What is Happiness?

Writing a newsletter defining happiness is kind of nervy. Surely each person must discover this for him/herself? However, given that huge numbers of people desperately search for happiness their whole lives without finding it, perhaps this is not over-stepping any bounds.

People try to find happiness in many different ways, such as through:
- having power, being in charge, running or controlling things;

- fighting or rebelling, whether physical or verbal combat;

- wanting fame or adulation, being cruel, dominating, or hurting people;

- seeking riches or possessions;

- reminiscing, re-living old memories, trying to get back to or re-create the past;

- imagining, daydreaming, living in fantasies;

- having experiences, such as traveling, eating in fancy restaurants, listening to music, going to museums, watching sports, or enjoying beautiful objects;

- taking on a service, project, movement, or goal greater than themselves;

- having positive interactions with others such as those based on mutual regard, love, and healthy communications, or giving, sharing, or helping;

- creating things, whether large or small;

- learning, whether as a scholar or purely for the delight of learning; or

- exploring your inner world (learning what is really true, believed, or wanted rather than what you were taught, mastering emotions, making the most of your talents and abilities, learning the limits of your capacities, learning to see through  lies, whether your own or other people’s).

Sages throughout the centuries have said that any effort to find happiness outside oneself is doomed to failure, if not in the short-term, then certainly in the long run. External goods are easily lost: power, fame, money, things, and relationships – all can vanish in an instant with no warning. Even experiences only exist as fading memories as soon as they are over. Internal goods (wisdom and learning, emotional control and serenity, cultivating talents and gifts, and compassion) are considered the only lasting, dependable, meaningful values.

However, I have a slightly different take on the source of happiness than the sages. While internal goods are invaluable and essential for real and lasting happiness, external experiences, though not sufficient in themselves, are important and often essential. All humans have an innate need to love and be loved, and require a basic level of mental and emotional stimulation to develop and remain mentally healthy. We crave interaction, validation, and affiliation, and while hermits from many centuries have proven that adults can exist quite well without these things, few people feel called to renounce them.

I believe that the key to happiness is BALANCE, that satisfying varying degrees of each type of longing listed above helps to develop us as people, while too much is toxic and harmful:

- A little power to influence events for good is a positive thing and power over our own lives is important for mental health and happiness, but power for its own sake or to empower one set of people at the expense of others is evil.

- Well-channeled combat in service of your highest values (such as fighting for human rights) can benefit yourself and others, but general combativeness alienates others and leads to perpetual internal distress.

- Receiving adulation is a dangerous desire that warps the personality, but we all need and want approval and even praise. Fame is a harmful goal but a reputation based on respect for your honesty and dignity is worth having. Cruelty is never right but people who deliberately or carelessly hurt others may need a short, sharp, well-articulated jolt of truth, and similar “tough love” measures are appropriate when people resist taking responsibility for their own behavior.

- Chasing riches or excessive acquiring is a common trap that deluded humans often fall for, but striving for enough worldly goods to live in comfort without excess is a reasonable ambition. Choosing a livelihood that will not destroy integrity by harming others is important (as is not lying to yourself about what constitutes harm).

- Reminiscing can undermine the drive to achieve goals or actions in the present, but sharing warm memories or taking a short escape from harsh realities can be rewarding.

- Living in your imagination can be dangerous if it substitutes for needed actions but imagination is essential for most social and political progress, scientific discoveries, art, and discovering the dreams, ambitions, and goals that your inner being needs you to pursue.

- Enriching, enlivening experiences make life worthwhile, lift our spirits from the drudgery of daily existence, and open our minds to new and better possibilities. These experiences usually are not ends in themselves for most of us, but refresh us before returning to work and daily life.

-  Many projects can produce enormous satisfaction and sense of fulfillment,  especially service projects. But many are also enormously demanding and over time, can make us lose sight of our own needs for adequate time to and for ourselves. People can actually wind up feeling worse about themselves and undeserving of self-care or having good things happen to them by giving too much of themselves to worthy causes. The more the satisfying or demanding the work or project, the more we must insist on time for meeting our own needs.

- Even the best interactions with others need to be balanced with time for self-care, and because humans are such complicated creatures, many of us need an hour of self-care or solitude for each hour of interaction. This is often not possible, but might be a useful goal.

- Creativity is a basic human desire, but efforts need to be at least as much about production as about acquiring materials for later projects. Our creative output needs to be things that are actually used and have places where they belong or these objects will become as difficult to live with as piles of supplies.

- The pleasure of learning and discovery never gets old. But learning should be balanced with use so that knowledge doesn’t become sterile and lifeless. Connecting what we learn to our actions yields the greatest happiness.

Some essentials of maintaining balance are:

-  Acceptance – Painful things happen in all lives and when we go through our share, we must recognize that avoiding reality is rarely the best answer. Denial, resistance, and avoiding pain rarely work.

- Gratitude – No matter how painful or difficult our lives become, we must recognize that there is still much to be grateful for, if nothing else, the fact that we are still alive and have an opportunity to make life better.

- Willingness – Hard work, whether on ourselves or the external world, is not just a necessary part of life, it is potentially the most rewarding, and the only way to get most good things done.

- Good cheer – Simply maintaining the discipline of being cheerful is hugely beneficial for ourselves and everyone around us. The world doesn’t have to be just the way we want it to be for us to keep a smile on our faces and to have a good word for ourselves and others, making our little corner of the world a tiny bit better. Smiling triggers the release of endorphins, the hormones our brain makes when we are happy and feeling good (the brain cannot tell the difference between real happiness and the manufactured kind) and laughing releases even more. It is true that smiles and laughter do not necessarily change circumstances that distress us, but consider how much more distressing those circumstances are without the smiles and laughter and the hormone boost they produce.

Our inner world is where we can measure the elements of our lives and look for greater balance, connection, involvement, and meaning. Our inner world is where we have the greatest opportunity to create lasting, deep, intense happiness. That happiness too needs balance – external interactions, activities, resources, and experiences to provide fuel for growth. The sages also say, “moderation in all things” (but too much moderation is immoderate). And every now and then you just have to kick up your heels. Have fun and keep it balanced!


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© Gloria Valoris, 2015

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