What is happiness?
Updated: Sep 3, 2021
What is your idea of happiness? Does this resonate?
"How can I be happy?" is the question that preoccupies us all.
Psychology tells us that there are three pathways to happiness: getting pleasure from people and things; finding meaning and purpose; and enriching ourselves psychologically through both positive and negative experiences that challenge, stretch, and transform us, making our perception of the world richer and more complex.
Another concept of happiness is called "flow", introduced by the Csikszentmihalyi. He observed how people experienced full absorption in the mastery of their bodies (such as sportsmen and dancers) and craftsmen in their crafts and artists were lost in their visions in a state of bliss or happiness. The similar absorption perhaps can also be observed when children are lost in their play, when gardeners are in communion with their land, and other times when the sense of 'I' as an isolated thing, dissolved in the process of purely being in the moment.
Additionally, research in attachment identified that not only in childhood but also throughout the lifespan we need at least one attachment figure: the presence of a significant other who provides safety and comfort at times of distress and acts as a Safe Haven, as well as being a constant presence who encourages and reassures us when we dare to step outside of the familiar and try new things or go through changes (Secure Base). Separation or loss of the attachment figure is one of the most traumatic and profound losses in our life and will successively bring stages of yearning when we call out, seek proximity of the absent attachment figure in the familiar places and in memories; despair; followed by depression. Such attachment figures may not only be humans but also pets, especially for people who have been abused. We are social animals and cannot be alone, we need to be with others to be happy: it is not an accident that solitary confinement is considered to be the toughest punishment in our prison system. Research on psychological wellbeing has confirmed that connecting with others is essential to overcoming depression.
From the Buddhist perspective, suffering and happiness are two sides of the same coin. They are like positive and negative poles of a magnet. Instead of looking for outwards sources of happiness in a world subject to change, where everything goes through the process of birth, decay and death, the emphasis is on cultivation of equanimity and acceptance of what is.
This can start right now with a simple exercise of mindfulness of breathing: bring your attention to your feet touching the ground and sense its solidity and support; feel your hands resting on your lap; and sit or stand up straight while getting the sense of the whole of your body arriving in the present moment where you are right now. Then turn the mind to your breath. Observe how your belly is falling and rising with the tides of breath, being soft and relaxed. And whatever thoughts, feelings, sensations, or memories arise, be curious about them with a friendly feeling, acknowledge them and say "hello", and come back to observing your belly being soft and relaxed, moving with breath. Cultivation of presence, equanimity and acceptance starts with such a simple exercise.
Another significant strand of equanimity is compassion and forgiveness which starts from compassion towards yourself. Self-criticism, shame, self-judgement and perfectionism
often drive anxiety and depression. They might have become the survival mechanisms to make you do better and achieve more, or an explanation for feeling defective and unlovable. Often these mechanisms for defence are a response at a time of trauma or stress in childhood. The child has grown up but the defence mechanisms have remained. Loving-kindness meditation is one of the most potent healing tools I have encountered. Like any new habit, it takes time to replace the inner critical voice (28 or 66 days according to different studies). It starts with holding simple goodwill towards oneself: "May I be well and happy", "May I be free from pain and suffering", "May I be peaceful".
Radiate compassion and empathy towards yourself. If this proves difficult, remember the warmth and kindness you received in the past and extend it towards yourself. If you did not experience this or cannot recollect receiving these from anyone, imagine meeting an abandoned or lost puppy or kitten, imagine embracing them with warmth, kindness and the desire to protect... Once connected to your feelings, see that you are embracing yourself as a small child while wishing "May I be well and happy", "May I be free from pain and suffering", "May I be peaceful".
Once the benefits of self-compassion are felt, the loving-kindness can be radiated and extended towards others, starting from friends and family, progressing to acquaintances and colleagues, and possibly towards those who hurt or harmed you. When your heart is healed and filled with compassion...