I don’t know anyone who wishes to be unhappy; do you? I know many people (me included) who, against all wisdom and common sense, make choices that lead to unhappiness, but that’s not what they had set out to be.
Everyone wants to be happy. If you ask people what they want out of life, most will tell you that they want to be happy. But what makes a happy life? What is happiness, anyway? These questions are as old as the Himalayas, of course, and people have been pondering them for ages.
The founding fathers of the United States of America considered happiness so vital to the type of life they wanted for their people that they included the pursuit of happiness as an “unalienable right”, together with life and liberty. However, the US Declaration of Independence only guarantees the freedom to pursue happiness; it does not guarantee happiness itself. You have the right to chase happiness; actually catching it us upon you.
The phrase pursuit of happiness always makes me feel that happiness is elusive, like sand in your hand that keeps slipping away as you do your best to hold on to it. It also gives me the impression that it is a “thing” – something tangible, which means it can be pursued and caught. The phrase also makes me think happiness is actively trying to get away from us.
But is happiness elusive? Is it constantly trying to get away from us as we race after it? Is happiness something we can catch at all?
What, then, is happiness? We all know a happy person when we see one. You can hide — up to a point — negative emotions like hate and jealousy, but happiness will shine through.
The Dharmic philosophies (Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Zen) define happiness as a state of being. According to these, a happy person has let go of negative emotions that characterize the ego – jealousy, resentment, bitterness.
- Is honest with herself about what truly makes her happy.
- Does not dwell in the past – whether good or bad – or in the future, but instead, is rooted firmly in the present, living each moment consciously, mindfully and deliberately.
- Is content with what she has and is not constantly hankering after what she does not have.
- Takes joy in service to her fellow humans.
- Practises gratitude regularly.
- Does not use other people’s estimation of her as a measure of her success
- Practises non-attachment. A happy person is not attached to the material possessions and has embraced the impermanence of material things.
- Engages in those activities that bring her joy (rather than solely for fame or prestige or wealth).
Of course, happiness is not the exclusive domain on the Eastern religions. Not all people that practise these religions are happy. And there are plenty of people that practise other religions or no religion at all who are very happy. Positive psychologist Sonja Lyubomisky defines happiness as “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.”
While they differ on almost all their core beliefs, atheists and religious people (or people of different faiths) define happiness in much the same way. They do not each look towards different sets of people as their ideals of happy. So, happiness transcends differences of faith, or its lack thereof entirely.
So, the question remains, if everyone is looking for happiness, why have so few people actually found it, and even fewer managed to hold on to it? Could it be because they have been looking for happiness in the wrong places?