Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle didn’t fully agree on a definition of happiness. Socrates and Plato argued that it wasn’t just up to fate, luck, or the gods and it was up to the people themselves. To them, happiness was the ultimate goal, something far greater than mere earthly satisfaction. Aristotle, on the other hand, saw things a little differently. He held that we must look to the world; only there could we unearth our role as humans and the true role of human happiness.
There’s also a wide gap between the western conception of happiness and the Buddhist idea of true, long-lasting happiness. Many Westerners think of happiness as a momentary, fleeting feeling. The intensity and duration depend on circumstances outside their control. A Westerner might feel happy about passing an exam, for instance, or winning a game or having a pleasant encounter with someone. Buddhists on the other hand argue that it shouldn’t be limited to such fleeting moments. Real, profound happiness is something more: it comes with having a healthy state of mind, and the key to leading a happy and fulfilling life is being at peace with the present.
I tried grasping both of these ideas, and I found that my preliminary conception of what happiness is more inclined towards western philosophy. I always felt that happiness is a feeling and feelings are transient; such that one can never always be happy or sad. So, I began doing things that made me felt good like a workout, hanging out with friends, taking photographs, completing pending tasks, etc. I began to sew these moments with a long thread and entitled it with “a happy life”. Later, I realized that this pursuit of happiness is never-ending and I began to ask, does happiness really matter? But the answer was obvious, of course, it does, else there would not be so many books written and sold worldwide. Thus, I began to delve into some.
Happiness has many facets. According to author Gretchen Rubin of “The Happiness Project”, she saw a particularly high potential for boosting happiness in the following areas of life and thought:
- Social relationship (partners, children, friends),
- Structuring time (work, play, hobbies),
- Prospects / point of view / perspective (basic attitude, contemplation of eternity),
- Money and vitality
Instead of working on abstract things like being happy, she started working towards concrete goals. Instead of procrastinating works, she gave herself instructions such as “Do it now!” and “Be Gretchen!” which relieved her from the haunt of unfinished tasks that were kept off for a long time. She realized that feeling physically and mentally fit (positive energy) were fundamental factors in happiness. Rather than dropping out of society and moving to the rainforest or turning her life completely on its head in her search for happiness, she simply looked to change her life without changing her life which meant becoming a little happier and satisfied with the life she already had.
Rubin started working in all the areas of life ( enlisted above) through which she felt happy. For instance, she started having a harmonious relationship with her husband by working on herself by avoiding rude remarks, practicing extreme kindness without asking for anything in return, surprising her husband with little gestures and tokens of appreciation and such. She realized that it not only made her husband happy but also herself. It seems that Rubin followed more of Aristotle’s philosophy or the western philosophy where happiness is based on external factors.
On the other side is a viewpoint that happiness cannot be obtained through external things like success or wealth. It’s only by looking inside yourself that you can find real joy, says the Buddhist idea of true long-lasting happiness. Real, profound happiness is something more: it comes with having a healthy state of mind. Cultivating a mental state unburdened by memories and future plans; what matters is only the present. This approach to happiness mirrors Buddhist thought, which holds that one can attain a state of profound and sustained well-being when freed of negative emotions.
Personally, this concept of happiness seems more intriguing. Happiness would be out of reach if it was purely an external phenomenon. After all, our desire know no limits; and in contrast, the amount of control we have over the world is very limited. Consider buying a car, for example. We might be momentarily happy with the keys in our hand but that feelings get squashed when we know there’s a new model in the market. The toy truck that I enjoyed during my childhood no longer gives me the same feeling even if I play it the same way. Another example can be relationships. Expecting love, support, guidance from another person can be a setup for disappointment if the other person doesn’t reciprocate.
The concept of happiness became more lucid when I came across a line that says,
“Happiness isn’t about avoiding suffering. It’s about freeing yourself from worries about life.”
So people who hinge happiness on temporary things like relationships or money are at high risk of becoming unhappy if they lose their partner or their job. That unhappiness doesn’t actually result from the loss of the job itself, though. It arises from this person’s worries about the loss of wealth, status, and career prospects.
Another thought of Buddhism to attain long last happiness is freeing yourself of ego and practicing humility. When we hold ourselves too high, we feel shattered when other people don’t think the same of us. Instead practicing humility by acknowledging your limits ensures that you won’t need validation from other people, a freedom that can prevent much distress and disappointment. History shows that real heroes are people who freed themselves from their egos. Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela – these people focused on helping other because they’d ceased to focus on themselves.
In a nutshell, we can be momentarily happy with earthly things and that’s what most of us chase after. But long-lasting happiness doesn’t depend upon external factors but requires overcoming ego, reconciling to negative emotions and reorienting world view. We can’t do these things overnight, but if we stay dedicated to the path, we can bring a high sense of “sukha” – an achievement much more fulfilling than any temporary pleasure obtained from wealth or fame.