Erika has many reasons to be happy—she’s healthy, has a well-paying, secure job and a steady, loving relationship—but you wouldn’t know it from listening to her. She’s always worrying about one thing or another and gives the impression that there’s no joy in her life. Sometimes her fears are real— for instance, her brother has a chronic illness, so she’s understandably concerned about him. But more often than not her worries are overblown. Right now she’s fretting about her job. She recently gave a presentation to the senior management team in which she omitted an important point, so she’s afraid it appeared that she wasn’t on top of her material.
Erika is sharing this latest worry with me during a personal interview at a meditation retreat I’m leading. As her teacher for the past six years, I’ve noticed that she often looks for reasons to be unhappy. I point out to her that the amount of anxiety she is expressing about the presentation seems much greater than the actual problem. This feedback makes her agitated at first, but eventually she acknowledges that this worry is not that big a deal and that in fact the feedback from the managers afterward was positive.
“So why haven’t you told me about your happiness?” I ask. My question takes Erika by surprise, because she’s accustomed to talking about her suffering during these interviews, not about her happiness. Again she becomes uneasy, but then she acknowledges that, overall, her life is really quite good. She smiles and the worry lines vanish from her face.
Erika is a dedicated practitioner of vipassana, a type of Buddhist meditation that is also known as “mindfulness” or “insight meditation.” A central part of her practice is to focus attention on the causes of suffering in order to someday free herself from them. But Erika has become so attached to her attitude of worry that she is no longer present for her own moments of happiness.
Many of us aren’t. Think back to the last time you had dinner with a friend. Did the two of you spend most of your time commiserating about your struggles and disappointments and less time celebrating and sharing your brighter moments?
Surprisingly enough, I’ve found that ambivalence, defensiveness, and even aversion to happiness are quite common. If there wasn’t much joy in your family of origin, you may not trust feelings of happiness when they arise. Or if you’ve experienced a lot of disappointment, you may believe that you really can’t affect how happy you are. You might feel guilty that your life is going well when there is so much suffering in the world, or you might even be superstitious and feel that if you open up to happiness, you’ll jinx it. In each of these instances, ironically, your joy has become a source of suffering.
In the Four Noble Truths, which are among the cornerstone teachings of Buddhism, the Buddha focused primarily on suffering, or duhkha, as a gateway to finding freedom from suffering. But he also taught that being mindful of sukha, or the pleasant and happy times in your life, can provide the same liberating insights as moments of anxiety do. So I suggest to Erika that she practice being mindful of her moments of happiness. The reason is not just so she’ll appreciate the many gifts in her life, although that’s certainly valuable. Instead, the purpose is for her to develop a more subtle relationship to joy that will bring her a greater sense of well-being in both happy and unhappy times.
By that I mean experiencing a type of happiness that’s profoundly different than anything else in our lives. It’s referred to in various spiritual traditions by many different terms—enlightenment, emptiness, nirvana. Essentially, it’s the freedom that comes from no longer being identified with your ego sense of self. You become liberated from the feelings of fear, stress, and suffering that inevitably come when you are identified with the ego, which is always coping with the fragility, uncertainty, and unavoidable loss and death of physical life.
Most often this form of happiness occurs out of the blue. It may happen on a meditation retreat, or it can follow an accident or life-threatening illness, or it can arise out of a spontaneous relaxation into the sacred now, without your having a clue as to why it occurred. But it’s also possible, through what I call happiness practice, to cultivate states of mind that will bring you more-frequent glimpses of this ultimate freedom. Even a small taste of it gives you the sense of what’s possible and can provide faith and inspiration for your practice.
The first thing to understand about happiness practice is that it is a practice. Just as you sometimes struggle in your asana practice with poses you’d rather avoid, you may find some elements of this practice difficult, as well. Just know that there’s a reason for the difficulty and have faith that your efforts will bring you closer to a state that’s even more rewarding than are your conventional ideas about joy.
To do happiness practice, you first need to develop clarity about the various types of happiness you feel. In my experience as a vipassana practitioner and a teacher, I’ve observed that there are three types: The first arises when conditions in your life are what you desire them to be; the second is the sense of well-being that comes when your mind is joyful and at ease, regardless of the conditions of your life in that moment; and the third is the unbounded joy you feel when your mind has reached final liberation. To understand each of the types more deeply, I suggest using three tools: mindfulness, investigation, and appreciation.
The happiness you are probably most familiar with is the kind that arises when the external conditions in your life are just as you want them to be. It may be during a good dinner, an exhilarating hike, an intimate conversation, or a delightful moment with your child. Or perhaps it comes after you’ve done a difficult job well, received praise, or finished a challenging physical workout. It’s natural to savor such moments as they occur, but there are ways that you can expand and deepen your appreciation of them.
Begin by becoming mindful of these moments of conditional happiness and recognizing them for what they are. For instance, say you’ve just received a much-sought-after award at work. Bask in the glow; acknowledge the work you did to earn it and the good fortune that brought the award to you. But as you enjoy your feeling of well-being, also acknowledge the truth that all conditions change and the good feeling you are having will eventually be replaced by one that is less pleasant. That may sound like a downer, but in the long run, it isn’t. Rather than diminish your happiness, your acknowledgement puts it in a context that allows you to appreciate it even more.
Next, start to investigate how you respond to this kind of happy experience. How does it feel to you? Are your thoughts about the past or the future diluting your moment of well-being? Are you scared that you won’t be able to live up to others’ expectations or worried that others will be jealous of you? What happens when you acknowledge that this happiness is temporary and not to be clung to?
For example, as Erika started to investigate why she was uncomfortable with happy feelings, she discovered that being present for them made her feel too vulnerable. “It’s overwhelming, and I can’t stay there,” she says. She also uncovered a secret fear that if she acknowledged her joy, her suffering would worsen. She realized that she had unconsciously adopted this attitude from her mother, who distrusted life because of an early childhood trauma. Eventually, Erika was able to begin being mindful of her happy times without having a sense of dread.
Finally, pause to appreciate that in this moment you have a sense of well-being. Notice the effect of this. Does this gratitude lead you anywhere? Many people report that after doing this gratitude practice for a while, they start feeling a desire to share their good fortune.
Surprised by joy
The second kind of happiness arises when life isn’t the way you would like it to be, but you feel fine nonetheless. You are in such a good mood that even when you encounter an unpleasant person or a frustrating situation, you aren’t overwhelmed. You’re centered in a state of mind that is happy.
You have many such moments in your life, although you may not always be aware of them. For instance, you receive a piece of bad news—but rather than becoming anxious or sad, you continue feeling good about yourself and life. The bad news conditions the moment but does not define you, and your sense of well-being stays intact. A good example of this type of happiness is Claudia, one of my longtime students. She had just retired early to pursue her spiritual practice full-time when one of her adult daughters became critically ill. She had to abandon her plans indefinitely to attend to her daughter’s health needs. Despite Claudia’s disappointment and her fears for her daughter, she felt a strong sense of well-being, which she attributes to being mindful that happiness doesn’t need to be contingent on things being just the way she wants them to be.
You can practice experiencing moments of happiness that are independent of conditions but still based on your state of mind by using the same three tools of mindfulness, investigation, and appreciation. For example, say that you’ve gone to pick up your car from the repair shop. The mechanic tells you that not only is the car not ready, but it’s going to cost $700 more to fix it than you had expected. But as you wait in the drafty office contemplating your bank account, you realize that you’re still feeling pretty good. In a situation like this, first bring mindfulness to the feeling of well-being and note its nature: Does your belly feel relaxed, your breathing free flowing and unconstricted? Do you have a feeling of friendliness and curiosity toward the people around you? Then contrast the unpleasant condition with that of your pleasant mind state, noting the differences. Acknowledge the temporary nature of your well-being and notice whether you are clinging to or are identifying with this feeling of centeredness, creating a sense of “This is who I am.”
Now begin to investigate how well-being that isn’t dependent on external conditions arises in the first place. As Claudia found, once you become aware that this second type of happiness is possible, the more likely you are to experience it. Note the qualities of your unperturbed mind: Is there an underlying feeling of trust that no matter what you will be OK?
Next, appreciate how fortunate you are to have such independence from conditions. Reflect on the ease that is present in your mind and acknowledge that you now know such ease exists and therefore can be cultivated in your practice. Take time to fully receive the blessing that such temporary freedom represents. Then see what impulses arise from your state of well-being. Expand whatever warm feelings you have toward others by reflecting on their positive traits, recognizing the challenges that they too face in attaining well-being, and acting in ways that might help others find this state of happiness. By helping others you are acknowledging and showing gratitude for your own blessings.
The third kind of happiness is when you are free of attachment to your wants and desires; it’s independent of conditions and of your mind state. The qualities of cognition and awareness that characterize this kind of happiness are quite different from the other two types. There is not a sense of an “I” that is separate from others, nor is the feeling of well-being localized in you; it is impersonal and without boundaries. You may have already experienced brief moments of this. If not, it may arise as you continue with your practice.
If and when you have a moment of nondependent happiness, there is not much of anything for you to do as it is happening. You simply appreciate it. Only afterward do your mindfulness and investigation come into play, as you remember as best you can what it felt like and notice how this happiness differs from the other two kinds. Also, observe whether you are clinging to the memory of it or falling into the trap of wanting to know it again, or whether your ego is starting to hijack your moment of grace and claim it as its own achievement.
As you start to make mindfulness of happiness part of your spiritual practice, you may be tempted to idealize this third kind of happiness and strive to be something that you haven’t yet attained. This is what I call spiritual ambition and is a sign of your ego trying to assert itself. The practice of mindfulness of happiness starts just where you are and asks for humility, persistence, patience, and good humor.
Erika understood this principle of starting where you are and was able to work with her happiness in a most inspiring way. Through the investigation process, she gradually learned to distinguish between the three kinds of happiness and realized that her sense of well-being was dependent on external conditions being just as she wanted them. If one thing was amiss, it was hard for her to be happy. She began to notice how easily she was derailed by even the slightest disagreement or criticism at work. Over time Erika has learned to connect with a sense of well-being despite the bumps of the workplace and to be tolerant of her anxiety when things are going well. And as she has practiced appreciating her happiness, it has allowed her to feel more confident and to trust her inner experience. She now relates much better to her colleagues and is more relaxed around them.
If practicing mindfulness of happiness is something you want to explore, I strongly urge you to let it be your quiet practice, your open secret. Let it be visible in your tone, words, and actions, but never directly stated to others. If you tell others about it, you open yourself to their skepticism, and you may end up feeling pressured to perform and pretending to be happy.
If you give your full effort to practicing mindfulness of your happiness, you will most likely start to feel the first effects within just a few months. A year after beginning this practice, Erika reports that her happiness quotient is generally much higher. In turn, this has allowed her to stay present for her moments of genuine suffering. She’s better able to respond with compassion and clarity rather than fear and confusion. The combination of having more happy moments and being willing to consciously bear her suffering is giving Erika a taste of well-being that is of a different order of magnitude—the happiness that comes with liberation. As she says, “It is a new universe to be explored.”