The Quest for Happiness
Last night, a wise young lady caused me to reflect on the idea of happiness. It’s something that every sentient being desires. Your cat would like a full belly and a comfortable nap in the sun. Pet your dog and see how he responds. Does he close his eyes in bliss? A flower turns its face to the light. Even a bug scurries away from the threat of your shoe. So, if all sentient beings seek their own definition of happiness, why does the concept remain so elusive for human beings? Aren't we supposed to be the smart ones?
Perhaps, to paraphrase a song, we’re “looking for (happiness) in all the wrong places.” Many times we allow Samsara (the Buddhist concept of discontent) to rule our decisions. When we feel unhappy, we seek out comfort food, have a few drinks (or drugs), search online for a new hook-up, or buy something new and shiny that we can’t afford. Conceivably, one could do all of the above in a single night! Yikes!
It’s easy to do, and in fact, the good folks on Madison Avenue encourage this if-only state of mind. “If only I had the newest iPhone,” we tell ourselves, “then I’d be happy.” If only I had that guy’s money. If only I had a girlfriend who looked like that. If only my husband would cough up a diamond necklace for Christmas. If only I had a better job, or had a child, lost that weight, or lived someplace else. There’s nothing wrong with aspiring to something better and working towards achieving a goal. But when we attach our whole sense of happiness to a person, an acquisition, or some event in the future, we miss the capacity to be happy right here and now.
Here's an example from my own life. Like many young couples, my first husband and I struggled with finances at one time. I clearly remember cooking a lot of rice with anything-in-a-can, stressing over the bills, and working on a broken-down car at midnight with nothing but flashlights, duct tape and prayers. One Christmas we couldn’t afford a tree, so we strung lights on the wall instead. I sewed baby clothes from a bag of fabric remnants. My husband miraculously created one functional washing machine by combining parts from two broken ones. When a second child came along, he built a Murphy bed in the girls' room to allow for the crib’s re-appearance. Somehow we made it through to easier times. But I often look back on those years with a sense of fondness. Despite the anxiety I’m sure we felt at times, what I remember most is laughter and light. We were, in a word, happy.
As I see it, happiness comes from a sense of knowing yourself and making wise and compassionate decisions. It comes from the peaceful state of knowing that all things are temporary, that good times and bad will come and go, and that we can remain balanced in both. As an older woman now, I try to remember this when health issues slow us down. This too shall pass applies to troubles as well as blessings. It diminishes the first and makes the latter more precious.
In the words of the Dalai Lama, “Happiness is not something ready-made. It comes from your own actions.” Looking outside ourselves for the perfect gadget, the perfect mate, the perfect job, the perfect city, we continue to hang our hopes on the impossible, and we crash when people or situations fail to meet our unrealistic standards. The truth is, the skillful mind knows how to find happiness no matter what’s going on. The wise man knows that happiness is not out there. It resides quietly between his own ears.