In recent years, my thinking – and the writing reflecting it – has turned more and more to happiness as the objective and ideal outcome of any sincere spiritual practice. We human observers want to be happy and structure our living – and judge the efficacy of that structuring – accordingly. How shall we think about this?
In a general way, we can equate happiness with subjective well-being. When we are safe from danger, welcome in a nurturing community, and working and recreating in meaningful ways, we are happy. When those ideals are not met, or are only partially met, then happiness ebbs, sometimes transforming into unhappiness.
However, that definition of happiness might seem to overly rely on favorable constellations of external circumstances. The right job, the right relationship, the right community . . . But we all know that those things, even when they are wonderful, can be wracked by adversity, sometimes quite intensely and for extended periods of time. People lose their tempers or their keys or even die in random accidents. Lightening strikes the barn and kills the horses, an unexpected frost kills the corn and tomatoes we need to eat.
In other words, you can’t count on things always working out. Any sense of happiness that depends on things being “just right” all or even most of the time is a recipe for disappointment and even despair.
In fact, the suggestion I make is that happiness is more in the nature of a sustainable presence that calmly coincides with variable circumstances and neither resists nor attaches to them. Life goes awry; but good friends and partners, meaningful work, safe communities, food and clean water go a long way to buttressing our internal compass from wild swings between extremes.
To be happy is to maintain a reasonable positive outlook and creative diligence regardless of what’s going on around us.
Thus, one thing we can say about happiness is that it is subjective. That is, what makes you happy will not necessarily make me happy, and vice-versa. Being happy is an interior posture related to our living in the world. It is a way of ordering experience so that we are safe and relatively satisfied, even in the face of challenge and heartbreak.
Happy people are folks who know that when they’re feeling blue they need to walk or run or hike a mountain. They know that bad feelings pass and so they don’t double down on emotional ruts or indulge quick fixes or unsustainable highs. They are prone to gratitude – making lists, actively seeking ways to add to the list, and utilizing service as a way of “giving back.”
In this sense, happiness is about knowing who you are, and having a relatively clear plan for being and remaining happy.
Saying it that way can make happiness sound like nothing more than a good diet or exercise routine. But I think concepts like “self-awareness” and “plans for responding creatively to life” are actually code for a potential that is already always underway because it inheres in all human observers.
Happiness, it turns out, is natural.
Human beings naturally orient towards what works, where what works is what enables them to survive. And, in our current period of living, where survivability is less volatile than it was a few centuries ago, “to survive” really means “to be happy.”
Happiness isn’t a skill that we learn like swimming or tying knots or typing on our phones. Happiness is already in us as a condition of what we are. We can certainly give attention to it in order to maximize its application. We can become more effective in terms of identifying and deploying strategies for maximization. But we don’t have to invent it whole cloth. Happiness is already here.
Thus, an interesting exercise in terms of happiness, is simply to sit quietly and give attention to our existing relationship with happiness. How would we characterize that relationship? How reliable is it? How confident are we in it? And so forth.
If happiness is natural, then when we are unhappy something has gone wrong. I use “wrong” here in the sense of non-functional or not working. If your map is covered with ink and can’t be read, then something has gone wrong, and we’re not going to get lost. If our car is leaking oil, then something has gone wrong, and we’re going to break down. Unhappiness speaks to a deviation from our natural role as loving human beings. We shouldn’t resign ourselves to misery, ours or anyone else’s. We should give attention to what is not working and seek in our experience a rectification or redemption. It is there to be found.
One of the things we learn as we give attention to happiness is that it is fundamentally communal. It takes two to smile. The other might be another person, a dog, a sunset, a cricket, a distant star, or even a memory or dream, but still. We are not happy in isolation. Happiness is the shared response of two observers, each of whom could be the other.
If that sounds unduly abstract or complicated, consider it in terms of service. It is a staple of human culture that helping others makes us happy. Shared sorrow is reduced while shared joy is doubled. We like to help others and we like to make them happy. It is good to notice this aspect of generosity in our being, and to notice as well the ways in which we have been helped by others. Happiness is both a result of service and one of its causes.
In all of this I am suggesting that happiness is kin to wholeness. When we are happy, we are wholly human, and are extending that humanness towards our brothers and sisters, and the world that we share. To be happy is in the ultimate sense to be so full of love that we can’t help but give it away. When we are happy, we are expressing our whole self in a way that facilitates a similar experience for others.