Getting Better: Choosing a Greater Happiness

The last few mornings I have been reading and meditating on the following passage from a book entitled The Still Point Dhammapada:

“By giving up a lesser happiness one may gain a much greater one.  Let the wise give up the lesser to attain the greater.”

As I sat, repeating that passage to myself . . . . and watching my breath . . . . I gained insight into a pattern that is very common in my practice.  Many patients come to me with the hope and expectation that I fix things for them.  Sometimes, it IS that easy.  A change in medicine or a tweak in a dose can sometimes make a huge difference for them.  But all too often it doesn’t help enough.  And it is rare for ME to think that THAT is going to be sufficient.  In my mind I am thinking about how lifestyle changes could make a bigger difference for them than a tweak in the medicine.  But that requires effort that is beyond my control.  And I am fully aware of how hard it is to change longstanding habits.  And, as a parent, I am doubly aware of how hard it is to get your kid to make lifestyle changes.  When I bring up exercising, I hear “but I don’t feel like doing that”, or “I don’t have the motivation to do that”.  When I talk about changes in diet, I hear the same . . . “I don’t think I want to do that”.

Well, do you want to get better?

By choosing the lesser happiness of eating that pastry, or the lesser happiness of inactivity, you are choosing the lesser happiness.  People’s thoughts go around and around with this . . . “those things DON’T make me happy, but I can’t bring my self to  do X”.  On some level, those activities DO make you happy.  Happy enough to do them over and over.  But this brings me back to the passage above.  Choosing to get better is a very active process.  It is exceedingly rare for good health (both mental and physical) to be the result of passive efforts.  That is reserved for the young.  As we age, maintaining good health requires a great deal of planning and input, and an increasingly active approach.  We have been spoiled by our youth.  We all remember being able to eat anything and do anything (often unwise things) and to be able to bounce back and be just fine.  Turns out that much of that has set us up for feeling worse as we age.  Choosing to feel differently now . . . and to think differently now . . . is just the first step.  And it is NOT sufficient by itself.  Once you choose to change you then have to act.

“Let the wise give up the lesser to attain the greater”

We must all learn to give up eating patterns that lead to ill health in body and mind.  Once we do that, we will attain a greater sense of good health.  We must all learn to give up physical inactivity and choose instead to be active (within the limits of our current state of health).  Doing that, we will attain a greater sense of good health.  We must all give up patterns of thought that lead to depression, anxiety and ill health.  Doing that, we open up a world of better mood, contentment and physical well-being that we may have forgotten was possible.

None of this is easy.  That is certainly not the point of this passage.  But without active efforts to change, sustained feelings of contentment and well-being are not likely.  Good physical health and good mental health is a very active process.  Surround yourself with people who will help you and support you on your journey toward good health.  But those people can only watch and encourage.  It is, ultimately, up to you to take the necessary steps to change.

–Dan Hartman, MD

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