Are you happy?
What makes you happy? Does your happiness depend on external factors?
What would happen to your happiness if circumstances changed?
Truth be told, most of us spend our lives chasing after transitory moments of happiness, without ever recognizing the possibility for genuine, lasting happiness. Did you know there’s a difference between transitory happiness and genuine happiness?
This is Part 4 of my series on Inner and Outer Harmony is based on advice from the Dalai Lama.
In Part 1 the Dalai Lama reviewed the man-made challenges we face today and concluded that only a spiritual revolution can fully change the world. We need to take practical action too, but without a spiritual revolution, there is no hope.
In Part 2, he clarified precisely what he means by a “spiritual revolution” – the rekindling of basic human values like kindness, compassion, tolerance, and forgiveness among others. These qualities of the human spirit need not be linked to religion. They can be cultivated by one and all.
In Part 3, we explored the Dalai Lama’s view of the nature of reality, which illustrates how we are all inextricably connected for better or for worse, the choice is ours. Due to this interconnectedness, helping others ultimately helps you whereas harming others, harms you.
Happiness: The Fundamental Facts
There are some fundamental truths about happiness, which you can easily confirm by taking a solid look at your own experience of life. Here they are:
1. We all wish to be happy and we all wish to avoid suffering.
2. While material possessions and enjoyable sensory experiences can bring about happiness it is only a fleeting, temporary state of mind. The new car breaks down, the bathwater gets cold, our stomach aches after a rich meal. Whatever causes our happiness in the first place eventually changes and thus our happiness also dissolves. Possessions and experiences actually contain the “seed of suffering.”
3. The transitory nature of this type of happiness – the kind that depends on external factors – only leads us to crave more and more. This put us into an endless cycle of seeking the next object or experience that will bring gratification. As one astute Indian writer once said, “Indulging our senses and drinking salt water are alike: the more we partake, the more our desire and thirst grow.”
4. If we take this perspective on the transitory nature of happiness to heart, we realize it’s a mistake to place too much emphasis on material development and material possessions. True and lasting happiness can never come from gratifying the senses alone.
5. Human beings have the capacity to experience a deeper happiness than that which is evoked by a material or sensory pleasure. A deeper level of happiness can even override unhappiness or pain. For example, a person who donates a kidney so that another can live will surely go through suffering, but this sense of suffering will be secondary to the sense of fulfillment derived from saving a person’s life.
In short, transitory happiness almost always results in suffering. It is fundamentally flawed because you can never get enough.
Now please don’t take the Dalai Lama’s word for it. He always encourages you to think through the logic for yourself and arrive at a deeper experience of the conclusion. Take a good look at your own life experience. Are these facts about regular happiness true for you?
What is genuine, lasting happiness?
The Dalai Lama clearly distinguishes between transitory happiness and what he calls lasting or genuine happiness.
So what is genuine or lasting happiness, you might ask? The Dalai Lama explains his own experience of genuine happiness like this,
“…so far as basic serenity is concerned, on most days I am calm and contented. Even when difficulties arise, as they must, I am usually not much bothered by them. I have no hesitation in saying that I am happy.”
The Dalai Lama says that in his own experience, the principal characteristic of genuine happiness is inner peace. This is how we can explain the fact that some people who are abundantly endowed on the material plane feel constantly plagued by a sense of discontentment. On the other hand, we find individuals in the most dire of circumstances who are able to remain happy nevertheless.
“If we can develop this quality of inner peace, no matter what difficulties we meet with in life, our basic sense of well-being will not be undermined.”
You might argue that good health, friends, freedom, and prosperity all contribute to our fundamental sense of well-being. This is true and shouldn’t be discounted. But they aren’t unchanging or reliable. We can see for ourselves, these factors are all transitory and often become the cause of suffering in themselves. These factors cannot bring about lasting happiness on their own, which is independent of external circumstances.
True happiness then arises from inner peace. It is a stable sense of serenity, calm, and contentment that does not depend on external factors or circumstances.
How Do We Achieve Genuine Happiness?
If genuine happiness arises from a sense of inner peace, as the Dalai Lama proposes, then – like any other task in life – we need to identify its causes and conditions and set about cultivating them. He defines two conditions which contribute to inner peace: our attitude and our actions.
To achieve happiness, we need to cultivate the attitudes and actions that are conducive to inner peace and to avoid attitudes and actions that might obstruct it. Attitudes and actions are two elements of life that are fully within the realm of your control. Granted, it may take time, dedication, and practice to change the habits of your mind but it’s eminently doable.
As unbelievable as it may seem, even the Dalai Lama was, in his earlier years, somewhat hot-tempered, impatient, and even prone to anger. Now he’s calm and serene. What changed? His attitude. He diligently trained in cultivating love and kindness, while simultaneously practiced dissolving anger whenever it arose.
You too can find inner peace and happiness because it is possible to change the habits of your mind and adopt new attitudes.
The Dalai Lama has observed that the actions that bring about lasting peace are generally those that involve doing something worthwhile and beneficial for others – ones that bring about happiness for both ourselves and others. He believes that “altruism is an essential component to those actions which lead to genuine happiness.”
The Dalai Lama differentiates an ethical act and a spiritual act. He says,
“An ethical act is one where we refrain from causing harm to other’s experience or expectation of happiness. Spiritual acts we can describe in terms of those qualities mentioned earlier of love, compassion, patience, forgiveness humility, tolerance, and so on which presume some level of concern for other’s well-being. We find that the spiritual actions we undertake which are motivated not by narrow self-interest but out of our concern for others actually benefit ourselves. And not only that, they make our lives meaningful.”
Actions inspired by the wish to help others are the most effective way to bring about lasting happiness. These positive actions also lessen our own experience of suffering. Why is that? When we are in the midst of helping someone else, we are less focused on our own worries and problems and thus suffer less.
The Dalai Lama concludes,
“…because our every action has a universal dimension, a potential impact on other’s happiness, ethics are necessary as a means to ensure that we do not harm others. …genuine happiness consists in those spiritual qualities of love and compassion, patience, tolerance, forgiveness, humility, and so on. It is these which provide happiness for both ourselves and others.”
This doesn’t mean being a martyr or perpetual giver. It simply means having a good heart and consistently extending yourself on the behalf of others. It means dedicating yourself to cultivating positive qualities like being more loving, tolerant, forgiving and to decreasing negative emotions like anger and ill will. As explained in Part 3, it makes sense to help others even from a selfish perspective because – in the end – helping helps you whereas harming harms you.
The Dalai Lama is asking us to take quite a leap here. Frankly, most of our lives revolve around the notion of acquiring moments of transitory happiness via possessions and experiences. There’s even a whole slew of personal development bloggers that will tell you that you can live whatever life you want and be rich too. On the other hand, pioneers in the minimalist movement will tell you that less is more. They say that overindulgence in material possessions brings more headaches and heartaches than happiness.
What do you think? What is genuine happiness in your view? Do you think altruism is an essential component for lasting happiness?
This series – A Simple Guide to Inner and Outer Harmony – is based on Ethics for a New Millennium by the Dalai Lama.
Image of the Dalai Lama from his Facebook Page.
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