I wanted to write a short post on happiness, inspired by my current reading of Mindfulness and Psychotherapy by Germer, Siegel and Fulton of Harvard Medical School. The book is weighty and filled with the usual academic parenthetical bibliographical references. Not my usual cup of hemlock, but I chose it to satisfy my continuing education requirement for nursing re-licensure. And there is a written test. My interest in Buddhism over several decades has helped me to digest the thickness of this book. It is like having extra enzymes while devouring rich food.
Happiness in the Buddhist context has been explained in the book with some clarity. It is quite different from happiness as defined by a materialistic society, based in the accumulation of wealth and things. It is not "ha-ha" happiness of the drunken "it's all good" set, for example. It is not the happiness of owning a BMW or Lexus. It is not the happiness of the grown child who is still trying to please his/her parents. It is not the happiness of winning at fantasy football. These are illusions of true happiness, from the Buddhist perspective.
I have had to assess what happiness, sometimes referred to as "wellness", is, when the normal catastrophes of life occur. A fortunate 25-year-old has little use for Buddhist happiness. The world is a friendly place to the young and fortunate. It may indeed be all good, for some time. But never forever.
My own need to discover a purpose for living through the fog of sickness and loss led me back to Buddhist reading decades ago. I was reminded then that happiness is a moment-by-moment practice, not a self-sustaining state of being. In other words, happiness requires effort in all life's waking moments. This is not a popular concept in today's culture of immediate results on flashing touch screens. Satisfying any itch with a virtual scratch is a form of addiction, not happiness.
The itches that cannot be scratched are always there in the background. Inevitable mortality is perhaps the worst one. The lack of control of our path to death, whether addressed or ignored, is imprinted on our consciousness. So, when something breaks accidentally or we fall ill despite our efforts to live healthily, the consciousness of death rises. And fear rises with it. Without practice, this fear can lead to serious anxiety and/or depression.
Happiness in its deepest form is not the absence of fear or trauma. Happiness in its deepest form is not passivity. Happiness in its deepest form is being capable of making peace with every moment of life as it happens. Maybe we should rename it "happeningness". This happiness comes from habitual attention, reflection, acceptance and compassion...first from within and then expanding outward. This habitual practice of creating personal happiness takes time and personal commitment. It is not available from seminars or courses, though these may support personal practice.
We still live in a time when this form of practice is in direct conflict with attempts by some organized religious groups to control individual lives through smarmy propaganda (Vatican) or terrorism (Islam). These forces have always stood against individual practice. They have hobbled science, feminism and social evolution. Why? Because the individual's attainment of happiness through practice is a rejection of patriarchal (or matriarchal) dogma. It is the assertion of human rights by a perceived child to a controlling parent. It is liberation from oppression with a turning to personal enlightenment.