Committed to Happiness
(Originally published as a three part series of articles for The Dragontree Holistic Day Spa)
Commitment means different things to different people. It’s generally regarded as a noble thing, though sometimes our commitments make us feel obligated or trapped. Other times, being committed to a job or in a committed relationship gives us a sense of security. We may feel that no matter what happens, this is a variable that won’t change. But it’s worth asking ourselves what kind of security this really provides, and if this is reason enough to stay in a job or relationship. Also, does remaining in a relationship or job, regardless of our contribution to it, actually mean that we’re committed?
I believe there’s a lot of confusion about commitment. Let’s take a look at the notion that by merely sticking around we’re following through on a commitment we’ve made. As a teenager, I remember committing myself to a job, but then deciding I didn’t like it. So I grumbled all day about what was wrong with it. I stopped doing my best. I daydreamed constantly. I complained to others who worked there and tried to get them on my side. I effectively sabotaged the very work environment I so disliked. But I had agreed to do the job and I needed the money, so I stayed and upheld my “commitment.”
I sometimes did the same thing in relationships. I claimed to be committed, but backed this up with only my physical presence and little else. I’d tell myself that I was in a committed relationship because of the mere fact that we hadn’t broken up and I wasn’t cheating on her. Despite my physical presence, my mind was often elsewhere. I was really much more committed to my own mental analysis and judgments, dissecting the relationship or departing it rather than being in it. It wasn’t until I was almost thirty that I began to change my definition of commitment.
Real commitment, I discovered, has more to do with the spirit of our presence than anything else. The heart of any sincere commitment is actually a commitment to a certain quality of participation.
When we’re honest about it, we know that didn’t commit to just clock in at work, contribute in the most minimal way, clock out, and collect our paycheck. When we were hired, there was an mutual understanding that we would use all our skills and experience, we’d enhance our workplace, and we’d do our best.
For any number of reasons – we’re tired, we’re bored, we’re underpaid, our partner doesn’t participate at the same level we do – we can deny our commitment and withdraw our participation. But it’s important to recognize how significantly this hurts our own happiness and sense of self-worth. Indeed, when we’re functioning at this level, we often carry around a feeling of guilt and/or drudgery. Not only do we have a sense that our follow-through is half-assed, we know that we’re really breaking a commitment with ourselves.
When we’re struggling with pain, loneliness, or burden, we sometimes forget that life is a gift. But when we become quiet and peaceful, the awe of our existence reveals itself. And it’s here that we remember what this commitment with ourselves is. It’s not so much an imperative to work ourselves to the bone as it is a kind of gratitude and inspiration that makes us appreciate each moment and want to show up as fully as we can. To relish the experience of being alive and share our gifts with the world. Though it may be hard at times to see the incentive to show up fully for our boss or partner, we can always choose to do it for our community or ourselves.
Anyone who is conscious during their wedding vows understands that “’Til death do us part,” is just a fraction of the commitment. Unless we’re marrying someone for green card purposes, there is a mutual meeting of needs and sharing of love that inspires us to commit to each other in the first place. What we really signed up for is a certain quality of relationship, more than just a duration of relationship. Commitment doesn’t have to mean staying in a relationship forever, but as I see it, as long as we’re committed it makes sense to act like we’re committed. (To do otherwise is an act of denial, no?) Commitment is a moment-to-moment thing.
As you move through your life in the coming days, consider asking yourself, “What am I committed to?” If you notice that you’re not following through on your commitments to your work, your partner, your kids, or yourself, see if you can uncover what you’ve been committing to instead. Money? Security? Success? Control? Comfort? Without invalidating these pursuits, it’s important to not let them eclipse our deeper commitments. In the next part of this article, we’ll discuss how to overcome fear of commitment and how commitment can affect our happiness.
In the first part of this article, we looked at confusion around commitment – specifically the notion that commitment is something we demonstrate by merely sticking around. Now let’s look at another area of confusion about commitment: the belief that it can trap us, restrict our freedom, or limit our happiness. This makes us restless and indecisive. And it has spawned an increasingly popular term for explaining why people don’t stay in long term relationships: “fear of commitment.”
The paradoxical thing is that when we believe we’re really, truly stuck with something, we’re less likely to suffer than if we belief we might be stuck with something if we continue down the road we’re headed on. The difference between these two scenarios is the illusion of choice. In the former case, we feel we have no alternative, but luckily our minds are wired to see the bright side of things. In the latter case, we feel the deal hasn’t yet been sealed, and we anguish about what options or freedoms we’ll lose if we make a particular choice.
Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert studies the science of happiness, and he has examined what happens to people’s perception of their circumstances when they believe they’re stuck with something. In one study, participants were asked to look at a selection of art prints and rank them from their most to least favorite. Afterwards, they were given a copy of one of the prints that they ranked somewhere in the middle. Later, they were asked to re-rank the prints according to preference, and the participants decided they actually liked the print that they were given better than they originally thought – they gave it a higher ranking. It’s the mind’s way of making the most of what happens.
This tendency to see the positive usually works best when we think we don’t have a choice. In another study, one group of participants were given a print of their choice and they weren’t allowed to change their decision. Participants in a second group were given a print they chose, but were told that if they later changed their mind, they could exchange this print for a different one. Follow up revealed that the group who were stuck with the prints they chose were happier overall than the group who were allowed to change their minds. Members of the second group went back and forth on their preference, and ultimately they felt uncertain about whether they had made the right choice.
How should we interpret these studies? One of the main things this research highlights is that choice is a fascinating and tricky thing. When we believe we have many choices, we can become indecisive, we can second-guess ourselves, and we can regret the choices we’ve made. Yet nobody wants to give up the ability to change their mind. Scientists repeated the second experiment with a little twist: rather than assigning participants to one group (with the ability to revise their choice) or the other (with no option of revising their choice), they asked participants at the outset which group they would like to be part of. You’re probably not surprised to hear that most people wanted to be in the “free choice” group with the ability to change their mind. Little did they know they would ultimately be less satisfied with their choice.
As I see it, the participants who weren’t allowed to change their mind were essentially encouraged to commit to their choice. What would be the use, after all, of fighting it? Once upon a time, this was how most cultures treated marriage. Divorce was rarely an option. Certainly there were unhealthy relationships that should have ended but weren’t allowed to because of social restrictions. But my guess is that, by and large, people were happier in their marriages because they committed to them. In India, arranged marriage is still very popular and studies show these couples are statistically happier than “choice marriages.”
It’s not impossible to end a committed relationship, but when we’re committed we give ourselves over to our choice and don’t readily entertain the idea of exiting when the relationship doesn’t feel good. So, commitment doesn’t mean relinquishing our freedom of choice; it’s more a matter of being clear about the choices we make and then having the integrity to follow through on them. The power of our word is real, and integrity matters. My point is not that ending relationships is bad, but that we almost always stand to gain more from staying in a challenging situation, upholding our commitment, and figuring it out, than we do from leaving.
When we stand behind our commitments, new possibilities arise. “Figuring out” a problematic relationship may seem impossible if we have already withdrawn our commitment. But when we renew our participation with humility, a willingness to be wrong, and an expectation that peace and happiness are possible, the “figuring out” part just happens, often in ways we couldn’t have foreseen. In the next part of this series, we’ll look at these possibilities and the potential to expand our commitment.
In parts one and two of this article we looked at areas of confusion around commitment – specifically the notion that commitment is something we demonstrate by merely sticking around, and the idea that our commitments can trap us. In this newsletter, we will look at new ways to follow through on our commitments and renew our participation in life.
Often, when we are participating less in our relationships it is because there is an underlying belief that a relationship shouldn’t require our ongoing work to be sustained. But if we’ve stopped participating actively in the maintenance of a relationship, we’re no longer in a committed relationship. That is, we have withdrawn our commitment. This applies not just to romantic relationships, but also to our relationship with our job, friends, and ourselves.
Most relationships start out with some work. It’s work we don’t mind doing, though, because we’re excited about a new person or endeavor, and we’re clear about the payoff the relationship will yield for us. So we bathe more than usual, we learn new skills, we memorize all kinds of things about another person’s life and preferences. And we care strongly about how the other person perceives us, so we try to show up in a mature and responsible way. (Again, the “other person” here could be a lover, a boss, ourselves, a friend, a parent, a child, etc.)
Over time, it’s natural to settle into a sense that the relationship has become easier. The other party knows our limitations. They know that we’re capable of looking and/or acting kind of ugly sometimes, but they apparently still like us. They know that we’re capable of occasionally producing bad smells, but they apparently still like us. Being at ease in a relationship is ideal, but it’s important not to confuse ease with a lack of work.
One of the greatest gifts I received from studying the Chinese martial art tai chi (taijiquan) is the concept of simultaneous work and relaxation. Traditional instruction in tai chi relies on ideas that seem paradoxical, and the paradox of work and relaxation is most important. The key is to discover that these two qualities are not really mutually exclusive. In tai chi, the entire body should be engaged. Every part of us should be working simultaneously, even the mind. Yet we must also maintain a state of inner peace. It can be difficult to accomplish, especially for Westerners, because we so frequently equate working hard with being tense and stressed.
When we are devoted to our practice of some meditative art, such as tai chi, yoga, or qi gong, we may notice that over time our practice is no longer confined to just the time period we set aside for it. It expands into our everyday life and starts to affect the way we move, think, breathe, work and communicate. This is when it becomes truly transformative. What would happen if we were to adopt this tai chi attitude of simultaneous work and relaxation in the way we relate to our job, our housework, our partner, kids, friends, parents, and ourselves? It really comes down to simply committing to whatever situation is in front of us, remaining continuously engaged and at ease.
If that sounds like a lot of work, think of it this way: the main reason it feels like work is because it has been our habit to do otherwise. To disengage. If you watch young children, you see that it’s our fundamental nature to be loving, fascinated, and engaged with the world. Then our social conditioning begins to take hold, which distances us from these basic qualities. Actually, in most cases, the “work” required isn’t so much an exertion of effort as it is a form of letting go. When we feel averse to participating in a relationship, it’s usually because we are allowing something else to get in the way. We have made something else a higher priority, and each of us must discover for ourselves what this is. The more we let go of the things that separate us from these native qualities, the more we find we are naturally inspired, fascinated, energized, and eager to uphold our commitments.
Sometimes the relationship itself needs our attention. By attention, I don’t necessarily mean repair; sometimes we just need to notice it. Every relationship consists of three parties: the two relating members and the dynamic between them. This dynamic, the third party, is presumably the reason the relationship exists. When a relationship doesn’t feel good, we tend to analyze the other person, and sometimes ourselves, but rarely do we put our focus on the edge, the dance – the place where we two meet. Just notice it without trying to manipulate it at first. What happens there? What feeds this dynamic? Sometimes just putting our attention on this place where we meet, feeling the push and pull, is enough to stoke our fascination and teach us new things about how we relate.
Another great reason to stay engaged with our commitments is the ethic of reciprocity, A.K.A. The Golden Rule. The Golden Rule, an ideal common to nearly every religion, says simply that we should treat others as we would like to be treated. As it pertains to relationships, it means that we have a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate just how lovingly we would like to be treated – by doing it to our partner. We get to show them all the delightful ways we would want to be cared for. And even if they don’t reciprocate, if we treat our partner this way with enthusiasm and an open heart, we will have an experience of love in the process. All the love we extend to others passes first through ourselves.
We can also make a game out of our commitment to another. If we’re in a monogamous relationship, someone has chosen us as their sole romantic partner, and we have the chance to hook them up with the coolest life ever! We can give them the most amazing partner, the best possible experience they could have in a relationship, with all their needs met! How fun!
Finally, most of us have aspirations of how we would like to act toward other people – to be more loving, honest, supportive, receptive, patient, etc. We can demonstrate our commitment to these aspirations by practicing them with the ones closest to us. The absolute closest person to practice with would be ourselves, and sadly, this is often the person most deprived of our unconditional love and approval. The next closest person to practice with is anyone we share our home with. Then there are those we see regularly in our workplace. After you have had some practice with yourself and those close to you, you can extend your practice to the world at large. I hope these suggestions inspire you to renew your commitment to yourself, your relationships, and your life.
Copyright 2009 by Peter Borten. No unauthorized reproduction in any form without permission.