What Is Happiness?
Is happiness really just about getting pleasure and satisfaction while avoiding pain?
One of the most important and surprising things I've learned is that happiness does not depend on your circumstances. This became viscerally clear to me when my parents died, and in the midst of the worst emotional pain of my life, I got a taste of true happiness like I'd never felt before.
I'd recognize later that I had an awakening experience. This profound moment set me on the spiritual path. It's been six years since, and I'm now happier than ever. That's not to say that my life is nothing but pleasure and satisfaction with a complete absence of pain. But I don't think that these fleeting states are the true markers of happiness anyway.
The World Happiness Report measures happiness by asking individuals how satisfied they are with their life, and how much positive and negative emotion they feel. Higher rates of satisfaction, higher rates of positive emotions (aka pleasure), and lower rates of negative emotions (aka pain) means a higher measurement of happiness.
Happiness then must be about acquiring things, experiences, relationships, and circumstances that bring pleasure and satisfaction, or relieve pain. Here's the problem — pleasure, satisfaction, and the absence of pain never last.
A bite of cake puts us in a state of chocolatey bliss, until we need some milk to wash it down.
We get a promotion at work we wanted so badly, then we immediately find a new hill to climb.
We're perfectly relaxed after a massage, but it's not long before our back aches for more relief.
If pleasure, satisfaction, and the absence of pain never last, then neither can happiness. But how sure can we be that happiness actually depends on these fleeting states of mind?
Let's examine the conventional process for becoming happy in more detail:
Seek something that will bring us pleasure, satisfaction, or relief from pain
Get that thing
Feel pleasure, satisfaction, or relief from pain (aka happiness)
There's something else that tends to happen when you get something you want — you stop seeking. You don't need to continue seeking something or resisting the present moment once you've gotten what you wanted. Or at the very least, you'll stop seeking and resisting until pleasure, satisfaction, and relief from pain fades. But it's not really these fleeting states that makes you happy. Happiness is revealed when you're no longer suffering. And you're not suffering so long as you're not seeking and resisting.
Here's a more accurate picture of the conventional process of becoming happy:
Suffer because we believe we're lacking or that there's something we need to resist
Seek something we think will bring us pleasure, satisfaction, or relief from pain
Get that thing
Feel pleasure, satisfaction, or relief from pain
Stop seeking happiness or resisting the present moment
Pleasure, satisfaction, or relief from pain fades
Repeat steps 1-8
Again, the problem with getting something that will bring us pleasure, satisfaction, or relief from pain is that these states cannot last. So this isn't really a recipe for happiness. It's a recipe for suffering, interrupted by brief revelations of happiness.
Luckily, there's another way.
Happiness is revealed when we stop suffering, because happiness is what we naturally are. What we truly are lacks nothing. What we truly are needs nothing to change. What we truly are is completely at ease. This is the true definition of happiness. And our essential being is happiness itself, because what we essentially are is consciousness or awareness.
Most people believe and feel that they're a person or mind that's separate from the world and others. The fundamental insight shared by so many spiritual and wisdom traditions is that the separate self is an illusion, and that this false belief is the root of our suffering.
Seeking and resisting is an activity of the separate self. It's believing that there's something outside of your self that needs to change. But there is nothing outside of your self. There is nothing that fundamentally changes. You are not a thought or feeling. Nor are you a mind that thinks and feels. You are that which is aware of thinking and feeling. And what could be aware of thinking and feeling but awareness itself? It's not the mind that's aware. The mind arises in awareness. Awareness is prior to the mind. And the mind, at least experientially, is one with and made of awareness. Everything that you experience is one with and made of awareness. Nothing is outside of awareness. And awareness never stops being awareness, no matter what is temporarily expressed in and as awareness.
If this doesn't make sense now, don't worry. I spent four years seriously meditating and studying spiritual teachings before I even began to know and feel what is sometimes called "the non-dual understanding". This understanding isn't really something for your mind to know anyway, although having a rational conception of non-duality can help relax your mind so that the true experiential understanding can become clearer.
What non-dual teachings and non-dual meditations offer is an invitation to put an end to seeking. Not by getting what you want, or by becoming "enlightened", but by knowing and feeling that you are the happiness you seek. You are one. And the one awareness that you are seeks nothing, resists nothing, and knows nothing of suffering. The one awareness that you are is causeless, lasting, and infinite peace, freedom, love, and happiness. Non-duality offers an opportunity to know and feel this clearly.
These insights aren't reserved for those who have the resources, willingness, and desire to spend decades meditating in a temple. Anyone can know their true self. It's just a matter of earnestly, curiously, and gently turning inward.
In the next essay, I'll explain the non-dual understanding in more detail, and I'll share how you might know and feel infinite happiness for yourself. Subscribe to get new essays sent to your inbox as well as weekly non-dual meditations to help you know your true self directly.
Thank you to Anandi Matteson, Yogi Matteson, and Will Moore for reading drafts of this.