Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill

IS HAPPINESS THE PURPOSE OF LIFE? 

One must practice the things which produce happiness, since if that is present we have everything and if it is absent we do everything in order to have it. 

Who wants to suffer? Who wakes up in the morning thinking: “I wish I could suffer all day”? We all strive, consciously or unconsciously, competently or clumsily, passionately or calmly, adventurously or routinely, to be happier and suffer less. Yet we so often confuse genuine happiness with merely seeking enjoyable emotions. 

Every day of our lives, we find a thousand different ways to live intensely, forge bonds of friendship and love, enrich ourselves, protect those we love, and keep those who would harm us at arm’s length. We devote our time and energies to these tasks, hoping they will provide us and others with a sense of fulfillment and well-being. 

However we go about looking for it, and whether we call it joy or duty, passion or contentment, isn’t happiness the goal of all goals? Aristotle called it the only goal “we always choose for its own sake and never as a means to something else.” Anyone who says otherwise doesn’t really know what he wants; he is simply seeking happiness under another name. 

A TWO-WAY MIRROR: LOOKING WITHIN, LOOKING WITHOUT 

Seeking happiness outside ourselves is like waiting for sunshine in a cave facing north. 

While everyone wants to be happy one way or another, there’s a big difference be- tween aspiration and achievement. That is the tragedy of human beings. We fear misery but run to it. We want happiness but turn away from it. The very means used to ease suffering often fuel it. How could such a misjudgment occur? Be- cause we are confused about how to go about it. We look for happiness outside ourselves when it is basically an inner state of being. If it were an exterior condition, it would be forever beyond our reach. Our desires are boundless and our control over the world is limited, temporary, and, more often than not, illusory. 

We forge bonds of friendship, start families, live in society, work to improve the material conditions of our existence — is that enough to define happiness? No. We can have “everything we need” to be happy and yet be most unhappy; conversely, we can remain serene in adversity. It is naive to imagine that external conditions alone can ensure happiness. That is the surest way to a rude awakening. As the Dalai Lama has said: “If a man who has just moved into a luxury apartment on the hundredth floor of a brand-new building is deeply unhappy, the only thing he’ll look for is a window to jump out of.”¹ How many times do we have to hear that money can’t buy happiness, that power corrupts the honest, and that fame ruins private life? Failure, separation, disease, and death can occur at any moment. 

FALSE FRIENDS  

Those who seek happiness in pleasure, wealth, glory, power, and heroics are as naive as the child who tries to catch a rainbow and wear it as a coat. 

If we wish to identify the external factors and mental attitudes that favor genuine happiness and those that are prejudicial to it, we must first learn to distinguish be- tween happiness and certain conditions that may appear similar to it but are actually very different. 

The most common error is to confuse pleasure for happiness. Pleasure, says the Hindu proverb, “is only the shadow of happiness.” It is the direct result of pleasurable sensual, esthetic, or intellectual stimuli. The fleeting experience of pleasure is dependent upon circumstance, on a specific location or moment in time. It is unstable by nature, and the sensation it evokes soon becomes neutral or even unpleasant. Likewise, when repeated it may grow insipid or even lead to disgust; savoring a delicious meal is a source of genuine pleasure, but we are indifferent to it once we’ve had our fill and would get sick of it if we continued eating. It is the same thing with a nice wood fire: coming in from the cold, it is pure pleasure to warm ourselves by it, but we soon have to move away if we don’t want to burn our- selves. 

Pleasure is exhausted by usage, like a candle consuming itself. It is almost always linked to an activity and naturally leads to boredom by dint of being repeated. Listening rapturously to a Bach prelude requires a focus of attention that, minimal as it is, cannot be maintained indefinitely. After a while fatigue kicks in and the music loses its charm. Were we forced to listen for days on end, it would become unbearable. 

Furthermore pleasure is an individual experience, most often centered on the self, which is why it can easily descend into selfishness and sometimes conflict with the well-being of others. In sexual intimacy there can certainly be mutual plea- sure through giving and receiving pleasurable sensations, but such pleasure can transcend the self and contribute to genuine happiness only if the very nature of mutuality and generous altruism lies at its core. You can experience pleasure at somebody else’s expense, but you can never derive happiness from it. Pleasure can be joined to cruelty, violence, pride, greed, and other mental conditions that are incompatible with true happiness. “Pleasure is the happiness of madmen, while happiness is the pleasure of sages,” wrote the French novelist and critic Jules Bar- bey d’Aurevilly. 

Some people even enjoy vengeance and torturing other human beings. In the same vein, a businessman may rejoice in the ruin of a competitor, a thief revel in his booty, a spectator at a bullfight exult in the bull’s death. But these are only passing, sometimes morbid states of elation that, like moments of positive eupho- ria, have nothing to do with happiness. 

IS HAPPINESS POSSIBLE? 

The outward freedom that we shall attain will only be in exact proportion to the inward freedom to which we may have grown at a given moment. And if this is a correct view of freedom, our chief energy must be concentrated on achieving reform from within. 

At some point in our lives, we have all met people who live and breathe happiness. This happiness seems to permeate all of their gestures and words with a quality and force that are impossible to ignore. Some declare unambiguously and without ostentation that they have attained a happiness that abides deep within them, what- ever life may bring. For such people, according to Robert Misrahi, “happiness is the form and overall meaning of a life that considers itself to be full and meaningful, and which experiences itself as such.”¹ 

Although such a state of constant fulfillment is rare, surveys have shown that where the conditions of life are not especially oppressive, most people claim to be satisfied with the quality of their lives (75 percent in the developed countries). 

WHEN OUR THOUGHTS BECOME OUR WORST ENEMIES 

When we are unhappy, we can’t help thinking that certain images are armed with claws and stingers to torture us with. 

Stricken by the death of a loved one, distraught over a breakup, laid low by failure, heartbroken by the suffering of others, or consumed by negative thoughts, we sometimes get the feeling that life as a whole is spinning apart. There seems to be no safe way out at all. Sadness settles like a pall over the mind. “Just one person has left us, and the world is emptied of people,” lamented Lamartine. Unable to imagine an end to our pain, we withdraw into ourselves and dread every coming moment. “When I tried to think clearly about this, I felt that my mind was immured, that it couldn’t expand in any direction. I knew that the sun was rising and setting, but little of its light reached me,” writes Andrew Solomon.¹ As harrowing as the situation may be — the death of a close friend, for instance — there are countless ways to experience the ordeal. Happiness is bound up with distress when we lack adequate inner resources to sustain certain basic elements of sukha: the joy of being alive, the conviction that we still have the ability to flourish, an understanding of the ephemeral nature of all things. 

Great external upheavals aren’t necessarily what distress us most. It has been observed that depression and suicide rates decline considerably in times of war. Natural disasters, too, sometimes bring out the best in humankind in terms of courage, solidarity, and the will to live. Altruism and mutual assistance contribute greatly to reducing the post-traumatic stress associated with tragedies. Most of the time it is not outward events but our own mind and negative emotions that make us unable to maintain our inner stability and drag us down. 

DESIRE 

It is rare that happiness alights just so on the desire that called for it. 

No one will dispute the fact that it is natural to have desire and that desire plays a motivating role in our lives. But there is a crucial difference between the deep aspirations that we generate throughout our lives and the desire that is solely concentrated on craving and obsession. Desire can assume infinitely varied forms: we can desire a glass of cool water, someone to love, a moment of peace, the happiness of others; we can also desire our own death. Desire can nourish our existence and can poison it. 

It can also mature, free itself, and deepen into the aspiration of making oneself a better human being, of working for the good of others or of achieving spiritual awakening. It is important to make the distinction between desire, which is essentially a blind force, and aspiration, which is inspired by motivation and attitude. If the motivation is vast and selfless, it can be the source of the greatest human qualities and the greatest accomplishments. When it is narrow and egocentric, it fuels the endless preoccupations of daily life, which follow upon one another like waves, from birth to death, and offer no guarantee of deep satisfaction. When it is negative, it can wreak devastating damage. 

A PATH  

We sometimes have to feel like explorers, burning with the desire to do what’s worth doing and to live life in such a way that we have no regrets when it comes time for us to die. Let us learn freedom. The key point of spiritual practice is to gain control over our mind. It is said: “The goal of asceticism is to achieve mastery of the mind. Without that, what good is asceticism?” “Asceticism” means “exercise,” in this case the training of the mind. 

Our aim in taking the spiritual path is to transform ourselves with a view to helping others free themselves from suffering. This may at first make us aware of our present powerlessness to do so. Then comes the desire to improve ourselves so as to overcome that obstacle. 

Once we have embarked on the spiritual path and begun practicing it resolutely, the important moment comes several months or several years later when we realize that nothing is as it was and, in particular, that we have become incapable of knowingly harming others. And that pride, envy, and mental confusion are no longer the uncontested masters of our minds. We need to ask ourselves if our spiritual practice makes us better people and contributes to the happiness of others. It is important to ask that question over and over again and to focus lucidly upon it. What have we achieved? Stagnation, regression, or progress? Once inner well-being is firmly grounded within us, it becomes easier to gradually extend its radiance to all those around us and to our social activity. 

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