We are biologically, psychologically, and spiritually hardwired to seek out living conditions that will minimize the amount of suffering we experience while maximizing our level of happiness. This applies to all aspects of our life, from choosing who we should have a relationship with, how to make money, and how to fill our free time to deciding what to eat for lunch and what clothes to wear.
Some people take the time to stop and think about how to become happier, which may lead to a lifestyle change, such as taking up an exercise routine, practicing meditation, changing jobs, or moving to another country. However, it doesn’t matter whether a choice is made consciously or subconsciously, whether it is instinctive or premeditated, or whether it relates to a major or minor detail of our life. All our choices are influenced by these two basic driving forces—the wish to be happy and the wish to avoid suffering.
Even when we make choices for people we care about, such as family members, the same underlying driving factors apply. For example, if we decide to work extra hours to save money to pay for our child’s future education, we do this because despite the extra work it will cause, we feel happier knowing that this particular aspect of our child’s future will be taken care of .
A misaligned happiness compass
Seeing to improve our level of happiness is a process that is happening all the time and is a perfectly normal thing to do. However, a problem arises because most people have allowed their “happiness compass” to become misaligned, resulting in a flawed understanding, or perhaps no understanding at all, of what it means to be truly happy.
A person holding a compass
Source: Mariah Hewines/Unsplash
In today’s fast-paced, materialistic, and technology-driven society, we are constantly bombarded with overt and subtle messages that happiness can be found through the likes of money, fame, sex, power, possessions, physical appearance, physical ability, or intellect . However, whilst such things can no doubt make us feel good for a period of time, these feelings invariably don’t last for long.
Take the example of the cycle of feelings that arise when buying a new car. We typically feel good and satisfied when we get in the car for the first time, but after a few months of owning it, the car’s appeal gradually starts to wear off, and the experience of driving it becomes more ordinary. In fact, perhaps we even begin to reflect on whether we chose the right car after all, whether it really suits our image and needs, or whether there might be a better deal out there.
The same applies to moving to a new house, starting a new job, beginning a new relationship, or for that matter, any other situation that begins by making us feel pleased or satisfied. There is often an initial honeymoon period when things seem bright and rosy, but this inevitably wears off, and we once again start to feel that another life change or new purchase is needed for us to be happy again.
Life is permanent and unpredictable.
The problem with relying on external factors to cultivate happiness is that the way we view and relate to possessions, people, and situations constantly changes. Our perspectives and needs are always evolving such that what we think will bring us happiness today is unlikely to stay the same as the months and years go by.
Furthermore, the external world itself is always changing—people change, possessions age or stop working, fashions come and go, and the amount of money we have goes up and down. Impermanence is a law of the universe, which means that no one and nothing lasts forever.
The external world is also inherently unpredictable, and no matter how hard we try, it is very difficult for us to control it. For example, large-scale disasters such as a pandemic or war can quickly break out, as can difficulties more specific to us, such as an unexpected legal problem or a family member suddenly becoming very unwell.
Don’t crave happiness.
When we search for happiness outside of ourselves, not only does the impermanent and unpredictable nature of life mean that we are always going to be let down, but the search itself can become a source of suffering. Constantly yearning for something new or an escape from our current situation can become almost like an addiction.
A mind that is always wanting something new or better can never know peace or stillness because no matter how much we have, it will never be enough. Just think of how often we hear in the news of a rich and famous person who appeared to have everything but who ended up being deeply unhappy and alone, sometimes resorting to drugs or alcohol to try and numb their pain.
Finding happiness within
If we want to experience true happiness, we have to stop searching for something outside ourselves. We have to become content with who we are, where we are, and what we already have, here and now. That’s not to say we shouldn’t have plans or goals to change or better our current situation, but we should learn to see such goals as a journey rather than a destination. Having an open and relaxed mind in this manner means that we are not tied or attached to a particular outcome, which leaves us able to work with and find enjoyment in whatever situation comes our way.
We should learn to stop, breathe, and simply be. When we stop running from our current situation and learn to cultivate patience and contentment, we finally create a window of opportunity for the mind to find some peace and tranquility. And with this peace and mental stillness, we might come to understand that the feelings of satisfaction, pleasure, comfort, and reassurance that we crave, or feelings of fear, loneliness, anger, and insecurity that we try to avoid, are precisely that— just feelings that exist in the mind.
It is the mind and not external phenomena or situations that creates and harbors such feelings. And so, by learning to step back and observe the mind, we can stop being a slave to our feelings and thoughts. We can start to tap into a form of happiness that stems from inner stability and is completely independent of what is happening either in our minds or in the external world around us. Once we taste this form of happiness for the first time, it leads to a recalibration of our “happiness compass,” and we start to understand what it means to be truly happy.