We all want to be happy. Most of us spend our lives in search of it. It may not always be on a conscious level, but the majority of our decisions are based on what we think will bring us happiness. It starts as early as childhood, when that new game will make everything perfect. As we grow, we continue to follow those markers on the path to happiness. The new job, the house, the promotion, the new car, the bigger house–well, you get the idea. Even as we approach retirement, we still try to figure out what the heck is going to finally make us happy.
Sure, there are times when we are happy. Haven’t you said to yourself at some point or another, “This is perfect. Why can’t things stay just the way they are?” But that sense of deep contentment and joy never lasts. It evaporates as quickly as it comes. So why does being happy seem to be so difficult for so many of us?
Simple. We are searching for the wrong thing.
When we think of happiness, most of us associate that feeling with a physical stimulus or reward of some kind. It makes perfect sense. We are raised in a world of rewards and punishments. If we do a good job, we get the toy. If we do a bad job, we get the demerit. One makes us happy, the other makes us unhappy. It’s an immediate response, part of our earliest conditioning. This behavioral conditioning bolsters our need for immediate gratification. And even if we are striving for something not so immediate–a promotion or a new house, something that takes time to achieve–we do so because of how we believe we will feel once we accomplish it.
In The Book of Joy, the Dalai Lama discusses two levels of happiness. One is the physical level of happiness. It consists of the immediate sensory gratification we feel when indulging any of the senses. A good meal makes us happy. Great sex makes us happy. A new toy–whether it is a basketball, a laptop, or even a car–makes us happy. For awhile. There is no deep, lasting sense of satisfaction associated with physical happiness. We derive physical pleasure from external stimuli. As we have become dependent on materialistic rewards to create happiness, that happiness becomes more and more short-lived. We quickly become bored with what we have achieved or acquired, leaving us searching for the next best thing.
The second level of happiness exists on a mental level. This is the level where the pervasive feelings of satisfaction and happiness reside. It is the type of happiness so many of us mistakenly feel can be achieved through the physical senses. The Dalai Lama describes this level of happiness as a place where we experience a deeper, more lasting sense of fulfillment. Instead of a transitory sense of happiness, we feel a sense of joy. It is a sublime sense of contentment, a state that occurs when our values and our actions align. And because joy exists on a deeper, emotional level, its foundation is based on such things as love, compassion, and generosity. Gratitude is also a strong motivator for joy.
In this scenario, we create joy in our lives not serving ourselves, but from helping others. From being a part of something greater than ourselves. This concept aligns with the core principles of the well-being theory in positive psychology. Martin Seligman discusses the importance of meaning in his book, Flourish. Seligman believes fulfilled people strive not for happiness, but rather for a sense of well-being. And a big part of that well-being lies in having a sense of meaning in our lives. He describes it as a need to belong to and serve something that is greater and more important than just ourselves.
Now, many could argue this definition suggests religion is a necessary ingredient for well-being. That may work for many people. But what if you don’t practice as particular religion, or consider yourself to be a nontheist? How can you feel connected to something greater than yourself? That is where compassion, love, and generosity come into play. When you become concerned for those around you–or perhaps more importantly, those you have never met–you build a life founded on those principles of compassion, love, and generosity.
That is where joy–and even well-being–resides.
If we spend most of our time searching for happiness instead of joy or well-being, is it possible to change behavior and focus on creating more joy in our lives? Thankfully (to invoke a sense of gratitude), the answer is yes. We can change our way of thinking to create more satisfaction and well-being in our daily world.
Neuroscientist Richard Davidson has actually mapped four independent brain pathways responsible for our well-being. His scientific research supports both Seligman’s theory of well-being and the Dalai Lama’s construct of joy. Davidson explains how exercising these four pathways can build a greater sense of joy and well-being.
The first pathway deals with resilience. We all know bad things happen. The key is not how we react to them, but how quickly we recover from them. Perspective is a key factor in resilience. Those who are more resilient are more likely to look at adversity as a breeding ground for lessons. Rather than letting bad situations keep them down, resilient people use those situations to discern how they can make things better in the future. In other words, how can we turn lemons into lemonade?
Attitude, or outlook, makes up the next pathway. Do you think you have a positive outlook or a negative viewpoint? When we maintain a positive viewpoint on the world for a longer period of time, we are more likely to feel a greater sense of joy. We find more satisfaction in sunsets and sonatas when we see the world through a positive lens. According to the Dalai Lama, using love and compassion to fashion that lens is a fundamental way to strengthen periods of positivity and subsequently, feelings of joy.
That brings us to mindfulness. We have all heard a lot about being in the moment. In fact, there is a great deal of data supporting the fact that mindfulness practices actually change the brain’s makeup in a positive way. Even in elementary school we were admonished to pay attention. Now there is scientific evidence to prove why that advice is so crucial to our well-being.
Generosity is the last component. The importance of generosity circles back to the Dalai Lama’s definition of joy as well as Martin Seligman’s model for well-being. Once again, we are concerned about something other than ourselves. We reach out to something greater than just us. I often see this in those who do volunteer work. They work to help others and receive a great deal of deep satisfaction in doing so. In essence, they add meaning to their lives by helping others.
It is easy to believe we can find happiness on a physical or material level, but we all know that type of satisfaction does not last. Instead, perhaps we should focus our efforts on creating joy within ourselves. Perhaps we should strive for a life filled with joy and well-being. Feelings that will last longer than the happiness that comes with a special dessert.
Now we have both a spiritual and a scientific roadmap that can help us achieve happiness and more importantly, a deeper level of joy, satisfaction, and ultimate well-being.