We all want happiness. If we ask ourselves “why?” we are doing what we are doing, eventually we will come to the conclusion: we want to be happy. We all want to be happy, yet it is so elusive and difficult to obtain. How to experience lasting happiness, let alone, transient happiness, wasn’t a subject that we learned in school. I was fortunate enough to stumble upon a Positive Psychology course while I was studying at the University of Toronto and it offered me a new perspective on happiness — lasting happiness is found within not without.
We need to end our tireless pursuit for happiness seeking outwards: shiny cars, big houses, sexy partners, fancy meals, brand-name clothing, expensive luxurious furniture, and the latest and newest gadgets. Obtaining these things will give us a temporary boost of happiness, but that will fade, and we are back on the hunt; constantly searching and pursuing the next thing that will bring us back to our previous level of happiness. Kind of like feeding an addiction: we need to seek more and more pleasures or more intense pleasures to reach the previous levels of high.
Positive Psychology: The study of the good and meaningful life
Positive Psychology is a newer branch of psychology that was a game changer in the field. Rather than focusing on human flaws, errors, biases, and problems like Behaviour Psychology and Freud and his followers, Positive Psychology aims at understanding factors and qualities that naturally make our lives filled with happiness and other positive emotions, and create meaning in our lives. Martin Seligman, the father of Positive Psychology, first coined the term in 1998 when he became the head of the American Psychology Association, but he wasn’t the first to explore what makes a good life. Previous spiritual figures and philosophers were examining happiness and the good life over two centuries ago.
Ancient Greece and the time of the Buddha, Confucius and Taoism
The study of the good life can be traced as far back as 2500 years ago during the time of the Buddha. Before the Buddha became enlightened underneath the bodhi tree he went by the name Gautama Siddhartha. He actually grew up as a rich and spoiled prince (you can read about his story in my previous article). Gautama realized that there was a lot of suffering and he wanted to discover the path to freedom: a way to liberate himself from human suffering and all of humankind. When he became enlightened after a horrendous evening meditating underneath the bodhi tree (he pretty much pulled an all-nighter meditating underneath a tree where he was constantly bombarded by Mara, an evilish God, trying all the tricks he had to scare, disrupt, distract, seduce, and shame Gautama out of his deep, inquiring meditative state). He remained unstirred and undisturbed by Mara and his mischievous and evil antics; At the crack of dawn Gautama “woke up” — Gautama became enlightened. Upon enlightenment the Buddha taught four noble truths: 1) as humans we all suffer, 2) there is a cause to suffering, 3) we are capable of freeing ourselves from suffering, and 4) there is a path to freedom.
Confucius, the Chinese philosopher, living in 500 BC, emphasized on personal and social morality, kind and respectful relationships, justice, and sincerity. He was famous for saying, “Do not do unto others what you would not want done to yourself”.
Taoism is a philosophical tradition of Chinese origin which emphasizes living in harmony and alignment with the Tao (the Way). It’s about being — It’s about living in the path of least resistance. Moving in the flow of live, rather than resisting and fighting the flow of the river of life. Taoism emphasizes wu wei (action without intention), naturalness, simplicity, spontaneity, and the Three Treasures (compassion, frugality, and humility). Lao Tzu, the author of the “Tao Te Ching”, once said:
Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.
In Ancient Greece around the same time as the Buddha, Greek philosophers like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle studied and taught about the good life. Socrates was the teacher of Aristotle and Plato was teacher of Aristotle. Socrates can be seen as the father of political philosophy or ethics; Plato the father of Western spirituality; And Aristotle the father of Western science.
Socrates was a speaker, he talked about the good life but he never wrote down his philosophy; he never wrote a single piece of documentation. It was his student, Plato, that wrote about Socrates thus making it difficult to discern Socrate’s philosophy from Plato’s. Socrates believed in the virtuous life: the good life is attained through strong character and values. Plato had a more dreamy and contemplative philosophy, and his disciple, Aristotle, had a logical, analytical, and factual model when it came to examining living a life worth living. Plato taught his students that we all want to be part of something higher — a transcendental reality — which unites everyone and everything into a harmonious unity. Whereas, Aristotle, was like:
Yo Plato, let’s get real here. I wanna know the facts. I don’t care as much about the ‘why’, I want to know the ‘what’ and the ‘how!
Aristotle, founded Western Science, he was the original materialistic scientist who prized logic and analytical examination. Aristotle’s Golden Rule, can teach us about lasting happiness: we want to take everything in moderation, and never to the extremes.
Two types of happiness: Hedonia (sensual pleasures) vs Eudaimonia (inner lasting happiness)
Categories are useful, but sometimes they are limiting. There are two categories that we can use to think about happiness but in reality it’s more complex than that.
Hedonic happiness is short-term pleasures and experiences that makes us feel happy. It is a quality of happiness that comes from the outside, usually in the form of materials or a fleeting sensual pleasure. Eating a scrumptious meal, winning the lottery, having a cup of coffee, buying a new car, staying at a 5-star resort, having another cup of coffee, and receiving a raise will produce hedonic happiness. The happy boost that we get from these things and experiences are temporary, eventually the happiness would fade and we will require more and more of it to receive the same amount of happy juice. We build up a tolerance to these sensual pleasures and experiences and we get used to them over time.
Take for example someone who wins the lottery: Initially, they will feel significantly happier. They believe that they will be so happy and their life will be filled with rainbows and butterflies for the rest of his life. They won the friggin’ lottery. They did it! Unfortunately, it doesn’t last. Commonly, lottery winners return back to their previous level of happiness before they won. Some even become depressed a few years after winning, and end up spending away all their winnings and eventually they go bankrupt.
The initial happy boost isn’t sustainable, and eventually they will get used to their new gains from winning the lottery. This is called the hedonic treadmill or hedonic adaptation.
Eudaimonia happiness is sustaining and lasting happiness that comes from within regardless of exterior situation. In a previous article I talked about the 50-40-10 happy rule: we are in control of 40% of our happiness. Developing sustainable and inner happiness is an artform. There are specific values and character traits we can develop to produce regular positive emotions naturally. For instance practicing forgiveness, acceptance, mindfulness, and gratitude will open our minds up to noticing, embracing, and cultivating positive emotions like happiness, joy, contentment, kindness, satisfaction, excitement, and confidence. And they will help us cope with difficult emotions, build resilience to challenging events, and weed out negative thought and belief patterns. As opposed to hedonic happiness, eudaimonic happiness is something that we can practice, learn, and develop so we do not have to be dependent on external means to experience happiness regularly and naturally. For a lot of us, it will require us to take a new perspective on happiness: lasting and sustainable happiness comes from within!
The Art of Happiness: A revolutionary way of approaching the good life.
Happiness has been examined since the time of the Buddha, Confucius, Lao Tzu, and Ancient Greek philosophers. They were all interested in eudaimonic happiness — lasting and sustainable happiness. They were studying the good life and seeing happiness not only as a personal state, but interrelational and societal: living the good life involves contributing to others and having others’ well-being in mind as well.
It may be friggin’ awesome to win the Lotto 649, but if we haven’t developed and learned how to cultivate inner happiness, we will likely get used to our newly acquired sum of money, end up wasting all of it, going bankrupt, becoming depressed, and taking our own lives.
Developing and practicing qualities like acceptance, mindfulness, forgiveness, altruism, compassion, and gratitude will make us happier, but in a sustainable and longer-lasting way.
So, we can continue to buy our lottery tickets and hope we win, but in the meantime let’s learn how to develop inner happiness, so when we do win the lottery we already have strong resources internally, and we can spend (or save and invest) our $5 million dollars wisely and compassionately knowing that happiness comes from within and not from the outside.
Article written by me on Mindfully Abundant Blog