The pursuit of happiness

7th September 2020

If you could do anything right now what would you do? Your answer is likely to be something that you believe will make you happy; go on a holiday, see your family, enjoy your favourite sport. Blue sky thinking is a lot easier then if I asked you to be realistic and practical. If I asked you what could you do right now at this moment and in your current situation, it gets a lot more challenging. Being realistic you’re likely to factor in what is expected of you, your responsibilities and commitments and you may even question if you are indeed happy in your current situation.

All feelings both negative and positive are transient; they come and go and it is impossible to hold on to them and so we cannot be happy all of the time. There are levels of happiness, for example we can experience states of pure bliss or a steady sense of happiness like a feeling of joy, or we can experience other negative emotions whilst still experiencing a sense of peace and happiness. We might also pursue happiness as a goal whilst acknowledging that experiencing negative emotions like fear, sadness, pain and confusion are required to achieve a sense of happiness that we know is within our reach. In fact we could say that this is implicit in our journey of life; there are an infinite levels of happiness that we pursue as part of our life.

Maslow’s hierarchy is a hierarchy of human needs that could equate to hierarchies of happiness.

It makes sense that once we are able to satisfy our basic physical needs including food and water, shelter and safety we might then look to feel psychologically satisfied and look for community, friends and intimate relations and, once we feel a sense of belonging we might look to master a skill so that we feel accomplished and able to differentiate ourself from others. The last level on Maslow’s hierarchy is self actualisation and this is achieved once our physical and psychological needs have been met which means that we are then able to find a real meaning for living and it is here that we might ask, “why am I here?” or “what do I have that is uniquely mine and that I can contribute to life on earth?”.

A Buddhist perspective of happiness is the ability to witness life as an observer. In practise this is when one becomes aware of an emotion and one is able to witness the emotion separately from the emotion itself. So for example, I might observe that I am feeling angry and I am able watch this emotion manifest physically as feeling hot, tense and claustrophobic, and with enough practise I can watch this experience happening to myself but I don’t act it out, I just observe it and thus I am able to watch the emotion come and go. This ability to experience life as an observer without getting caught up in the emotion gives a sense of peace because in this scenario I not the emotion, rather I am watching the emotion and with this sense of control I am free because I decide which emotions I want to act out or pursue. I consciously choose the path of least suffering and in a sense pursue a path of happiness.

All feelings manifest in our bodies physically, they are not just a product of the mind. One of the earliest theories of emotion limits emotions to their physical manifestations. In this example when I run from a bear the act of running is the emotion of being afraid rather than, I encounter a bear become afraid and therefore decide to run. This theory has been expanded to include the role of our minds in interpreting our emotions, so for example just because I am running doesn’t mean I am afraid and if my heart is beating fast I can interpret the emotion as being afraid or excited or aroused depending on the situation. The important point here is that we need to be conscious of somatic awareness as separate from our minds interpretation of an emotion. If we want to pursue happiness then we need to acknowledge that this is not just a state of mind but a state of body too. As such we want to recognise feelings of happiness in the body; feelings of safety, lightness, spaciousness and peace. When my body feels relaxed and warm then I feel safe, when my eyes gaze into the distance, when my head is relaxed on top of my neck and my posture is open then I feel light and spacious, when my body is still and relaxed I feel peace. This knowing allows us to be in communion with the wisdom of our bodies.

Just as important as the body is the mind. We can manage our feelings with our minds through top-down cognitive processing. When we find ourselves feeling afraid but we assess the situation as safe we can use top-down cognitive processing to bring our body into feelings of safety. For example we can control our breathing, put our body into a posture of openness and relaxation by lying down, we can use colour therapy, music therapy and scents. This may take some practise and we may have even have to heal some trauma but with practise we can teach our bodies that we are safe in this situation.

Happiness is something we have to work for, it isn’t a given. Our lives are full of challenges, pressures and difficulties and it requires determination, resilience and authenticity to pursue happiness. It is so easy to become trapped by the stories of our egos or our feelings or the expectations of our cultures and families that we are unable to pursue our own happiness. Our societies let on that happiness is found in the external world and it takes experience to learn that happiness is found within and all to often we believe that if we can make someone else happy we will find happiness, when in truth we cannot give anyone happiness, they must find it for themselves. Perhaps we can’t avoid suffering but we can use happiness as a guide to a life well lived.