The pursuit of happiness (Day 50)
We all want happiness, but much joy do you experience in your life? And I mean real “heart welling up,” “spring in the step,” “full of the joys of spring joy,” “happy for no reason” joy, rather than the dull sense of pleasure that we often experience.
Most people, when they’re asked this question, will say “not much.” Many may go entire days, or even weeks, without any significant joy. Life can often seem like an endless round of chasing deadlines and striving to stay on top of an ever-growing to-do list, and so be imbued with a sense of stress.
Do we even expect to be happy? It strikes me that many of us have low expectations for how happy we will be. We don’t expect our lives to produce much joy.
How do we look for happiness? By vegging out in front of the TV, or by eating, or shopping, or Facebook, or through alcohol? But these pursuits often lead, at best, to that sense of dull pleasure I mentioned earlier, rather than genuine joy.
Maybe we think that happiness is just around the corner, but we haven’t got there yet. Or maybe it’s a ways off; perhaps we’ll be happy after we get a new job, or more pay, or once we lose some weight, or when we’re on vacation, or after we get past this busy spell.
The trouble is, that we create unhappiness for ourselves through our thoughts and attitudes, and then expect to consume our way out of unhappiness. And that just doesn’t work.
There’s a piece of “cowboy wisdom” I heard many years ago that goes, “When you find you’re in a hole, the first thing you gotta do is stop diggin’.” And I think that’s absolutely true. To live happily, we have to drop the mental habits that make us unhappy. Often that’s all we have to do — stop making ourselves unhappy, since joy is something we actively suppress. Joy is our natural way of being, but most of our “doing” cuts us off from our natural happiness.
So what are those mental habits that suppress our happiness? Basically, they are anything we do that resists the present moment. The “usual suspects” are things like responding with clinging rather than letting go, resisting rather than accepting, anger rather than kindness, complaining rather than celebrating, worrying rather than being optimistic, and trying to escape our experience rather than being mindful.
Being joyful is a skill, and most people lack skill in creating joy. Just look at people driving or walking past you; what percentage of people are actually smiling? The things we do that suppress our joy are called “unskillful” activities in Buddhism. Conversely, when we act in ways that allow joy to emerge, we’re acting skillfully.
As soon as we drop any of these unskillful, joy-suppressing activities, we feel happier. We may not go straight to a deep sense of joy the moment we drop an angry thought, but at least when we do that we’re heading in the right direction. If we keep letting go of unskillful thoughts, and refrain from unskillful words and actions, we are creating a space for joy to emerge. And if we cultivate skillful habits of thought, speech, and action, joy will emerge. It’s guaranteed.
So just watch your mind. Notice your thoughts, and notice whether they’re contributing to a sense of joy, or a sense of disharmony. And if you’re creating suffering for yourself, let go of or change those thoughts or replace them with more skillful ones. And you can do the same with your speech, as well.
So this is what we’re going to be working on in the next phase of 100 Days of Lovingkindness. We’ll be cultivating skillful habits that allow joy to emerge naturally. We’ll be practicing mindfulness, kindness, celebration, appreciation, and other joy-enabling habits. And we’ll see what happens!
PS. You can see all of the 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.