Sunday, January 29, 2012

Practicing Happiness

One thing I have heard a few times on Krista Tippet's show on NPR called On Being is that happiness is a practice. This idea inspires me and me gives me hope that we can all be happy. It also highlights the fact that our society is confused about how we achieve happiness. We are silly to think we can find happiness without practicing it, as if you could get in shape without exercising.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama says that all beings want to be happy and that this is good. However, there is some confusion in our society about whether the pursuit of happiness is indeed a noble thing. Some of the confusion stems from the notion that seeking happiness for yourself is selfish. Once we get past this hang-up, we often encounter even greater confusion about how to seek happiness. 
In this blog post I want to throw out a few ideas about what practicing happiness might look like.

Do We Need Religion to be Happy?
On my last blog post I was asked a question about whether we need religion to find happiness. I do not think we need religion to find happiness, although, if you find something wise in a religion, why not use it? If the dogma impedes your pursuit of happiness or makes you feel bad about yourself, I personally think this is counter-productive and you should drop the dogma. I could have been burned at the stake for saying that many years ago, but this is 2012. 
From a Buddhist perspective, the term "religion" is totally empty. It is empty in the sense that it is just a word. It's not something we should get hung up on. After all, the Buddha never wanted to create a religion. His homeboys saw some big change in him after he sat under the Bodhi Tree. They asked him to share what he had learned and then the Buddha's teachings went viral. Most Buddhists I know are uncomfortable with the idea that Buddhism is a religion, but the US census says it is, so what are we supposed to do?
The Pursuit of Happiness
The Declaration of Independence says we have a right to "the pursuit of happiness." However, John Locke had originally referred to "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of property." Fortunately, Thomas Jefferson had the good sense to replace "property" with "happiness." Maybe happiness was more hip than property at that time, or maybe Jefferson was just smarter than Locke. All jokes aside, this highlights a fundamental confusion about happiness. Krista Tippet, in her recent discussion with the Dalai Lama, implied that happiness is an odd thing to think of as a inalienable right. 
The common mistake in terms of seeking happiness is that people often think happiness is something they can find outside of themselves. This looking outside of oneself leads to materialism. People seem to think that if they get more of X, then they will achieve happiness. People think "If I could just get promoted and become a manager, then I'll be happy." Or they think, "if i had a better looking partner, I'd be happy." But when people achieve these goals, the glow quickly wears off and then they are off chasing the next thing. Our desire for things is never satiated when we pursue happiness as an external circumstance. We keep wanting more, more, more, unless we break this cycle of confusion.
Another point of confusion that often comes up is that people behave like pleasure and happiness are the same thing. Pleasure is good; there is no intrinsic problem with chocolate or passionate sex, or cute puppy pictures. The problem is, again, that people look outside of themselves for happiness. Pleasure can make you feel good for a period of time, but then someone spills wine on the carpet, so you feel like kicking everyone out of the house.
To find happiness, we have to look within ourselves rather than outside. We should make a lifelong inquiry into what the ingredients are for happiness. Based on only a few years of inquiry, I have come to believe that the practice of happiness has something to do with appreciation and something to do with serving others. There are probably many more pieces, which I haven't discovered yet. 
One of my favorite past-times is photography. As a photographer you learn to look for beautiful light. Yesterday I was standing outside as the sun was setting. I noticed that the sun was hitting the signs and the buildings with a fiery orange glow. I stopped to appreciate the light and then I started to notice the flow of traffic and people walking in the same direction. The street seemed like a river of rushing humanity and I couldn't help but feel warm and full of optimism. 
Artists train themselves to stop and recognize something that deserves appreciation. Some people use food as an opportunity to stop and give thanks. We use birthdays, weddings and funerals as opportunities to love and honor people. If we can develop habits like these in the natural rhythms of our lives, to the point where we have many opportunities to stop and appreciate things each day, I think we will find ourselves much happier. 
Thinking of Others
One phrase I have heard many times in the context of Mahayana Buddhism is, "if you want to be miserable, think of yourself. If you want to be happy, think of others." I'm currently taking a class on Mahayana practices, one of which is a practice of breathing in the suffering of others and breathing out goodness, comfort, warmth. This practice, called Tonglen, is remarkably helpful in making me stop and realize that other people's bad behavior is not all about me. Even when someone pushes all of my buttons, if I remember to stop and do this practice, I can go from a fit of rage to feeling compassion towards the same person. They say that if all you can see is someone's anger and aggression, just picture him/her as an overgrown 6-year-old. Suddenly compassion starts to work and your own aggression towards this person subsides. 
Our egos control many of our thoughts, so often our thoughts calculate how we can preserve all of the goodies for ourselves. We can dissolve the ego by putting others ahead of ourselves. You might start with someone you love. When you offer him/her a gift or a kind word, notice how much joy that brings both of you.
In Ethan Nichtern's new book, Your Emoticons won't Save You, there is a poem that says:
You will become what you hate - it's inevitable
The only way I've found to deal with this is to expand the scope
Of what you love
This summarizes the wisdom of friendliness towards others and oneself. What irritates us about other people is often what we find annoying about ourselves. If we learn to put others first, then the interdependent world in front of us starts to become a much more comfortable place for us to live and be happy. The practice of generosity is not only a material thing. We can offer our time, our patience, and our good nature to others rather than trying to get the biggest piece of cake every time. 
What about Meditation?
Ultimately, happiness is not something we can seek and discover outside of ourselves. We have to look within and uncover the confidence, well being and courage that is our natural state of being in the world. Unfortunately, this experience of happiness gets clouded by ego and confused modes of seeking happiness. 
Meditation helps bring us back to our natural state. Focusing on the breath calms the mind and gives us clarity and gentleness towards ourselves and others. But the practices of appreciating things and thinking of others is not separate from meditation. These are meditations too. Instead of sitting on a cushion and reminding ourselves to focus on the breath, we walk down the street and remind ourselves to appreciate the cool air, or recognize that the homeless man begging for money is a human being that deserves love and respect. 
When we practice happiness in this way, we can grow up to be comfortable in our skins, able to breathe in life, appreciate it and share it wholeheartedly with others.


  1. Nice post!

    I recently read about a palliative care nurse who collected the regrets of the dying. One of her patients' top 5 regrets was not being happier... they had all realized at the end of their lives that being happy was a choice. Practicing happiness certainly seems a logical step towards achieving this.

    I'm curious about a thought I've had that many of my friends have confessed to feeling too, which is this feeling of dread or anxiety when "things get too good". We're so used to being at a medium or low level of happiness that when we start to feel real happiness, we're convinced that a bus will run us over. Guess we need to practice being happy!

  2. Hey CJ,

    That's wonderful and sad to hear that people who were dying recognized that happiness is a choice. Its sad that they recognized so late in life. Its wonderful that they were able to at least know this at some point in their lives. It pays to get curious about happiness.

    Your observation about dread and anxiety is very astute and I think you are onto something very profound. Buddhists LOVE lists, so of course there is a teaching that lays out 8 forms of suffering. They are birth, old age, sickness, death, getting what you don't want, not getting what you want, getting what you want while not being able to hold onto it forever, and then there is the most mysterious one of all, which you have discovered, which is all pervasive suffering or misery.

    All pervasive suffering is not denying that there is happiness. But it is neurotic energy. This is that sense of dread I used to get when I was a kid on Sunday and I knew I had to go to school the next day. I couldn't just enjoy the weekend because my mind had already taken me to Monday. This perfectly illustrates why we have to train ourselves to be present if we ever want to find happiness. Our minds are too wild and will lead us into all kinds of illusory suffering if we don't learn to make the mind a friend and an ally.

  3. Interesting! It wouldn't surprise me if this all pervasive suffering was simply the product of depression and anxiety. Seems like meditation/Buddhism could be really helpful there...

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  5. Actually, yes, depending on how you see depression and anxiety. A certain amount of anxiety exists all the time and that is the all pervasive type of suffering, I think. If you meditate, you start with tons of anxiety to deal with. You will probably notice anxiety you never even knew you had.

    Depression, in my opinion, is something else. We're talking about a light kind of depression here, not the debilitating kind of clinical depression that makes people unable to function or consider suicide. Meditation can probably be helpful for that very serious type of depression, but one should not replace real professional medical help with meditation if that person really needs help.

    In my experience, where meditation has been very helpful is in reducing the depression that comes from a cloudy sort of laziness. It's the kind of depression you get after a hard day of work, when trying to wake up in the morning, and especially when feeling like life is not going your way. This kind of depression is often just laziness, and discipline is the antidote. When you practice meditation, discipline naturally arises, but it also takes will-power, which also strengthens with practice.

    Laziness is something to consider deeply. I recommend looking at it very honestly and understanding when you are being lazy, whether it is in your laziness in being tolerant of other opinions, procrastination, failing to practice, or some other form of laziness. There will always be some laziness in us, so we shouldn't beat ourselves up about it, but shine a light on it. When you start to see the laziness and it starts to disappear, life can improve quickly.

  6. Yes! What a great thing to contemplate on this long, lazy weekend...