In Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill, a molecular biologist turned Buddhist monk, described by scientists as “the happiest man alive,” demonstrates how to develop the inner conditions for true happiness.
Who wants to suffer? Who wakes up in the morning thinking: ‘I wish I could suffer all day’?
We all strive, consciously or unconsciously, competently or clumsily, passionately or calmly, adventurously or routinely, to be happier and suffer less. Yet so often confuse genuine happiness with merely seeking enjoyable emotions.
Every day our lives, we find a thousand different ways to live intensely, forge bonds of friendship and love, enrich ourselves, protect those we love, and keep those who would harm us at arm’s length. We devote our time and energies to these tasks, hoping they will provide us and others with a sense of fulfillment and well-being.
The tragedy lies in our frequent misidentification of the ways to achieve that well-being
We go about looking for it, and whether we call it joy or dusty, passion or contentment, isn’t happiness the goal of all goals?
Aristotle called it the only goal ‘we always choose for its own sake and never as a means to something else.’ Anyone who says otherwise doesn’t really know what he wants; he is simply seeking happiness under another name.
Stephen Kosslyn, a Harvard Professor and one of the world’s leaders researchers in mental imagery, once told me that when he wakes up in the morning it is not the desire to be happy that gets him out of bed but the sense of duty, the sense of responsability for his family, for the team he leads, for his work, for humanity.
Ignorance perverts our desire to improve ourselves
Ignorance, in the Buddhist lexicon, is an inability to recognize the true nature of things and of the law of cause and effect that governs happiness and suffering.
How do we dispel this basic ignorance?
The only way is through honesty and sincere introspection. There are two ways we can undertake this: analysis and contemplation.
- Analysis consists of a candid and systematic evaluation of every aspect of our own suffering and of the suffering we inflict on others. It involves understanding which thoughts, words, and actions inevitably lead to pain and which contribute to well-being.
- The contemplative approach consists of rising above the whirlpool of our thoughts for a moment and looking calmly within, as if at an interior landscape, to find the embodiment of our deepest aspirations.
Everything you need to be happy
To imagine happiness as the achievement of all our wishes and passions is to confuse the legitimate aspiration to inner fulfillment with a utopia that inevitably leads to frustration.
In affirming that ‘happiness is the satisfaction of all our desires’ in all their ‘multiplicity’, ‘degree’, and ‘duration’, Kant dismisses it from the outset to the realm of the unachievably. When he insists that happiness is the condition of one for whom ‘everything goes according to his wish and will,’ we have to wonder about the mystery whereby anything might ‘go’ according to our wishes and will. It reminds me of a line I once heard in a gangster movie.
“I want what’s owed to me.”
“What’s owed to you, man?”
“The world, chico, and everything in it.”
Exercise: Examining the causes of happiness
Take a quite moment alone and try to find out what really makes you happy. Is your happiness derived mainly from outer circumstances? How much of it is due to your state of mind and the way you experience the world? If happiness comes from outer circumstances, check how stable or fragile they are. If it is due to a state of mind, consider how you can further cultivate it.
Complement Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill with How will you measure your life. A book of lucid observations and penetrating insights designed to help any reader—student or teacher, mid-career professional or retiree, parent or child—forge their own paths to fulfillment.