What is Happiness?

This would seem to be a really simple question, but it is far from that. What should we answer? Perhaps happiness is the feeling we get when we successfully achieve something we have worked for. Perhaps it is the feeling we get when we see our kids happy, healthy and going well. Perhaps it is the feeling of being in love, and having that love reciprocated. There are an infinite number of possibilities.
However, I would like to bring the question down to the real basics, for I think there are (at least) two kinds of happiness. Let us assume, for this discussion at least, that we are the current end product of evolution. We are a collection of chemicals, DNA and hormones. We find our natural environment (I mean trees and countryside and lakes and stuff, not concrete towers and asphalt) very attractive and restorative. We find babies and children cute and worthy of our protection, and we can even extend this to the young of other animal species. We have a very strong desire to have children of our own, and to care for them in the best way possible. All of this brings us pleasure and happiness, and a considerable amount of stress when things go wrong. So, you say, no surprises here – and indeed there are not.
The DNA mutations which didn’t find our natural world beautiful, which didn’t find babies cute and worthy of protection and, most of all, which didn’t want to have and look after babies, are no longer with us. Of course, such people are still regularly being born, but their family history will be a short one. These things are very close to us and bring us great pleasure when things go well, and great pain when they don’t.
Then there is the pleasure we derive from ‘things’. We have evolved to be an inventive species, and we like to improve our living conditions first with basics, regular food and comfortable shelters, effective tools and clothing. Achieving these things brings us pleasure (and presumably those who found no pleasure in such things starved or froze to death long ago). Having achieved the basics, our clever minds continue the search for this feeling of happiness, satisfaction and pleasure. Assuming that we have enough food, that our social structure is large and secure enough to provide protection, we have spare time on our hands. Spare time is the essence of art and the creation of things of beauty, rather than simply practicality. What I am saying is that this quality which drove us to survive, and found pleasure in success, remains in us, however comfortable, safe and boring our lives may have become.
Those of us lucky enough to live in stable societies, where war or famine are not on our doorstep, where social security and health systems protect us from immediate survival concerns, easily become bored. Our well-tuned survival instincts are still up and running. Hunting for food is replaced by hobbies or extreme sports. The gathering of fruits and root vegetables, and the preparation of skins for clothing, is replaced by shopping, and the building of a safe shelter is replaced by building a fine home and decorating it beautifully. Even in a well-run society, there is usually a majority of poorer people who have to work very hard for their families, and who scorn the boredom of the wealthier. Money doesn’t make you happy, but when you are poor there is little else on your mind.
Happiness is indeed an illusive goal. When rich people commit suicide, those of us seeking more money wonder how it can be. But seeking happiness through the acquisition of things is an endless route. A bigger car, a bigger house, a bigger yacht, finer foods, more beautiful paintings in the house, and on and on and on. I am not suggesting for a moment that giving up all these things will make one happy either. That is what I call ‘black and white logic’ – the assumption that if one thing is not good, then the opposite must be the answer. I am suggesting that our goal could be balance. We should have enough for our needs within our local conditions. These ‘needs’ will vary greatly depending on our society (we in the West feel poor if we don’t have a modern flat, mobile phones and credit cards).
The problem we all suffer is very simple, and lies in something we cannot change – our condition. We are the survivors of a very long line of evolution. We get our happiness from being successful, and if life is relatively easy and not much of a challenge, we get bored. Our over-active minds drag us on and on, to more and more achievement. However, the mind can be pacified. Imagine the times when you are most content, most at peace. For many of us, just being out in nature can be enough – the wind in our hair, a beautiful sunset, the trees in the forest – but then sometimes the weather is utterly foul and you can barely step outside. Then, watching a really good movie or comedy programme can do the trick. But you can only watch a movie a certain number of times and, however good it is, it becomes boring. There is no end to this, and you can see that it is your very own mind that is dragging you around for its own satisfaction.
The ability to see your mind and your self as two separate things is a great advantage here. The fact that you can control your mind, and your ability to watch it at work gives the clue. Whether they are truly two separate things, either physically or otherwise, is more a matter of belief than fact, and it really doesn’t matter anyway. The fact remains that the mind can be as troublesome as a bored child, but (fortunately) can be as easily distracted. Managing children and managing minds are remarkably similar in many ways. Let your mind get the upper hand and it will give you no peace; get it under a reasonable amount of control and you will experience much more peace, but get too controlling too fast and you may end up abandoning the whole project. A little and often is the key here.
One way can be found in meditation, which is just the practice of getting this mind under some sort of control. As more control is achieved, peace of mind (or more literally, peace from our minds) can be achieved. There are a thousand different kinds to be practised, but they basically fall into a few categories. Contemplative meditation involves thinking deeply about a subject, or observing what thoughts pop up naturally when all is quiet. Concentration meditation requires focussing the mind on some particular thing, for example one’s breathing, a candle flame… whatever. Then there is visualization, where one may use the controlled imagination to experience a beautiful calm situation.  I can say from my own experience that the process is extremely effective, and only doesn’t work when you don’t do it.
Our condition (note that I do not say ‘conditioning’) is particularly strong, and the mind does not appreciate this interference. Like a spoilt child, it likes to be the centre of your attention, and early attempts to control it can be rewarded with a tantrum. However, you are the master, not your mind, so just hang in there and peace will follow. It is this peace that I would call ‘the second kind of happiness’, to which I referred at the beginning of this article. Those who know me will remember that I am not always relaxed, so they can guess when I have not been practising 🙂
All comments welcome!

1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. rishabh
    Apr 16, 2013 @ 09:04:49

    Happiness is self realization capability. Of a human being …its all about how well you define your world. How well you make things happen for tour vision and finally satisfy the cause of your presence….good work there

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