Culturally, we are told that we can buy happiness. When we think of happiness and the causes of happiness, what do we instantly think of? Do we think about having a new car, new partner, fantastic sex life, fulfilling career, perfect body? However, these things don’t last, nor does the happiness derived from them. As early as 1978, Brickman et al found that happiness is relative. In studying groups of lottery winners and paraplegics, they concluded that while increased wealth may initially increase happiness, and a negative life event such as paralysis might initially decrease happiness, both groups return to a neutral level of happiness, within a relatively small number of years. In effect, we easily get used to a situation.
So this leaves us with the idea that, perhaps, happiness comes from within. Our external situation may be less significant than we are led to believe. This is actually fantastic news! It means that we are able to positively impact our own levels of happiness by changing the way we think, and act in the world.
Happiness comes from practicing gratitude, generosity and developing kindness towards ourselves and others. When we think about our lives, what do we choose to notice? Do we notice the things that we have or the things that we want? Do we notice the beauty or the ugliness? When we think about ourselves do we notice our skills and good qualities or are we consumed with self criticism?
When I first began to practice Buddhism, I decided to set myself a little experiment. I would practice one act of kindness every day. These would be simple everyday acts – no grand gestures. One day it would be picking up some litter, another day it might be buying a sandwich for someone begging on the street, or even simply having a friendly conversation with a stranger. Sometimes it involved spending money, but quite often I gave merely a smile. After practicing in this way for over a year I noticed a radical change. I began to spontaneously respond with greater kindness and empathy towards others, I felt more connected with others and with the world, I felt happier. Of course Buddhists do not have a monopoly on kindness. Buddhism was simply a way in for me at the time.
Let us return briefly to the Buddha, who tells us that life is characterized by ‘unsatisfactoriness’, or dukkha. The Buddha also described a state in which this is not the case, in which dukkha is not experienced. We cease to want things to be any different from the way they are. When I imagine what this must be like, I don’t think of this in terms of passive acceptance of the status quo. Rather I imagine a radical embrace of life’s difficulties, characterized by compassion and wisdom. I don’t particularly think in terms of Enlightenment these days, but I think in terms of being really authentically and fearlessly present in the sorrow and beauty of life, meeting whatever we find with kindness.
If we truly believed that happiness comes from within then (how) would we live our lives differently?
Dr. Rachel Jones-Wild