One of the things which is common to all human beings, regardless of who they are, where they live or what they believe, is the desire to be happy. But what exactly is happiness, and how can we attain it? Those are the two questions which I would like to explore in today’s Practical Spirituality post here at Spirituality for Seekers, so if you are one of the many who would like to know how to be happy, the following thoughts just might help to point you in the right direction.
What is Happiness?
A rather big stumbling block on the path to attaining happiness is the lack of a clear-cut definition of what the word really means. The definition of happiness can seem to be so vague and fluid that it seems to mean something different to everyone, and so people look for it in all kinds of ways, many of which actually take them in the completely wrong direction.
The least correct definition of happiness is the feeling of pleasure which accompanies the achievement of material success. Whilst achieving ones material goals certain can bring about a temporary state of pleasure and satisfaction, that immediate emotional state tends to be short-lived, and is quickly followed by a desire for even more success so that the momentary emotion of pleasure can be repeated.
It is this desire for and pursuit of more and more material success which drives the world economy, but the pursuit never ends, and even those who accumulate more money than they can ever hope to spend still often find happiness to be elusive. Evidence for this can be found in the studies of lottery jackpot winners, which show that, once the initial thrill of winning has subsided, their self-reported level of happiness returns to much the same level as it was before the win.
So, if happiness isn’t found in a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow of materialistic striving, where is it?
The answer is that happiness can be found at the very opposite end of the rainbow – at the easy to reach end, which is right where you happen to be at this very moment.
Whilst we might not be able to agree on a single and universal definition of happiness, we can and should listen to the thoughts of those who have already attained it, both to learn what it means to them, and how they came to experience it.
‘Happiness cannot be travelled to, owned, earned, worn or consumed. Happiness is the spiritual experience of living every minute with love, grace, and gratitude.’ – Denis Waitley
‘Folks are usually about as happy as they make their minds up to be.’ ― Abraham Lincoln
‘Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.’ ― Mahatma Gandhi
‘Happiness is not something ready-made. It comes from your own actions.’ ― Dalai Lama
‘Think of all the beauty still left around you and be happy.’ – Anne Frank
‘My happiness grows in direct proportion to my acceptance, and in inverse proportion to my expectations.’ – Michael J. Fox
In each of the above quotes – and there are thousands more just like them – happiness is described in very non-materialistic terms, reflecting the truth that happiness is not dependent on how much money you earn, what kind of home you live in or what kind of car you drive. On the contrary, happiness is described as something that arises from the habits of living mindfully, acting with intent and appreciating all the good that surrounds you in this very moment.
From this, we can infer that happiness is not a transient emotion which is triggered by external conditions, as is the case with the emotions of pleasure or excitement, but that it is actually a more stable state of being which is experienced when we deliberately cultivate a sense of peace and contentment in the here and now. This is very good news, because it means that happiness is available to everyone, regardless of their circumstances in life.
As alluded to in the previous section, happiness arises as a side-effect of peace, contentment and mindful action in the present moment. It is not, therefore, something which can be achieved by pursuing it directly. Instead, the most effective way of cultivating happiness is to focus on cultivating the other conditions which enable happiness to arise naturally.
In the Buddhist tradition, the way to do this – and to achieve enlightenment itself – is to follow the Noble Eightfold Path, which consists of Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration. This is a proven path which has been used by millions of people for 2,500 years, but it is beyond the scope of this site to delve deeply into any particular tradition, so I would strongly recommend that anyone who is interested in following this path should study it further. The book Awakening the Buddha Within by Lama Surya Das is as good a starting point as any, and highly recommended for both its accessibility and practicality.
Of course, it is not necessary to explore the Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhism in order to cultivate the conditions which lead to the arising of happiness, so anyone who wants to be happier in life can begin by cultivating the following qualities:
Cultivating acceptance means developing the habit of accepting life exactly as it is, in this present moment. The more you fight the current reality by wishing that things were different, the less happy you will be. Circumstances can never be completely perfect, so waiting for them to be so will only result in you postponing the possibility of being happy right now. Learn to accept what is, in this present moment, and you will create a space in which it is possible for happiness to arise.
Having learned to accept the present moment, begin finding things to appreciate about it, and cultivate a general sense of gratitude for the whole of your life. There are always plenty of things to be grateful for when you look for them, so look for them constantly, and allow the feeling of gratitude to permeate your days, from the moment you wake up in the morning, to the time you set your head down to sleep at night.
Cultivating kindness means developing the habit of always thinking, speaking and acting in a way which is friendly, warm-hearted and considerate, both to yourself and to other people. This is a major key to happiness, but unfortunately it is one which many people overlook. Avoid that mistake by making the deliberate cultivation of kindness a part of your main spiritual practice and the results will soon begin to speak for themselves.
‘A disciplined mind brings happiness.’ – The Buddha
By cultivating acceptance, gratitude and kindness, you will be creating conditions in which happiness arises quite naturally. The longer you continue cultivating the qualities outlined here, the more stable your sense of happiness will become, until eventually you come to realise that you are happy far more often than not. Begin today, and be sure to enjoy the process.