Most of us have been raised on various stories that end in “And then they lived happily ever after.” Our media pushes the importance of happiness, as though any other state of mind is repulsive. We tend to gravitate towards people who seem happy, and let’s face it, we all enjoy the feeling of happiness.

But something I’ve noticed over the years is that many people come to Buddhism in the hope of finding happiness. They think waking up is a state of constant happy.  When they discover that the practice actually lands them square in the heart of reality, which includes a lot of change and suffering, and a whole assortment of emotions, they become disenchanted, disappointed. They want Happiness.

In a recent discussion on Facebook it hit home for me that  many people have happiness as an expectation in their life. In fact, one woman went as far to say that she is “chasing” happiness, and that has become the meaning of life for her. I have great compassion for this woman, as I know disappointment is going to be a pesky companion for her as long as she has happiness as a goal or expectation.

Yes, I know, we all have a slightly varied definition of happiness. Yet, regardless of your definition of happiness,  like everything else in the universe, happiness is impermanent. Equally important, happiness, like everything else, arises because of conditions, internal conditions and external conditions. Unless you have control of all those conditions and can continue them continuously, happiness is going to arises and fall away like everything else in life.

The view of happiness we’ve been handed by our society is one of illusion. It’s the great happiness illusion that we unmindfully buy into. To chase happiness is to chase a rainbow. The more you go after it, the ever elusive it becomes. To set an expectation of happiness can mean putting expectations on other people or relationships to make you happy, certain job conditions, etc. All that is a set up for disappointment.

In Buddhist practice, instead of setting up an expectation of happiness, we make it a subject of study. In doing so, we can see happiness for what it really is and how it operates:

“In dependence on a contact to be experienced as happiness, the happiness-faculty arises. Being happy, one discerns, ‘I am happy.’ With the cessation of that very contact to be experienced as happiness, one discerns, ‘What was experienced as coming from that — the happiness-faculty arising in dependence on a contact to be experienced as happiness — ceases & grows still.’  Katthopama Sutta: The Fire-stick

The next time you feel happy, whatever your definition is, note what conditions caused it to arise. Did someone do something nice for you, or say something kind? Are you at a peaceful movement, where you can enjoy quiet and relaxation? Did you do a favor for someone, and it made you feel good inside?

Think about the conditions that were necessary in order for the feeling of happiness to arise. Examine how happiness feels. Do happy thoughts arise as a result of the feeling? How does your body react to the feeling of happiness? Are you hoping the happiness will persist?

As the happiness fades, or disappears completely, be observant of what moves in behind it. Are you hoping for happiness to return? Have you moved on to something else without clinging, without disappointment?

Watch in a single day how often happiness may rise and fall away. How often in a week? Is the feeling of happiness something you really need to clutch, to keep, to hold dear? Or can you enjoy it while it’s there, and allow it to slip away, seeing it as something that comes and goes?

Do the same for happiness’ opposite, unhappiness. Examine it closely. Does it too arise on internal and external conditions? What are your reactions? How does it feel in the body? Are you resisting, wanting the feeling to go away, or can you just sit with it and see what happens naturally?

I’m not saying you shouldn’t foster conditions that can help create happiness. If you can identify those and work on them. Great. But be careful of having happiness as an expectation. Let’s face it, shit happens, all kinds of it. So, the practice is about being mindful of whatever arises, and not to react with clinging or aversion.

I’m also not saying you shouldn’t do things for others that will cause them to be happy. Certainly, you should, and if you experience happiness as a result, awesome. Just be mindful of happiness when it arises, how it arises, and always remember, everything is impermanent. Clinging to anything that is impermanent, prone to change, is to set yourself up for additional suffering.

Happiness is wonderful to experience, and it’s even more fascinating to examine with an open mind and a willingness to let go of it. You’ll be pleasantly surprised by the results.

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  1. David Chou on August 2, 2013 at 2:28 pm

    The issue may be particularly problematic in a country like the United States where happiness is explicitly written into its very founding document! People look to America as the Promised Land, and the nation bills itself that way, both at home and abroad.

    I have to concur that ever since I let go of happiness as a goal I’ve actually been so much happier! At first this sounds simply like defeatism, but it isn’t at all. It’s just recognizing the role fantasies play in sustaining the pleasure/pain dichotomy! Indeed, thinking in such dualities is probably why folks come to Buddhism expecting bliss — after all, what else could be the opposite of suffering??

  2. rupalgambhir on October 19, 2013 at 2:12 am

    What I have learnt that happiness is not result of only one factor, its the resultant outcome of various things which happen in our lives. A person can and will remain happy only if he accepts the situations and the people which come into his lives. Acceptance of others will only come when be become more aware of our own selves and are able to act accordingly, after considering the difference that lies in between. But surely, its not an easy thing to act upon.

    The mantra to remain happy is not to harm others but even more important to not let ourselves get harmed from anybody’s hands. Respect and love oneself, do not expect miracles to happen.

    Live an active life, always ready to perform and change for the better is the best way to remain happy.

    Next important is to stay connected with the people who understand you.

    Always communicate and share yours as well as others feelings because when we learn to care and share then happiness does not remain an illusion.

    Last and the most important thing there can be moments in life when happiness will seem to be an illusion and mere existence in the world may hold no meaning and dragging yourself through life may not be easy but may be the only choice.

    Still to work towards happiness and a better tomorrow is the only path we should choose to work upon.

    Because when we know our goal is clear then some day Happiness will not remain an illusion.

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