Some Reflections on Happiness

There is a paradox at the heart of our lives. Most people want more income and strive for it. Yet as Western societies have got richer, their people have become no happier. —Richard Layard, in Happiness: Lessons from a New Science (Penguin, 2005)

He who lives in harmony with himself lives in harmony with the universe. —Marcus Aurelius

     I have a folder of unfinished blog posts, some of which are from my older blog of several years ago; and when looking around for an appropriate topic for discussion just now I found the following essay. It was written years ago, and I didn’t post it because it was short, and I figured I could fill it out with some more pontificating; but now I figure, what the hell, it’s good enough. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it, and all that. So this is a taste of the stuff I used to write more of, before I became appalled and aghast at the hysterical clown show that the political left especially has become, and I was inspired with a deep motivation to do what I can to defeat such a castrated, degenerate monstrosity. I suppose I should continue writing the more blatantly Buddhistic stuff, since it is arguably much more important than political commentary, and may help relatively sane individuals to maintain some equanimity amid the raging hysteria of postmodern times. So anyway, what follows, with a few words changed, is a little bit of Buddhist ethics that anyone with some sense can read with benefit.

     Ever since writing "Happiness Kicks Butt" on the old, more explicitly Buddhist blog, I've had the feeling that I should write more on the subject. I usually prefer writing weird philosophy to amuse myself, and some people do seem to like it [and lately of course I'm writing more edgy political stuff], yet the subject of Happiness is an extremely important one, maybe especially in the West, where an extraverted and spiritually retarded culture lures people into believing that happiness comes from luxury, greed, and fussiness. I don't think there's anything in the following that I haven't already written elsewhere; but being reminded again and again that, really, happiness and suffering come from within and not from external circumstance may do us all some profound good.

     In the standard formulas for radiating mettā (friendliness, benevolence, love) to other beings, one wishes for them to be happy. That has always struck me as being very nice, but rather unrealistic. Most beings aren’t very happy and won’t be anytime soon, and furthermore they don’t really know what real happiness is, or how to realize it. Well, there are two kinds of happiness: the kind that we have when everything is going well (we're healthy, we have more money than usual, we slept well last night and ate well this morning, our favorite team just won the big game, our favorite person wants to spend time with us), and the kind that we can have regardless of how life on the outside is going. Clearly, the second kind is far superior to the first. The first kind is very unstable and impermanent; and no matter how hard we try to fix things on the outside in order to keep unpleasant things from happening, they happen anyway. We get sick sometimes, the neighbor's dog starts barking its fool head off in the middle of the night, the weather gets uncomfortably hot and sticky, and our favorite team loses the championship. And even if none of that happens, we eventually get used to everything running smoothly, and we just get bored.

     So the second kind of happiness, the happiness that does not depend on outward circumstance, is much preferable, and is what Dharma is all about. Dharma is a method, or variety of methods, for cultivating a stable kind of happiness.

     Buddhist tradition claims that beings in the deva realms (that is, heaven) tend to make little spiritual progress, since everything there runs so smoothly, and they have no deep incentive to change. On the other hand, beings in the lower realms are so overwhelmed by trouble and/or ignorance that they have little if any opportunity to practice Dharma, or even to learn of it. So life as a human being is considered to be an excellent opportunity for spiritual growth, as we have enough wisdom and intelligence to be able to understand Dharma, enough ease to spare the time to learn of it and reflect upon it, and enough trouble and hardship to goad us on to practice it. So trying to avoid problems not only results in an ephemeral, inferior sort of happiness, but it helps to prevent the superior sort from being developed. In this sense unpleasantness is not necessarily something to be avoided, but actually something to feel grateful for.

     The great Hindu sage Ramana Maharshi is said to have admonished one of his devotees by telling him that, although he is right for thanking God for all the good things he has in life, he forgets to thank him for all the troubles; really, he should thank God for all the troubles too, since all of it is ultimately conducive to his growth and benefit, the unfolding of his karma, and exactly the lessons he needs to learn. (A Buddhist would not be thinking in terms of God, but the underlying principle remains the same.)

     A very useful and powerful spiritual practice is mindfully to observe one's own unhappiness when it arises. Let's say you're lying there in bed unable to sleep because the neighbor's idiot dog is hysterically barking at 2:55 in the morning. Rather than lying there fuming and referring to the dog as a son of a bitch, among other things, and blaming it or its owner instead of yourself for your temporary unhappiness, remember that the unhappiness isn't coming directly from the dog; the unhappiness comes from your own refusal to accept what is happening right now. Watch the resistance and irritation in your own mind at least as much as you pay attention to the noise of that dog (who just doesn't know any better than to be a son of a bitch, and usually isn't a bad dog anyway). Whenever we are unhappy it is because we refuse to accept the Way Things Are, and it's good to remember that whenever we are unhappy. Really, happiness and unhappiness do not come from outside us, but from inside, from our own attitude. All unhappiness is caused by desire, which is a volitional mental state. Jerry-rigging things on the outside (like shooting the dog or calling the police) won't fix your attitude, and leaves you vulnerable to the same unhappiness next time; only mindfulness and wisdom will fix that. Observing your own irritation, rather like an ichthyologist observes a dead fish, is truly a powerful practice, and one that will take you farther than all the bowing and chanting in the world.

     This kind of practice is similar to a person with obsessive-compulsive disorder using Buddhist mindfulness to deal with his urge to wash his hands for the fiftieth time that day. Instead of just giving in the to craving, he watches the desire, watches the feelings of discomfort and dread at the thought of the germs or dirt on his hands, disidentifies from it (“it’s not me, it’s just the OCD”), and gradually cures himself of the compulsive behavior and associated misery. It works not only for compulsive hand-washing but also for habitual irritation at just about any irritant.

     It may be most important to practice Dharma in general, and mindfulness in particular, when we are unhappy. That is when we most need it. But if we practice it only at those times we aren't very good at it, even if we remember to do it at all. So practicing Dharma when things are going well prepares us for the times when the fecal waste is hitting the fan, so to speak, and gives us a skillful habit that is more likely to have us cultivating wisdom than just fuming and fretting and cussing. Troubles have the potential to wake us up, but only if we are wise enough to use them as grist for the mill. If we don't learn anything from them, then we're just wasting our time…or even worse, we’re reinforcing the habit of unskillful reactions and unnecessary unhappiness.

     So, in conclusion, please bear in mind that: It doesn't matter what it is, if you accept it, it's not a problem. And it doesn't matter what it is, if you won't accept it, it's a problem. Problems, and unhappiness, exist only in our mind, and that's where we should watch them.

     Be happy (the second kind), and don’t completely stay out of trouble.

out of a conscientious desire to keep this blog politically incorrect,
I illustrate this post with this meme



  1. Totally agree that the second type of happiness is superior. I agree because I have studied The Buddha's teaching and have come to some understanding of it.

    I sat down with my family and told them The Four Noble Truths. I think on some level they may have understood, but they went on with their lives as before.

    Most people are so caught up in their lives that I think it would take extraordinary circumstances for them to accept The Buddha's teaching. That's how it was for me.

    I still want to live the lay life in accordance with The Noble Eightfold Path. I hope I am bound for Liberation, but it would be cool to have some amazing lives before that happens. Maybe in one of them I can be like Severian. :)

    I am glad for noble efforts like this blog to help people.

  2. Great post! In the name of the most secure happiness may we all stop being so easily offended. This isnt to say we dont meet our daily outside exposures with sound discernment, judgment, and responses. By all means, and in the name of wholesome living and ways we should respond skillfully. But, as expressed in this post, just being offended and put in a state of chronically poor mental states without any means to know them for what they are and thus being attached to our moods is only going to hurt us more.

    But as a lay Buddhist times like this are tricky. Is there a "good fight"? All phenomena are impermanent and various states need constant maintenance and upkeep. This is effort and toil and the strain to maintain harmony in line with mundane natural law and principle takes a great toll when it seems the momentum of wayward currents are so strong. Oh well, the wheel keeps turning I suppose.

  3. A curious thing I notice about Western "Buddhist" laymen is they seem to buy into a belief that if one has ever been a monk (even for only a month) they are infallible when speaking on Buddhism, and that even a failed novice who was a monk for a week and then disrobed because he couldn't keep it in his pants is somehow a better source of information on Buddhism than reading the suttas and vinaya for yourself.

  4. The post, meme, misses the "middle-Buddhist", a politics-blogging, happy and retreating senior-monk...


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