I'm in the middle of reading Search Inside Yourself by Google software engineer-turned-guru Chade-Meng Tan. He teaches meditation, self-awareness, mindfulness, and compassion classes to Google employees. His discussion of "joyful mindfulness" got me thinking about happiness: What is it? How do we get it? Am I happy? Are you?
Great thinkers have been trying to come up with a definition pretty much forever, but I wonder if a single definition can really define happiness. Maybe it is something different for each of us. Or maybe not.
Eric Hoffer said that the search for happiness is one of the chief sources of unhappiness. I can see his point. If we are always looking for something we don't have and expecting its acquisition to make us happy, we are bound to fail.
Descartes said "Happiness does not consist in acquiring the things we think will make us happy, but in learning to like doing the things we have to do anyway."
Many years ago, a friend of my mom had a sign on her wall that read "Bloom where you are planted." I guess that was a 60s version of Descarte. I never really understood that sign when I was young, but it makes perfect sense to me now.
We can't control everything in our lives, but I think happiness is something we can control. We can focus on the bad stuff in our lives and feel miserable, or we can choose to concentrate on the good stuff and feel happy. It is a decision that we make constantly.
There are always people who believe they will be happy when they have enough money. But what is enough? Beyond the basic needs, having more money only brings a little bit more happiness. Think about people in the news that you know have lots of money. Do they really seem happy? Or do they have more problems in their lives than you've ever dreamed possible? The problem is, there is always something else, something bigger, something better. When does it stop?
In Sociology 101 I learned about Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs - a pyramid with real needs at the bottom: food, clothing, and shelter. These are things that we all need, and it would be pretty hard to be happy without them. But once we have those basic needs covered, we can turn our attention to the top of the pyramid: self-actualization - love, understanding, happiness, a feeling of being really alive, self-sufficient and yet still a part of the world.
A psychological definition of happiness might include the pleasure we get from eating wonderful meals, taking warm baths, or having a massage; being engaged in some challenging activity that we enjoy; having close relationships with friends and family; feeling that our lives have meaning, with goals to achieve and opportunities for growth; and the pride of accomplishment, successfully reaching our goals.
The Buddhist religion teaches that unhappiness, or suffering, comes from always wanting something we don't have, and happiness comes from overcoming those cravings. That doesn't mean that you can't set a goal and work toward it; but don't let it take over your life and make you miserable. Instead, concentrate on developing opportunities for loving kindness and compassion in your life. A desire for the happiness and welfare of all beings can bounce right back to you. You get what you give. It's your karma.
Besides, helping those in need can show you just how wonderful your life really is.