The New Happiness: Why We Get Happiness Wrong & How to Change It
Happiness is the Problem
“Ask yourself whether you are happy and you cease to be so.” — JS Mill
One paradigm in circulation today is that the most important pursuit in life is to feel or be happy, but if we understand how the mind and body works, we realize that happiness is not something to be sought after, lest it go running the opposite way.
“Running towards happiness is the fastest way to miss the bus.” — Desmond Tutu
How Emotion Works
In order to recognize why not to seek happiness, it’s important to understand how our emotions work. Subjectively, emotional state is determined by:
1) what the body feels at the physical level
2) mental judgement upon what the body’s feeling.
In every moment our bodies are coming in contact with a whole bunch of inputs: sights, smells, sounds, tastes, touches, and thoughts. Every one of these inputs triggers sensations on the body. These sensations influence our emotions, because they’re literally what we’re feeling.
Experiencing the Truth
To help us understand the concept directly, let’s walk through a quick exercise. First, take a deep breath and feel into your chest. Can you feel your heart beating? Now try feeling your hands — can you feel tingling sensations in your fingers? Now move your attention to the lower body. Can you feel sensations tingling in the tips of your toes? These sensations are what your body is feeling.
But physical sensations alone don’t determine our emotions. How you are feeling is determined at the mental level. In short, we are constantly judging the way our bodies feel.
“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” —Hamlet in Hamlet.
If we feel sad, nervous, or fearful, it’s typically followed by judgement. We think we shouldn’t feel these negative emotions but our resistance to them only amplifies those feelings. Instead, whatever you are feeling is exactly what you should be feeling, simply because you are feeling it. If we are running away from our deepest sadnesses or anxieties or fears, we are also running away from our greatest happinesses.
Here’s where things get interesting. When we feel happiness, it’s also usually accompanied by judgement. We cling to pleasurable feelings and sensations because we don’t want happiness to leave us. Inevitably, when things change, we become adverse to our unpleasant feelings and the cycle continues.
Happiness as defined by experiencing pleasurable sensations and avoiding unpleasurable sensations needs to be re-defined by each of us as individuals — to make way for a newer, truer happiness called equanimity, defined as evenness of mind and temper. It can also be called mindfulness, defined as the awareness of reality. Both qualities have notable advantages over happiness.
The Advantages of Equanimity
The first advantage of equanimity is that, via meditation, equanimity is trainable. Happiness is an emotion and we can’t control our emotions. They simply come up. How can you train something that you can’t control? What we can control, however, is how we react to those emotions, or rather how equanimous we are to what we’re feeling. The best way to build equanimity is to observe your body’s sensations objectively. This is the foundational practice of mindfulness meditation techniques like mindfulness and vipassana. You scan your body and feel your sensations without judgement. With practice, the goal is to remove yourself from that duality, from clinging to pleasant emotions like happiness and being averse to unpleasant emotions like sadness.
Another advantage of equanimity is that equanimity is cultivated in all emotional states, sadness included. Happiness implies dualistic thinking. Equanimity and mindfulness transcend dualism. Sadness and happiness are no longer given importance. What you experience is what it is and, in the world of mindfulness, all emotions are equally as good of objects for our attention. Emotions are moment to moment tests. Each feeling in every moment presents us with opportunity to build our newer, truer happiness: equanimity.
Simply because emotions and judgement are mental processes, neither are helpful when it comes to cultivating equanimity, because to understand either idea requires dualistic thinking like good vs. bad, happy vs. sad. We can’t change our emotions, but if we can remove our judgement and attachment towards certain emotions, preferences and experiences, the mind can begin to re-program.
Equanimity Requires Practice
Now, everything said up to this point is all well and good. We may understand it at the intellectual level, but life is not an intellectual game. The fact that I can explain equanimity has nothing to do with my actual level of equanimity at all, and trust me, it’s got a LONG way to go :). Understanding is a great start but, our ability to make a choice for equanimity in any given moment is determined based on our practice, not our intellectual understanding.
Imagine a screaming child running around while you’re trying to work. Obviously, this child has no idea it’s being disruptive. You understand the situation intellectually, but still you may begin to react. Your body feels unpleasant sensations from the screaming and negative thoughts start arising: “Where is this child’s parent,” you wonder. “Annoying kid. Must have terrible parents too.” Equanimity is lost along with your happiness. Patience, just like any other mental quality, must be cultivated.
Re-framing the way we think about our emotions towards equanimity and mindfulness and away from happiness and sadness is much more enduring framework for thinking, and proves especially useful during the lows and highs of life. Happiness is not getting what you want, it’s acceptance with whatever is happening.
Living a life of true happiness is something closer to equanimity — it’s a perspective and a quality of mind that is cultivated continuously from moment to moment. It is not something to be sought. It is not a destination to be reached. If you are expecting to arrive somewhere, please, take a seat. This journey is going to take your whole life and more.
If you’re interested in training the mind, there are a few action steps you can take. Remember, intellectual understanding of equanimity can only do so much. The real benefits of re-programming the mind’s habit patterns come from maintaining a consistent practice. There are a variety of different meditation practices, but I recommend vipassana or mindfulness.
I’ll be writing a follow-up post which explains these techniques, their differences and how specifically I recommend to get started. If you want to receive this post, subscribe to the blog and it’ll be delivered to your inbox along with future posts. Cheers.
UPDATE (3/9/17): Post on Understanding, Choosing and Practicing Meditation Techniques is now live.
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