On Happiness (part 1 of 2)

August is  “National ‘Admit You’re Happy’ Month” –Who knew?

And what better time, thought I, to focus on the topic of happiness than the sunny days of summer?

Still, as I thought about writing about it, I hesitated…for kind of a long time.

The thing is, I’ve long had a kind of prejudice against the idea of “happiness,” as I understood it. It seemed like a basically shallow experience to strive for (sort of like wishing for “joy, lite”), based as it is (was my thinking) on external factors that come and go, and on our basically ego-centered desires and aversions. As opposed to those deeper, less conditional experiences of joy, for instance, or of love, both of which can involve the experience of happiness, but both of which can be present without it (for more on this distinction, see my earlier post on joy ). 

But I’d also started to question my prejudice against happiness (which prejudice sounds as ridiculous as it is, when I see it in print!), since there’s no question that people with generally happy dispositions (or who are otherwise able to experience happiness) are more resilient in the face of adversity, have better relationships, and experience better physical health, among other benefits.

I was also aware that His Holiness the Dalai Lama himself talks a lot about happiness, and its importance to human life. He even wrote  the book on it: The Art of Happiness , which has become a classic on the subject (he has also written The Book of Joy ) “If the Dalai Lama is that enthusiastic about happiness,” I thought, “maybe I should…reconsider it.”images

So I started reading, and found his essential thesis to be simple, and unequivocal: that happiness is the purpose of life. And, in being what our lives most essentially lean toward and reach for, the longing for happiness, he says, is deeply connected to the experience of hope, without which (hope) we die.

In  Compassion as the Source of Happiness  (a teaching on the Dalai Lama’s website), he explains why:

“[O]ur survival is based on hope – hope for something good: happiness. Because of that, I always conclude that the purpose of life is happiness. With hope and a happy feeling, our body feels well. Therefore, hope and happiness are positive factors for our health. Health depends on a happy state of mind. […]

He then goes on to locate happiness within the larger scope of human experience:

This is the basic human level that I am speaking about; I am not speaking about the religious, secondary level. On the religious level, of course there are different explanations of the purpose of life. The secondary aspect is actually quite complicated; therefore, it is better to talk just on the basic human level. 

So what is that level, and what is its happiness made of?

The basic elements for [happiness] are compassion and human affection, and these come from biology. As an infant, our survival depends solely on affection. If affection is there, we feel safe. If it’s not there, we feel anxiety and insecure. If we become separated from our mother, we cry. If we are in our mother’s arms and held tight, warmly, then we feel happy and we’re quiet. As a baby, this is a biological factor.

This makes such total sense to me that it dissolved my problem with happiness on the spot. How could I have forgotten about  Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs ? What I then understood was that happiness — the hope for happiness, and the ability to strive for and receive it– rather than being essentially shallow, is essential and necessary (not in itself sufficient, but definitely necessary) to our full access to other levels of experience (joy, say, and love). That it’s a biological need, and given that our bodies are where all the other dimensions of our being –spiritual, mental, and emotional– “live and move and have their being,” the hope for happiness –for the creature comforts (literally) of safety, security, connection, and pleasure–is necessary to our ability for those other dimensions to develop and to thrive.

Ironically, for all my (previous) difficulty with the concept of happiness, Jane Kenyon’s poem, “Happiness” has always been one of my favorites. images-1Kenyon herself struggled throughout her life with sometimes crippling depression, and died in 1995 at age forty-seven.  And I think it is in how the poem at once comprehends and acknowledges the ways that happiness can show up within and beside suffering (not in place of it),  its qualities of universality and surprise, and the dimension of grace involved that move me so in Kenyon’s poem.

The poem begins:

There’s just no accounting for happiness,
or the way it turns up like a prodigal
who comes back to the dust at your feet
having squandered a fortune far away.
And how can you not forgive?
You make a feast in honor of what
was lost, and take from its place the finest
garment, which you saved for an occasion
you could not imagine, and you weep night and day
to know that you were not abandoned,
that happiness saved its most extreme form
for you alone.     
(click here to read the entire poem, which can also be found in the collection below)


Next post: “Cultivating the Habit of Happiness”