Soren Kierkegaard, one of the modern world’s first existential philosophers, discovered four unconventional steps to happiness. Some of them seem outlandish, but the path to contentment is not always a simple one! These steps, he explained, are essential.
Gossip. At this, we seem to be naturals. It comes easy. Almost impulsively, we make fun of others behind their backs. The silver-lining: Gossip is the starting point to happiness. According to Kierkegaard, this is the Launchpad in discovering what can truly make us happy. You will see why later. In the meantime, go ahead and give it a go (you may already be an expert!). Think of something about someone you can mock. Make fun of the shape of their body, how they dress, how they parent, how lazy they are, or how they are just flat-out obnoxious. It may even make you feel better for a few seconds. However, you will quickly notice that this step is not the destination. It is essential to find fault in others to progress toward the second step, finding fault in ourselves.
The Mirror. Gossip is hollow and void—emotional fool’s gold. People go through life without progressing past mockery; thinking they have found happiness by belittling others. The second step pierces the falsehood of the aggrandizement of gossip. Step two is looking in the mirror and realizing that everything you are disgusted about in other people is in you as well. Step two is casting an exacting judgment on ourselves, not others.
It’s difficult to perceive our own faults—something about motes and beams (Kierkegaard was a Christian)! However, once people do recognize their own imperfections, they can spend way too much time dwelling there. They become dazed in a stupor of a punitive, pessimistic, self-loathing: “I don’t like my body; my parenting is lackluster; I am lazy and annoying!”
The confrontation with the mirror is cathartic, but again, on the bright side, it’s part of the path. It shifts the perception from shallowness to depth. There is an inevitable sorrow that comes with being just like everyone else. Feeling that sadness is actually the third step.
Sadness. After glaring at all your imperfections and short-comings, disappointment, even depression, may occur. You can see why people stay at step one, pointing fingers at others. Step one is easy. Who wants to go through an excruciating self-examination, only to find themselves depressingly similar to those they used to mock? This doesn’t sound like a path to happiness, it seems like a slip into despair! However, Kierkegaard points out that if you are feeling a sense of suffering for yourself and others, you are on the path toward liberation. Through sadness and suffering, you are laying the framework for understanding and relating with others—the basis for meaningful relationships.
Smiling Back. We often shun our imperfections and project them on to others (step one). However, when you can face your own filth, confront and smile back at it…you have found the true victory. Look in the mirror, see yourself for everything you are… and smile. You are not mocking yourself, you are embracing and honoring you, just as you are. This smile is rooted in acceptance and understanding. You no longer have the need to be anything other than what you are: True Contentment!
Paraphrasing a famous Virginia Satir concept: You are You; and You are Okay! The smile might start out as a one of those half-hearted, forced smirks. Eventually, it allows you to feel compassion toward yourself and others. You learn to stop taking yourself so seriously.
Kierkegaard found that acceptable humor, grit with a smile, is the final step on our path toward Happiness. We not only develop a love for other people, but a genuine acceptance of our own unique gifts and imperfections. Anyone can find fault with others; few cast the light on themselves. Initially, this may lead to sorrow. However, if we smile back at the mirror, we create the capacity to feel and show compassion. Acceptance casts out misery and ushers in contentment. Don’t take yourself, or others, so seriously and you will find a happier life with more meaningful relationships.
Today you are You,
That is truer than true.
There is no one alive
Who is Youer than You.