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.

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Jewellery

Ornaments are an important part of nature. Flowers use them to attract bees. Birds use them to attract mates. Frogs use them as protection from predators. It is therefore not very surprising that jewellery, face painting, tattoos and other ornamental devices are one of the many things which are shared by all know human cultures.

I often talk about spiritual values and the spiritual dimension of our existence and how it is an important part of living our life fully. Beauty and art are important bridges to the spiritual world and jewellery and other ornaments can convey beauty, and we should embrace them as valuable enrichment of our lives.

Unfortunately jewellery is often used for other purposes than to delight our aesthetic and spiritual senses. The most important of these is the visual expression of power since jewellery is not chosen for its aesthetic value alone but for how expensive it is.

If I wear an expensive piece of jewellery that you cannot afford, it shows that I have more ability to purchase – or obtain in other ways – things which you cannot. If you give me an expensive piece of jewellery as a present, it shows my power over you and you transfer me some power in form of the monetary value of the item.

This function speaks to our primate mind, which we are not guilty of possessing (since Nature has bestowed it upon us) but which we are guilty of not recognising and aspiring to transcend.

Just think about diamonds. I won’t say that diamonds are not beautiful – they are wonderful creations of Nature – but I am puzzled why other precious stones are not used as often in making jewellery; since they are just as beautiful to me. The same goes for gold. Sure it is pretty but other metals and materials are just as capable of delighting our eye.

Jewellery is often made from gold and diamonds since these are expensive. Which shows that the contemporary jewellery is often not in ornament but used as expression of power. The problem with that is that jewellery as power display does not enrich our live or the lives of others.

It does have costs for us, though. Firstly, we need to use our money to purchase it and thus cannot use the money for something more wholesome and valuable. Secondly, mining for jewellery and gold comes along with major environmental destruction.

Imagine a world where we create jewellery for its beauty; where the bulk of its costs goes to artists for their creativity; where we use it as a way to express our individual personality rather than all wearing pieces that essentially look the same safe for them using different amounts of expensive material.

We do not benefit from gold and diamonds. Corporations are. Sure your wife or girlfriend will be happy if she receives a nice piece of jewellery from you. Sure that happiness is often based on how expensive that piece was. But maybe you can think of another present; one that does not come along with environmental harm and that complements her as a person. If you are a potential receiver of jewellery as a present, think if you really need it or if there are other things (or actions) which might make you just as happy, or maybe even more happy, than receiving certain stone on a certain piece of metal.

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Pleasure, Joy and Happiness

One of the marks of an expert is the knowledge of vocabulary within a specific domain and the ability to apply this vocabulary effectively and precisely. Listing to two engineers talk about the construction of a bridge, we would not understand much of their conversation, as long as we not happen to be a structural engineer ourselves.

If we are seeking a more meaningful and fulfilled life, we need to become experts in the field of language that will help us in this quest. I think that pleasure, joy and happiness are among the most important words we need to gain a good understanding of and I will provide a discussion of these in the following.

It must be noted here, that unlike terms used in engineering, there is no one true definition of what pleasure, joy and happiness mean. There are various conflicting understandings and in this article I am not claiming to be able to provide one universally agreed definition. Instead, I aim to provide a useful definition. One that is best suited to aid us in understanding ourselves and help us become more enlightened and fulfilled.

Pleasure

I define pleasure as a feeling of sensual gratification. You drink a class of cold water after a long walk on a hot, dry day. You eat a most pleasant meal after a time of fasting. You have good sex.

Pleasure is rooted deeply in our biology and is used as the ‘carrot’ by our biology to make us do what is good for our survival, well-being and procreation of our genes. Pleasure is easily exhausted. It is most pleasurable to drink one glass of cold water when one is thirsty, but a second, third, fourth and fifth glass quickly bring diminishing pleasure returns for us.

Joy

I define joy as a feeling of temporary elation caused by something we are experiencing. You see the sunrise over the ocean. You win the lottery. You have passed an exam. You have solved an equation.

Joy is not a reward from our reptile brains, as pleasure is, but related to our perceptions of what is good and beautiful. Joy, though, is not good in itself. Joy may be misguided, such as exemplified in the word schadenfreude, the joy at the misfortune of someone else.

Happiness

I define happiness as a lasting inner state of calm and contentment. While pleasure and joy are short-lived and intense, the feeling of happiness permeates every moment of our lives, for days, months or decades. You have a happy marriage. You love your job. You have found your purpose in life.

It has been found we have a base level of happiness determined by our biology and the culture in which we live in. However, I do believe that there are things in life we can do to become more happy and content with our lives, chiefly by finding and following a purpose and by a better understanding of our feelings, such as by meditation.

If I was to rank, pleasure, joy and happiness, I would say that happiness is the feeling which is most aligned with the goal of seeking a meaningful life and enlightenment. Pleasure is the feeling which has the greatest potential to steer us off the paths of enlightenment and betterment. Joy would sit somewhere in between these.

However, that being said, I don’t think we should try to eliminate pleasure or joy from our lives. They are a gift to us, they can provide us with energy and motivation for taking on the challenges of our lives.

In the beginning of this article, I have stated to goal to come up with a definition for pleasure, joy and happiness that is useful. I think the definitions provide above are useful, in that they can direct us in how to approach each of these emotions: For happiness, I think we should not be afraid that we may find too much of it and try to bring plenty of it into our lives; we should seek pleasure in moderation; and make sure that we embrace the right kind of joy, joy at things which guide us and others on a path to happiness.

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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: Joy

Joy is what makes the little moments in our life worthwhile. We may play a game, we may laugh with friends, we may dance, or draw or swim; any of the things nature has allowed us to find pleasure in. We need this joy and it is a great source of strength for us.

In Buddhism joy is known as one of the four immeasurables along with compassion, love and equanimity. If we embrace these states of mind, we may become happier, wiser and bring more good to the world around us.

We have a natural ability to experience joy and to practice joy is less about mindfully seeking it and more about letting loose of the restraints modern life and adulthood place upon us.

We have many reasons not to experience joy. We are too tired, too stressed. We don’t have enough time. We are too serious a person to play or be silly. Therefore the practice to embrace joy in our lives is twofold:

  1. We need to think about what are the underlying factors preventing us from experiencing joy and how we may overcome them.
  2. Whenever joy finds us naturally in our lives, we need to embrace it fully and not feel guilty or be distracted by other obligations in our lives.

While the other practices lend themselves to be practised regularly, the practice of joy is something which needs to be woven into our everyday lives. As such, to not loose track of our commitment to joy, it may be good to schedule regular ‘joy reviews’ where we assess how we are tracking in bringing joy into our lives.

Image credit: The Roses of Heliogabalus

Practice: Forgiveness

I think it is human nature that we are constantly disappointed with ourselves and others. One fundamental driver for this is our struggle between altruism and selfishness. We are programmed to be supportive and helpful to those around us but we are also programmed to look out for our own interests. Which ones of these directions we follow is a constant source of uncertainty for us and, if we inevitably choose the path of selfishness occasionally, we are bound to be disappointed with ourselves. Likewise, we are disappointed with others if we observe them doing the same.

Given this constant struggle and disappointment, I believe it is critical for us to embrace forgiveness in order to keep a balanced and happy mind. Thus I have developed the following very simple practice that may aid us in being more forgiving.

  1. Breathe in slowly and deeply until your lungs are filled with air. Hold your breath for three seconds and then slowly exhale. Repeat for three times.
  2. Forgive yourself for all the things you have done wrong, said wrong or thought wrong today or in the past. Remember that you are worthy of love, even if you make mistakes or are misguided.
  3. Forgive others who you feel have wronged you. Like you, they are worthy of love, even if they make mistakes or are misguided.
  4. Forgive existence for providing us with little guidance as to what our purpose is. You have been given this life; treasure what has been given to you.

Forgiveness for me is powerful since it is not only something we do through our thoughts but experience as a deep and revealing emotion. If I was angry with myself or others and I allow myself to forgive, I feel the relieving emotion of forgiveness washing over me. Maybe you do not experience this in the same way but I believe that we are all able to feel forgiveness as something special. For instance, think about how fundamental forgiveness is to Christianity: Yes, we may have sinned but God and Jesus will forgive us (the latter possibly more so than the former). If we truly believe this, this is bound to be a powerful emotion.

The practice above however does not assume that we will be granted forgiveness by a higher power. We ourselves forgive. And this matters. To be full of forgiveness is critical for journeying on the path of enlightenment, and we must not only forgive others but also ourselves. We are bound to be disappointed again and again, but the more disappointed we get, the more we need to forgive.

Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times. (Matt. 18:15–22)

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