When the Buddha achieved the perfect happiness called nirvana, he was, according to the scriptures, tempted to just kick back and enjoy it himself. He was (or maybe just pretended to be) reluctant to teach others how to attain it too. ÒIt will be too hard for them,Ó the texts have the Buddha thinking. ÒThe others will never really get it.Ó But the gods show up and
beg him to teach, and the Buddha finally consents (thereby also starting the custom, followed in Buddhist circles to this day, of students requesting teachings before the teacher agrees to teach).
And when the Buddha Òturns the wheel of the DharmaÓ and imparts his first sermon, the first thing he had to say is this: ÒLife is suffering.Ó We’ll return later to what the Buddha meant by this seemingly pessimistic dictum. But what is relevant to notice now is that it was only from his recently attained perspective of pure, uncompromised happiness and joy that he could, for the first time, see clearly and truly the features of the state of existence
that is not nirvana.
Those of us who are not in nirvana cannot really know it, nor can we thoroughly and completely understand the unhappy condition we are in while we’re in it. Like the water that surrounds a fish, our suffering is so ubiquitous, so all-pervasive, that we often don’t even recognize it. We are, after years and years of disappointment, inured to our unhappiness, calloused to the pain, such that we usually don’t acknowledge it—until and unless, of course, it is so overwhelmingly obvious that we can’t help but have to confront it.
In other words, until we are enlightened, we don’t really know what happiness is. How else can one explain surveys that show the vast majority of us in the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan, and elsewhere claiming we are Òvery happyÓ or ÒhappyÓ? We have, it appears, settled for very little (maybe just the temporary absence of a major disaster) and called it Òhappiness.Ó
This lowballing of what will count as happiness—what Freud called, when speaking of the goal of psychotherapy, Òordinary unhappinessÓ—may also help to explain the resistance many of us have to the idea that happiness is a goal worth striving for. Perhaps this resistance derives at least in part from our idea that happiness, conceptualized as something most of us claim to have most of the time, is a rather trivial thing. Our real goals in life should be harder to obtain than Òmere happiness.Ó
We’ve been conditioned by many forces—most especially by consumer capitalism—to believe that happiness lies in the material things and entertaining experiences that bring us only temporary, fleeting pleasure. When we have an abundance of consumer goods, thousands of channels on cable television, and cool vacations to Lonely Planet countries, we report to the survey takers that we are Òvery happy.Ó
We have pursued happiness our whole lives and continue to do so in every activity in which we are engaged. But we’ve misunderstood and mis-defined what happiness really is. As a
result, we’ve been searching for happiness in all the wrong places. We have been so thoroughly misinformed about what it is and how to obtain it that, when we hear someone say that the goal in life is to be happy, we naturally assume that goal to be trivial, shallow, and superficial.
Researchers have determined that once one’s annual income gets to be about $10,000, further increases do not make much of a difference in terms of the reported level of happiness. In other words, it takes only about $10,000 for us to say, ÒI’m pretty happy.Ó8 Surveys have repeatedly indicated that most people, regardless of their income level, think an increase of a mere 20 percent would be enough to make them happy.
It’s this kind of thinking that makes some people dubious about the claim that happiness is the ultimate goal of life. We know, or at least we should know, that a little more money will not fulfill our life’s purpose! Happiness is not a consumer good and will not arise from a bump in our annual salary. At some level we must know that—although thinking that happiness is something that it isn’t, we often don’t act like we do.
Real happiness will not come about by just getting a few more dollars or a 20 percent spike in income. Happiness isn’t just getting a promotion or better job, another fabulous girl- or boy – friend, or the latest iPod, iPhone, or other ÒiGadget.Ó (In chapter 6, I’ll go into more detail as to why money and things, the career, relationships, entertainment, and the health and beauty of the physical body cannot be the cause of real happiness.)
Happiness isn’t just having things go right for a while in between the disasters of life.
In his book Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill, Matthieu Ricard wonders how such a Òradical devaluationÓ of happiness came about. ÒIs it a reflection of the artificial happiness offered by the media? Is it a result of the failed efforts we use to find genuine happiness?Ó Happiness, Ricard notes, is not mere pleasure, or a temporary joyfulness, or a fleeting sense of well-being—let alone the attainment of an extra ten grand.
By happiness I mean here a deep sense of flourishing that
arises from an exceptionally healthy mind. This is not a
mere pleasurable feeling, a fleeting emotion, or a mood,
but an optimal state of being.
There is a huge difference between the cheap, tinny pleasure we get from shopping and acquiring new things, on the one hand, and the deep resonance of true and genuine contentment and happiness on the other. The latter is indeed the supreme goal in life and it is this that we are really seeking. Far from being a superficial aspiration, it is a rare, difficult, and priceless achievement worthy of our greatest efforts.