What Makes Me Happy?

I am currently reading the book ‘Happiness’ by Matthieu Ricard and a small exercise is presented at the end of the first chapter. The exercise is to think about what gives us pleasure and happiness. This question got me contemplating for quite a while. It appears I am not thinking very often about whether I am happy or not, let alone the causes of my happiness. I usually live with the assumption that my life is quite a happy one, unless there is something specific happening that upsets me.

However contemplating this question might not be the worst of ideas, since, as Ricard argues, being happy and content is a skill that can be learned like anything else and understanding what makes us happy seems like a very important step in getting better at happiness. Some of the things that I could come up with that make me happy are the following:

  • My wife: how I can bring good things into her life, and how she brings good things into mine, such as a wonderful smile when I am coming home from work.
  • Work and mastery: being engaged in a task in a field, software development, that interests and challenges me.
  • Beauty: encountering beauty in the natural world or of the mind.
  • Being helpful: bringing goodness into other’s lives.
  • Creativity: the ability to think and create.

I think what also contributes to my happiness is the absence of certain things:

  • Anger: at someone or something I think has wronged me.
  • Jealousy: thinking that someone has something I deserve more than they do.
  • Feeling of being treated unfairly: thinking that someone has taken advantage of me, not paid me back in kind.
  • Tiredness: feeling of having no energy to do something.
  • Sickness: feeling of not being able to do something because I have a sickness or afraid of catching one.

Thankfully I do not encounter these feelings all that often; but if I do, they certainly impact my level of happiness. Ricard calls these ‘mental toxins’.

A subquestion of the question posed is whether the things that bring us happiness could easily be taken from us. I think that is probably the case with what I have identified as contributing to my happiness. However I am not so sure if that should worry me.

I think some things, they make us happy, but they can also be taken away from us; but the happiness they bring outweigh the dangers of loosing them. I think it is thus still wise to embrace them – and ready ourselves for the possibility of loss.

Ultimately, of course, it is most important to find a deep, lasting and unassailable happiness. This I think can be achieved by finding a deeper purpose that provides us with a foundation for happiness. I think that I am still in the process of identifying this purpose for myself; sometimes I feel like that I have found it; and sometimes it seems to slip away from me.

I think it is very easy to live our modern day lives and loose sight of the question of the deeper meaning of existence. We are so busy with other things; so occupied with readily available distractions; and I am susceptible to this admittedly.

I feel like that my deeper purpose is to bring good into this world; to give back some of the blessing of the miracle of my existence. However, I am still unsure how I should go about this and also about what exactly good entails.

Thus I think I still have a long way to go on a road to deep and unassailable happiness. The question that Ricard poses is I think a very good one. I believe thinking about it has been valuable for me and I will try to make sure that I will keep it in my mind and in the process hopefully get better at happiness.

Picture credit: kikatani

Look Within

Look within; within is the fountain of all good.

Marcus Aurelius

We often go about our lives in a robot-like way. We do what is prescribed by our biological, social and cultural programming; seek social confirmation, seek good-looking mates, seek power, seek wealth, and we do so without thinking about it.

Sometimes this leads us to satisfaction and contentment, and sometimes to misery. Living our lives in such a way is risky, since we are drifting, controlled by external forces and forces within ourselves which guide us unconsciously.

Stoic and Buddhist philosophy suggests a better way for us; that we must first of all become aware of our inner selves, our thoughts and desires. Only once we have found inner peace and harmony, can we be be truly happy and bring happiness into the world.

Image credit: 1239652

Practice: Irrelevance and Impermanence

The universe is very big. We are very small. The universe exists for an immeasurably long time. Our lives are very short. These are simple facts that we often forget. An omission which easily leads us to overestimate the importance of our life, actions and feelings in the greater context of existence.

Western culture is built around the idea that  there lies tremendous value in each and every individual. The following two quotations from the Declaration of Independence and the German Basic law illustrate the Western focus on the individual and their protection from the area of Enlightenment and modernity respectively:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Declaration of Independence

Human dignity shall be inviolable. To respect and protect it shall be the duty of all state authority. […] Every person shall have the right to free development of his personality insofar as he does not violate the rights of others or offend against the constitutional order or the moral law. […] Every person shall have the right to life and physical integrity. Freedom of the person shall be inviolable. 

Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany

I believe that this understanding of basic human rights is the foundation of the peace and prosperity my generation enjoys. These documents provide a very robust legal framework for creating a peaceful and functioning society. However, they are a poor spiritual guide in that they omit some fundamental truths about our existence – that there is little factual grounds for imbuing our puny lives with such outsize importance (the original justification for this was found in Christianity – as God endowing the ‘unalienable rights’.)

We cannot find true enlightenment if we do not face what is fact to the best of our knowledge. Thus we need to overcome the basic assumption that each and every life, and especially our own life, is inherently immeasurably valuable. This thought at first might not sound very comforting; but it can be a source of tremendous strength. You don’t need to be special; there is no point. You can focus on what has been given to you, your simple, small and short life and embrace all that is good within it, without having to believe in some false higher purpose.

One of the key concepts in Buddhist philosophy is the understanding that life is suffering, and that the impermanence of everything – people, thoughts, objects – is one of the key drivers of this suffering. It is a truly inalienable fact of life and, to find peace and wisdom, we need to understand and acknowledge it:

The world is afflicted by death and decay. But the wise do not grieve, having realised the nature of the world. 

Salla Sutta: The Arrow

Impermanence and suffering are two of the ‘three marks of existence’ in Buddhism with the third one being the concept of non-self. Non-self in essence asserts that there is no permanent self or soul in any living beings. For me, it is one of the more esoteric theories in Buddhism and I tend to classify it into the category of deliberations which easily leads us around in circles while being of little use. What I like to take away from it is the insight that what we perceive as our ‘self’ is mostly an illusion and believing that we have an immortal, immeasurable valuable soul is a belief held easily only with a good helping of self-aggrandisement.

The following practice is based on two basic understandings: Firstly, that we are impermanent and, secondly, that we are irrelevant in the sense that there is no magic to our lives which make them meaningful beyond the observable. 

  1. Become aware of the place where you currently are.
  2. Grasp in your mind the people who are in your building, then your suburb, then your city, then your country and finally the whole earth; each one so very similar to you and you being such a small part of them all.
  3. Become aware of the moment in time that currently is. Realise that in a hundred years you will have ceased to exist and your moment and struggles will mean little to those succeeding you. (If you happen to think you are rich and famous or have the opportunity to become so, add one hundred thousand years to the time-frame in this exercise.)
  4. Understand that by realising this you are acknowledging a fundamental truth of who you are and your place in the world. Your impermanence and irrelevance notwithstanding embrace the miracle of your existence, the ability to think and feel; the miracle that you may behold the beauty of the world, and to cherish the opportunity to add your microscopic ripple to the ocean of time and matter surrounding your life.

This practice and its theoretical justification is similar to the practice of embracing interbeing discussed earlier. The practice for embracing interbeing is only different in that it focuses on the connectedness of things while this practice is more inward bound, in asserting our place and identity in what we know existence to be.

In contrast to the practices of love, forgiveness and gratitude this practice is not immediately comforting. In fact it can be quite disturbing. It might be easier to live our lives if indeed there was any form of evidence that there is something magical which makes each of our lives worthwhile and valuable. Alas there is not. Given this, we need to face the facts as we are able to comprehend them. True enlightenment requires to be truthful to ourselves and finding wisdom within the constraints brought to us by the observable world:

Better it is to live one day seeing the rise and fall of things than to live a hundred years without ever seeing the rise and fall of things.

Sahassavagga: The Thousands

Image credit: Earthrise by Bill Anders

Practice: Love

One of the most precious gift we have been given is our ability to love. Our love may encompass the big and small, our love may encompass the beautiful and ugly, our love may encompass ourselves and everything around us. Think about the many layers of your love; the romantic love for someone special, the love for something you like to do, the love for your family, the universal love which drives your desire to help those in need and protect everything in creation from harm.

Love is a central tenant of many world religions. In Christianity both the love of worshippers for God and Jesus as well as the love of God and Jesus for worshippers are often repeated themes. Likewise worshippers are encouraged to love one another and others:

May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else.

1 Thessalonians 3:12

In Buddhism love or loving-kindness is known as one of the four immeasurable minds. It is in essence the strong wish that all sentient beings be well and happy:

Radiate boundless love towards the entire world — above, below, and across — unhindered, without ill will, without enmity.

Karaniya Metta Sutta: The Discourse on Loving-kindness

While we should practice our ability to feel this kind of love in every action and thought, the following practice may help us to become more mindful of our ability to love and strengthen it:

  1. Take five deep breaths
  2. Think of the love you feel for someone close to you, such as your partner, parents, pets, children or friends.
  3. Think of someone who was wronged you – do you have the capacity to feel love for them?
  4. Think of yourself, with all your faults and shortcomings. Can you find love for yourself?
  5. Think of all of humankind, every single living soul. Can you find love for each and every one?
  6. Think of all sentient beings. Cows grooming their calves; lion brothers fighting for their territory; elephants wondering together. Can you find love for each and every one?
  7. Think of existence as a whole; every particle in the universe, every field and power, seemingly endless time itself. Can you find love for this vessel in which we exist?

Love just like gratitude and forgiveness is a powerful, deep emotion. We have a natural ability to love and using this ability may make us stronger and wiser. Unfortunately in times when we are weak, it is often difficult to find love, and much easier to find hatred and self-pity. If we find ourselves unable to love easily, we may follow some of the other practices to help us be stronger and unlock our ability to love unconditionally again.

Image credit: Dan Sudermann

Practice: Equanimity

A key insight of Buddhist philosophy is that the highest goal to strive for should not be boundless happiness – since that is bound to disappoint – but instead a sound evenness of mind, equanimity. Equanimity requires us to overcome attachment, to brace us against the loss of even what is most dear to us.

As part of our regular practice we may try to seek this evenness. Prepare ourselves for the struggles ahead and find solace in the belief that we must not be overly joyful to have a good life (although when joy does find us, we may embrace it).

  1. Take four deep breaths.
  2. Think of something that troubles you. This might be something that has happened, might happen or a general state of things.
  3. Accept that difficulties are a part of life. We may never be free of events or thoughts that trouble us.
  4. Imagine yourself in ten years time looking back at what concerns you now. Will you feel about it in the same way? Or will the sharpness of the feeling have subsided, will you be able to look at it in a calmer way?

This practice is motivated by something I came across in the book ‘Positive Intelligence‘ by Shirzad  Chamine. Here the technique of ‘Flash Forward’ was suggested as a possible way to become emotionally stronger. Essentially this technique involves imagining ourselves towards the end of our lives and looking back at a decision we are about to make. What decision would our older, hopefully wiser, self recommend us to take? I think this is a great way for us to think about what faces us in our lives right now and provides an excellent way to detach ourselves from seemingly pressing matters.

Finding equanimity though requires more than just following this practice or others. It requires finding a whole new perspective of life and our place in it. We need to become very good at recognising our own feelings and desires and becoming their master rather than being controlled by them.

Finding equanimity is also something which can hardly be achieved in isolation. Other practices such as finding compassion, love, understanding the nature of interbeing and impermanence are critical for us to achieve true and lasting equanimity.

Just as a mighty boulder
stirs not with the wind,
so the wise are never moved
either by praise or blame.

Dhammapada Verse 81

Image credits: Frank Winkler

Practice: Interbeing

We live in the illusion that we posses a self which is well delineated from the world around us. Whereas in fact, we are interwoven with everything around us in innumerable ways. No particle in the universe exists independently. Everything is affected by everything else.

Modern science has shown the inter-relatedness of many social and natural phenomena. However even in ancient times, interbeing has long been seen as one of the fundamental truths about existence, especially in Eastern cultures.

The principle of anatta is one of the foundations of Buddhist thought and asserts that there is no distinguishable self in any living being. As such, we each exist only within the context of everything that surrounds us. Pratītyasamutpāda is another principle which states that nothing is created in isolation. Anything is created in the context of something else which already exists. 

Just like embracing forgiveness and gratitude, I believe that meditating on the inter-dependence of all things aids us in expanding our consciousness and brings us joy and wisdom. To aid in this meditation, I have developed the following simple practice:

  1. Breathe in and out slowly three times.
  2. Become aware of your body and its current place in space.
  3. Expand your mind and attempt to become aware of everyone else who is currently in the same building as you, then of everyone in the same city, then in the same country and then on the whole of earth. Realise how you are not so much different to everyone else but just one minuscule piece of an incomprehensibly large whole.
  4. Become aware of your body in its current place in time.
  5. Expand your mind and attempt to feel and become aware of everything that has happened to you since yesterday, then since last week, then since last year. Expand your mind further and become aware of all that has happened in the last one hundred years. Realise that everything you are in this moment is the result of a long chain of events, and your moment now is but a drop in the ocean pulled by the tides of time.

I believe it is essential for embracing the truth of interbeing that we acknowledge what an infinitesimal piece of existence we are. We are bound to overestimate our own importance and agency and underestimate the torrential power of the context that surrounds us. If we accept our own irrelevance, it is easier to realise we are but a part of a very big whole. This I believe can be a great source of comfort and strength, since it fulfils our natural desire for something in our lives that is larger than us, such as a divine power.

There may not be a god who cares about our fate and desires but being part of something so grand, so incomprehensible as our world is a miracle nonetheless. Embrace the beauty of being part of this miracle and relieve yourself from the need to be something special; we all are, together.

Practices for Enlightenment

I believe we all have moments in which we become the best versions of ourselves; moments in which we are ever so slightly closer to true and deep enlightenment.

Unfortunately, these moments are rare and we digress from whatever insights we have gained easily. For instance, we might realise that binge watching television brings little happiness into our lives but comes with significant costs such as less time to spent with family and friends or for our health. We might then decide to spent less time watching television and more time on more meaningful endeavours.

This decision alone, however, is not sufficient for the outcome we decide upon to manifest. Often, we will try for a few days but then the hustle and bustle of life engulfs us and we quickly forget what we have set out to do.

I believe that to attain wisdom and foster goodness in our lives, we need to constantly remind ourselves of what is most important to us. So that, once we have decided to be good and happy, we can stand a chance against the demands of everyday life. One of the ways to do that is by following a set of practices: sequences of steps we do regularly and with a spiritual purpose.

This has motivated me to design the following simple practices, which may help in achieving a more balanced, meaningful and enlightened life:

I believe these practices can enable us to be stronger and wiser. Of course, we need to find a way to embed them into our lives in a regular manner, for instance every morning or every evening; since a practice can only unfold its power when practised repeatedly.

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