‘Happiness’ is interesting because there is controversy as to whether it is an emotional state or a deeper state of being. As an emotion it could be said to be ‘pleasure’ or a warm glow inside our belly, perhaps the solar plexus. It could also be said to be the absence of unpleasurable emotions such as anger, fear or sadness. But one thing that can be said about happiness is that a great many people crave or desire it!
In his article “Opening up to Happiness”, Mark Epstein made the point that in Western culture we are looking for happiness in all the wrong places. He then went on to speak about Buddhist ideas that ‘gasping’ for things that create pleasure and ‘condemning’ what is unpleasurable, leads to unhappiness by default. I tend to agree with both Mark and Buddhist wisdom. Happiness cannot be arrived at when we are in a state of attachment to outcomes and material things.
This does not mean that pleasant outcomes cannot happen or that we cannot have beautiful or expensive material objects, rather it simply means to be in a space of non-attachment to these things. They come and they go! Attachment means that we experience emotional highs for the pleasurable experiences and emotional lows for the unpleasant experiences which counteract happiness. Happiness is a balanced inner sense of openness to both experiences, and perhaps it is a resilient mind-set of making deeper meanings out of the unpleasant ones.
Non-Attachment Through Adversity
I recently caught up with an old friend who I had not seen for a number of years, who over the past twelve months lost his home due to a land slide, lost his livelihood (which was tied up with him home), and lost his long term intimate relationship. As we talked it became apparent that there was residual pain around his losses, especially for his relationship, however, ultimately he was still happy! What is amazing about my friend is his depth of awareness and his commitment to spiritual practice. He embodies a lifestyle that embraces spiritual or higher meanings that make his experiences “OK”. This ‘OK-ness’ is something that can make or break us through transformation, adversity or even trauma. There is resilience in accepting what we thought was unacceptable, so we can “receive the pleasant without grasping and the unpleasant without condemning” and align ourselves with happiness (Mark Epstein)
When I speak about acceptance, I do not mean allowing abuse to continue, nor do I mean to not make pro-active life-enhancing choices when we have the ability to do so. Rather, I am referring to accepting what we have no control over so we can be in a state of non-attachment to the outcome. This also does not mean that we will not feel normal adaptive emotions associated with the death of a loved one, a significant loss or adversity. Of course we will, and there are important psychotherapeutic processes to go through to honour those emotions. What I do mean is that we do not need to make it worse for ourselves by condemning ourselves, the world, other people or even God.
What Is Happiness?
I believe happiness is both an emotion AND a state of being! Happiness is far more than pleasure versus pain. I agree that like the Holy Grail, the more we grasp for it, the more elusive it will become. To settle into a state of happiness is to come home to one’s self with compassion and acceptance. It is to open to life and love with wisdom, integrity and healthy boundaries. Happiness is about creating, giving or pursuing something meaningful IN A WAY that embraces our life force and says “yes!” to our heart. It is the actualization of our purpose and real connections with people we love.
What is your experience of happiness?
When has a state of happiness been easy to attain and maintain?