the lasting wellbeing that is not dependent on our circumstances could take a lot of pressure off the limited resources of this insanely beautiful home of ours.
Unconditional wellbeing is not an attitude – it is not putting a positive spin on everything that happens. Unconditional wellbeing is a practice. This practice begins with bringing awareness to how fleeting conditional pleasures truly are and how durable purpose can be. This practice includes cultivating acceptance for challenge, gratitude and awe for daily life, and empathy and compassion for strangers. It includes reaching out to a friend or loved one or being of service to someone in need. In includes taking care of our bodies with sleep, exercise, and whole foods.
There is a confidence that comes from knowing that even as circumstances continually change, you have a practice for working with them peacefully and purposefully. The more we practice, the more we see that we are enough. We see where our attention and energy can be helpful. We see that wanting more and needing more are not the same thing.