Always Well Within

Calm Your Mind, Ease Your Heart, Embrace Your Inner Wisdom

Happiness Is An Inside Job

Dalai Lama

Dalai Lama

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.

Please let your friends know about this article by using the share buttons below.  Every share helps me reach out to others.  Thanks so much for your support!  Sandra


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  1. Hi Sandra,

    I am loving this series, and this article is so beautifully developed. I appreciate your point about the have-it-all viewpoint vs. the minimalists. This dilemma is solved when we see that it’s not stuff that is the problem, but our attachment to it.

    Attachments start with a sense of desire and lack. If we can welcome that initial experience, the momentum of need is stopped and the desire/lack falls back into the wellspring of happiness that is always here. Once we are free of attachments, to our thoughts, things, etc., then we are free to enjoy stuff or minimalize. Material objects can be present, or not, and the happiness rests undisturbed.

    As for me, I’m not very attached, but I enjoy beautiful things, comfortable environments, and dressing nicely. These become a celebration rather than a never-ending cycle of need.

    • Hi Gail,

      You’ve really unveiled the secret to happiness ~ letting go of our attachments. Whether it’s an attachment to more or less!

      One of my favorite stories is from the spiritual master Yukhok Chatralwa Choying Rangdrol who was once criticized for having a large, comfortable house. He replied, ” ‘Chatralwa’ means someone who has gotten rid of their emotional attachments to worldly materials or to life itself. It does not mean being poor and hankering for them, as many do.”

      I appreciate the way you have loosen your attachments and simply enjoy what comes your way. Thanks for sharing this important insight.

  2. Hi Sandra,
    I really enjoyed reading this fabulous post. The whole series has given me alot to think about. I’m working on changing my perception of things that usually get me upset. A change in attitude and perception is critical to genuine happiness. Thanks so much for this series Sandra!!


    • Dandy,

      I’m so happy this series has stimulated your thinking. Changing our perception is definitely the key to happiness and within the realm of our control. We can take it gently – one step at a time. It’s a lifelong journey. I really appreciate hearing your enthusiasm. Thanks so much for letting me know.

  3. I agree completely that happiness from material possessions or temporary success at something doesn’t last. “You can’t take it with you” may be a cliché, but is true.

    I disagree with the premise that actions and attitudes are the true path to happiness. Those are both human-caused or human-controlled activities. Because both can change or be changed by external forces, actions and attitudes are no more permanent than possessions. If you come down with a deadly disease, your attitude is likely to suffer and your actions will be dictated by what you can physically do.

    In my faith, happiness is always something under control of external situations. Joy, on the other hand, is not based on human factors or control. Rather, joy comes from a relationship with God that is eternal. It is not affected by material status or internal attitude. Thanks for letting me share a different point of view. I’ll be interested in any comments this may trigger.

    As I am sure you know, none of this lessens my appreciation for the beauty and forcefulness of your writing or opinions.

    • Thank you for your beautiful post. I believe that material possessions is only borrowed, for a short time. But I often have a hard time letting go of temporaly states. For me a key to try to learn to handle this in a better way is to learn to be able to die.

      • Hi Karma Witness,

        Welcome! This is a wonderful way to look at possessions. Learning to die is surely the ultimately process of letting go. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    • Hi Bob,

      I respect all spiritual traditions and really appreciate when you share a different point of view. Though I would honestly say that I’m not so sure our views are so far apart. I think it might be a question of semantics more than anything. For example, the “joy” you speak of may be more akin to the Dalai Lama’s meaning of “genuine happiness” as opposed to “transitory” happiness – it comes from recognizing what’s eternal rather than transitory.

      This is where we diverge though – I believe that ultimately we have the ability to control our attitude and our actions. Why is it that some people are able to sustain joy even when they are affected by a deadly disease? Suffering affects almost all of us but the way we choose to relate to it differs markedly. Some people still choose a positive attitude, while others succumb to negativity. Sure our physical actions may be limited, this is not the meaning I have in mind when I use the word action. Even when our physical actions are limited, we still act, we are still in control of choosing positive or negative actions. We have the power to train our mind to go beyond pain and suffering and to choose positive actions over negative actions. I’m not saying it’s easy, but this is the whole point of any spiritual path in my eyes.

      Another difference may be the fact that Buddhism does not believe in a Creator as do some world religions. This is also a difference in the Dalai Lama’s view and your view. But I myself am not trying to convert anyone to Buddhism! I try to share the universal principles of spiriutality that will help people have a happier life whatever their faith or no faith.

      I’m very happy you have a fulfilling spiritual life and very happy for you to share your view here. Thanks for your comment.

      • Sandra,

        Your response was exactly what I expected: reasoned, respectful, and gracious. We all benefit when we share.

  4. Hi Sandra-Thank you for this thought provoking post. My quest for happiness has intrigued and challenged me for many years. It is a difficult path with many bumps in the road along the way. My journey has been filled with times that I am thrown off the path and need reminders how to get back on. I believe we do have the power to train our mind to go beyond pain and suffering and it certainly isn’t simple! It is all part of the life-long journey. Thank you for all the reminders and guidance. I am very grateful. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving.

    • Hi Lori,

      I’m really happy for the realistic perspective you’ve brought to the discussion. The challenges are an essential part of the path to lasting happiness and I agree, oftentimes the road is bumpy. Ultimate happiness is really beyond attachment to happiness or aversion to suffering. In many ways, it’s the courage to simply be with what is. It’s a paradox and cannot be explained fully. As you say, it’s a life-long journey not a quick fix. Wish you a beautiful Thanksgiving as well.

  5. Hi Sandra,
    This was a wonderful article. I love the line that our possessions and experiences contain “the seeds of unhappiness” within them. It’s true.

    In all things we should strive to achieve balance. We’re here on the earth for a reason which I believe is to learn to navigate the physical world and all the problems and pleasures that come with the territory. While we’re here we will acquire possessions and have all sorts of experiences that will help us grow in many ways that would be impossible in the spiritual realms. If we strive to have enough of what we need to survive and be comfortable, but not overdo or be excessive about anything we will find a richness in life itself that will make us far happier than worrying about amassing and then protecting and preserving our possessions.

    • Angela, Thanks for adding such a wise perspective to the conversation! Balance is definitely part of the equation as well as avoiding too much attachment or aversions. Your thoughts are so beautifully articulated.

  6. I’ve read that only 10% of our happiness is based on outer circumstances. 50% is based on our inherited temperament, and a walloping 40% is based on our habitual thoughts, feelings, words, and actions. (I’m using the word happiness here to mean a deep abiding joy, not a transitory feeling.) That means we have control over 40% of our happiness and can max out that 40% by paying attention to our habits. I like to think of it as the default setting for our homepage.

    Your post is rich with much to think about and put into practice. Thank you. (And I love that picture of the Dalai Lama.)

    • Hi Galen,

      I love your input. I agree with the idea of having an inherited temperament. It seems far easier for some people to be loving and joyful in that deep abiding joy sort of way. But I don’t think we are stuck with our temperament. I think we can transform our temperament too with patience, joyful diligence, and dedication. In Ayurvedic medicine it says that we can’t fully overcome our basic temperament, but in any case I think we can come darn close.

      I’m glad you like the post. Stay well and thanks for your comment.

      • I agree. I was reporting what I had read, but I think if we work on that 40% habit part, it will inevitably affect the %50 temperament part. Which means that actually we have control over much more that 40% of our happiness!

  7. What a stellar blog post Sandra, a real triumph that was a pleasure to read. Happiness is down to the FUNdamentals and allowing enjoyment to take the reins and love to plot the path. Happiness isn’t something that we find or seek, it’s a joy we recognise and awaken right where are here, now, today, whatever is going on.

    As happiness expert, Robert Holden, shows when he says look at the following phrase; ‘happiness is nowhere’. Those who are happy see happiness is now here. What did you see? That tells exactly where your happiness lies. So, yes, its location is no secret…inside, where it has always been and always will be.

    • Very beautiful, John! Thanks for letting us know the secret location of happiness! You’ve expressed this so well. Thanks for your thoughts.

  8. Sandra,
    I would put forgiveness at the top of my “how to be happy” list. For me it’s the only way to inner peace. And because we’re all human if we’re alive we have forgiveness work to do, even if it’s for a crazy driver!

    I’m a big believer in altruism and I think it’s because I was raised Catholic and my parents were great examples.

    I’ve taught English in Brownsville Texas, I’ve worked at an orphange in Mexico for two months, I’ve gleaned fields for soup kitchens and worked in soup kitchens, I was in Mississippi for a week after Katrina etc. Did it because I was taught that’s what life is all about.

    You have so many key points in this article.

    I met Leo in San Fransico in September and he mentioned he only buys his clothes from Goodwill. I’ve since decided I’m going to do that in 2011. Clothes are my weakness. I’m sure it’s from hand me downs being one of 10 kids and wearing school uniforms for 11 years…oh and did I mention our culture is into the latest and greatest when it comes to clothes. I like how Gail celebrates clothing. I think I’ll get to that as I transition into doing with out new clothes!
    Happy Thanksgiving!

    • Hi Tess,

      You are so absolutely right about forgiveness! Thanks so much for adding that point to the discussion. So true – as long as we are human there’s a high probability we have forgiveness work to do. I loved hearing you stories of helping. Very inspiring and they give me more of a glimpse into you.
      That’s an incredible goal for your 2011 clothes buying. I’m really awed by your courage. Bravo for Leo too.

      Happy Thanksgiving to you too. I hope you have a beautiful day. I’m quite sure you will!

  9. You had me at “happiness is an inside job.”

    I’ve learned long ago that making happiness something external or out in the distance is a setup for failure. Growing happiness right under your feet from the inside out is the way to go.

    I’ve learned that the real fruits of happiness come from a small set of vital things:
    – living your values
    – living your mission or purpose (this helps with fulfillment)
    – savoring the moment (sniffing those roses and catching those Hallmark moments)
    – spending time with the right people
    – raising your frustration tolerance for the things that go wrong in life
    – being your own best friend over being your own worst enemy
    – spending more time doing what you love, and spending less time on things you don’t

  10. J. D.

    It thrills me to no end to “get you” with a good title! Thanks for telling me that. As always, you have a smart approach to happiness. I love the tips you’ve shared here. You definitely strike me as one happy and fulfilled person!

  11. Even though my outer circumstances may not be what some would call ideal, I am The Happiest Person I Know.

    No matter how bad things get, I always find something for which to be grateful, and that is the key to my happiness.

    Live Life Happy!

  12. Your great post made it clear to me why I’m longing to join the Peace Corps in a few years time with my husband. I lived in Nigeria as a child, and I volunteered in a Mayan village last year with a group of nurses in Belize. I have this pull to go back, and one reason is to escape materialism, especially where I live in OC, California.

  13. Sandra,

    Happiness is surely inside job, meaning it comes from within. Many times we are seeking it outwardly from someone or something and we are usually disappointed. I am focused on finding a balance and contentness in my life and I know happiness will follow.


    • Hi Preeti,

      You have a wonderful focus in your life and I too am sure that happiness will follow. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  14. varuni chaudhary

    Dear Sandra,
    Wonderful post as always. I am taking quite a few points home from both the post and the comments.
    love you always

  15. Hello Sandra.

    This is a great article, and it is so true. Happiness absolutely must come from within. We can only fool ourselves for so long. I realized this many years ago, deciding to simply let go of things that failed to contribute to a positive outlook. Afterward, we realize that many of these things really didn’t matter as much as we once thought.

    I have to swing to the beginning of the series and read the rest. 🙂

    Sharing is caring, and I thank you for sharing this one.

    • Hi Jimi and Welcome,
      Thanks so much for taking the time to leave a comment. I’m glad you liked this article and I appreciate your positive response. You’re so right, in retrospect we realize so many of our automatic habits never brought us happiness and aren’t so important after all. Thanks for caring by sharing!

  16. Dear Sandra, I missed this last week when I was away. Beautiful post. I read most of it and I am thinking about the depth of the concept you cover here….And I am going to link to it for my post for today. You are my best resource around….!! Beautiful write-up and thank you for teaching me more about the Dalai Lama words of wisdom.

    • Hello Farnoosh,

      I’m so glad you enjoyed the article and thinking about the depth of the concept covered here. The Dalai’s wisdom is indeed deep and profound. I’m happy you have been able to connect with it. All the best!

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