Most people’s desire for happiness is driven by a type of remembering and also a definite delusion.
The remembering is because, as I’ve discovered, when we strip away all the delusion of perception we find at our core we are indeed already at peace, contented and even joyful. Or as Sean Meshorer puts it;
“Bliss is our highest calling and potential. When we scrape away the false layers of sensory pleasures, worldly attainments, and the delusions of our mind, we discover it quietly dwelling inside us.”
I think as babies (and before, no doubt) we live in this state of contented being — of absolute presence — without the mind getting in the way with any thoughts about what the previous moment “meant”, or what the next moment will be. So when we’re older, we’re trying to recreate that feeling, but we look in the wrong places (outside of ourself) because we’re blindsided by the media and other stories we get told about what brings happiness.
Sure, fleeting feelings of happiness can be found in external things—relationships, experiences, money, fame, etc—but then (as the Dhammapada rightly suggests) we’re ultimately left with more sorrow, because once the moment has passed (and they all do) and the fleeting happiness disolves (and it always does), what are we left with?
“All is transient. When one sees this, he is above sorrow. This is the clear path.” (Dhammapada 277)
The delusion is, as mentioned, in part this idea that we can “arrive” at happiness and stay there — that anything outside ourselves will give us lasting happiness. Another aspect to the delusion is often that we’re somehow broken or incomplete and need something outside of us to fix us or to make us whole. This is prevalent in western society; mostly because of our deep rooted mythology and culture (for example, old religious beliefs that we are born in “sin” and need “saving”, or simply the western proclivity towards capitalism and comparison — that “I’ll only be complete when I’ve reached a certain financial goal, or own certain things”, etc).
I’d take contentment over happiness any day.
In short, happiness is about perception, and it’s possible to generate a lot more happiness by changing your perception of your experiences. But even the word “happiness” can make people unhappy, because it is so loaded, and so externalised—so event-based—for most people. So I prefer contentment, because that, in it’s meaning alone, already gives a huge clue to what is important here. I can’t be “happy” all the time, but I can choose to be content all the time. I can be choose to be content with the way things are right now.
Many people react to this by saying “how can I be content when my life is so bad?”. But that’s where perception plays it’s most powerful part (and perhaps the only time that comparison can be useful). Because my response is always “how do people in certain countries live in circumstances of abject poverty and extremely limited resources, yet seem completely content—blissful even?”. If we perceive that what we have is not enough, we will experience the same degree of lack in our level of contentment. If we look for the good within ourselves and our lives, accepting all aspects as they are in this moment, we inevitably find it.
Yet, a mental agreement to the idea of contentment is not really enough (unless you are an extremely advanced yogi who has reached the Buddha-like state of full realisation, or Nirvana). On a very practical level, there are 3 simple things to do to increase the emotional enjoyment of your everyday life…
1. Eat yourself into brain bliss.
I’m not talking about a chocolate donut sugar buzz here, but sustainable, natural equanimity and mental health… I think the simplest (and often most impactful) is consistently eating more fresh, whole foods and avoiding processed foods, refined sugars, alcohol and other drugs (including too much caffeine). Research about our body’s microbiome (the good bacteria that mostly live in our gut) shows that what we eat directly affects the production of our neurotransmitters and “feel-good” chemicals. In very simplistic terms, unhealthy food hinders our ability to feel good, and healthy food (like fresh vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, spring water, etc) effortlessly builds our physical and emotional resilience… Ever tried to feel good emotionally when your body is unwell?
2. Move yourself into body bliss.
Incorporating a little more whole-body exercise (running, dancing, martial arts, cross-fit, etc) into your schedule will work wonders too, because that’s been proven to help improve a person’s mood in a sustainable way as well.
3. Meditate yourself into boundless bliss.
Notice I put this last. In actual fact, this order is very intentional because, whilst meditation can potentially have an incredible effect on your wellbeing (because it leads you back to the source of who you are at your core, which is bliss), it will be very challenging (and mostly ineffective) if your body or brain are not supported.
So there we go. I’ve gone a little off track perhaps, but I’m sure you can see why I’ve stopped looking for happiness—those fleeting moments of external event-based response are a very poor and unsustainable substitute for deep contentment, peace and the genuine bliss that our inner reality has to offer in every moment.