Originally published by thinkdeeply.com, 2003.
Sometimes it seems as if happiness and human beings just weren’t made for one another. Our ancestors probably found it difficult to be happy because of the sheer physical suffering and the tragedy that filled their lives.
Until very recent times, most adults had to watch some of their children die, and regularly mourned the deaths of other relatives and friends. They could only expect to live until 40 at the most themselves, and spent their short lives fighting against hunger and the elements, suffering from constant malnutrition, toothache and eye problems, as well as from a host of diseases which modern medicine has now eliminated. There was also a good chance that at some point their lives would be devastated by war, or raids by foreign invaders. Because of this our ancestors’ lives were ‘nasty, brutish, and short’, as Thomas Hobbes wrote.
For many people in the world life is still full of this kind of suffering, of course, but those of us who are lucky enough to live in the world’s richer countries have largely been freed from it. You might expect that, as a result, we would all live in a state of happiness. But this doesn’t seem to be the case. Our lives simply seem to be filled with a different kind of suffering. Whereas our ancestors’ suffering was mostly physical, ours is psychological. Many of us seem to carry around a fundamental dissatisfaction and boredom which we try to escape from by treating ourselves to more and more material goods and more and more pleasures and entertainments, by immersing ourselves in distractions like television or our jobs, and by taking drugs. At the same time millions of us suffer from different kinds of psychological malaise – depression, eating disorders, self-mutilation – or else spend a large part of our lives oppressed by anxieties, worries and feelings of guilt or regret, and negative emotions like jealousy and bitterness. Or more generally, many of us feel a sense of being ‘let down’ by life. We strive for happiness but never seem to find it, and feel as if the world has somehow cheated us.
But why is happiness so difficult to find? Is it just a natural fact that the life is hard and full of suffering, so that there’s nothing we can do about it? Is it simply that, in the worlds of Dr. Johnson, ‘man is not born for happiness’?
I don’t believe this is true. In fact I believe the opposite: that happiness (or contentment) is human beings’ most natural state. The problem – simplistic though it may sound – is that we’ve lost our bearings, and have largely forgotten where true happiness is. It only seems so difficult to find because we’re looking for it in the wrong place.
Different Kinds of Happiness
In order to attain a clearer picture of where true happiness actually might lie, it’s perhaps useful to go through the normal ways in which we look for happiness in our lives. Generally speaking, in the modern world we think of happiness as something that comes to us from the outside. We generate it through doing certain things and having certain things. There are several different ways in which we try to do this, which I believe can be categorised as follows:
— Materialistic Happiness. This is the ‘happiness’ which buying and possessing material goods gives us. When we go shopping and buy a new dress, a new piece of furniture or a new car this presses a kind of instinctive ‘pleasure button’ inside us, so that we feel happy for a few hours or perhaps even a few days. And then there is the positive feeling which actually owning these goods after we’ve bought them. (There is also the feeling of status and importance which material goods give us, which crosses over into ‘ego-based happiness’ – see below.) Materialistic happiness appears to have its roots in our ancient past. We can probably trace it back to a time when our ancestors needed to acquire and possess goods to improve their chances of survival. To them this would have meant possessing livestock, food they could store through the winter, or goods they could exchange. This instinct for possession is still inside us, and gives us a feeling of pleasure when we satisfy it.
— Hedonistic Happiness. This is closely linked to materialistic happiness, since one of the attractions of money is that it can enable us to live hedonistically. We’re all instinctively programmed to find certain things pleasurable, such as food, drink, drugs, sex, and comfortable living conditions (e.g. a comfortable bed and furniture, soft, plush carpets, heating etc.). There are also many instinctive ‘thrills’ we get in certain situations, such as being surrounded by crowds of people and loud music and bright lights, driving, sailing or flying at high speeds, or being amongst pleasant climatic conditions. These are all ‘pleasure buttons’ which give us a ‘buzz’ of well-being when we press them. Some of the buttons have been purposely placed there by nature to make sure that we will survive and reproduce – e.g. food is pleasurable so that we’ll want to eat, and sex is pleasurable so that we’ll reproduce. Others are more accidental buttons caused by chemical changes inside us, such as when speed or danger give us an adrenaline rush or produce endorphins.
— Ego-Based Happiness. This is the happiness we’re chasing after when we try to ‘get on’ or ‘make it’ in the world. It makes us strive to become successful, powerful and famous, and to accumulate ‘status symbols’ like expensive cars, big houses and designer clothes (which is the connection with ‘materialistic happiness’ above). On the simplest level we experience ‘ego-based happiness’ when people compliment or praise us – when your boss tells you you’ve done a good job, for example, when your husband tells you you look beautiful, or if you’re an actor or musician and the audience applaud your performance. We don’t always need other people for this though – we can praise ourselves too, as we do when we ‘pat ourselves on the back’ after we’ve completed a challenge or achievement such as passing an exam, climbing a mountain or negotiating a higher wage. In all of these situations we feel a glow of ‘ego-based happiness’ and our self-esteem and confidence increase. And fame and power are so attractive to us because they give us an endless – even constant – supply of ego-based happiness. Famous people are effectively being praised and complimented continually, even when there are no sycophants around them to tell them how great they are – the glances of passers-by are always reminding them of how special they are. Similarly, powerful and successful people – though they may not be famous – are continually being told how special they are by the respectful way other people treat them, by seeing evidence of their power around them (e.g. the hundreds of workers they employ, the premises they own etc.).
— Ego-based happiness probably also has its roots in instinct. After all, as Abraham Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of needs’ shows, self-esteem is a basic human need, as instinctive as the need for food or shelter. When we are given ‘fixes’ of self-esteem this also, therefore, presses a ‘pleasure button’ inside us.
— These three kinds of happiness make up the basic ‘happiness paradigm’ of our culture. There are other kinds of happiness which we search for and regularly experience, but since these aren’t quite so important to this essay – and I don’t have unlimited space – I’ll deal with these more briefly.
— We also try to find happiness by changing our circumstances (which would probably be called circumstance-changing Happiness). This expresses itself in the constant desire which many of us to change our lives in some way. It’s connected to ‘materialistic happiness’, since it often manifests itself in a desire to become rich, but can be expressed in other ways: in the desire to change your appearance, for example, to move to a different house in a different area, or to get a better job.
— Event-based happiness is what we experience this when we undergo what psychologists call ‘positive life-events’ – in other words, when good things happen to us, such as marriage, the birth of children, passing an exam, getting a job etc. We usually associate it with major events such as these, but we often experience it on a smaller scale too – when you get a raise in salary, for instance, when the sports team you support wins a match, or when you meet a famous person or someone else you admire.
— Future-based happiness is the positive feeling we experience when we ‘look forward to’ things. Often, when the present circumstances of our lives aren’t so positive – when you’re having a boring day at the office, for example – future-based happiness is what keeps you going. You look forward to the meal you’re going to eat when you get home, the programmes you’re going to watch on TV this evening, or the party you’re going to at the weekend – and as a result your present situation seems more bearable.
— Need-Satisfaction Happiness is the happiness we experience when any of our fundamental needs are satisfied – the basic physical relief you feel when you eat when you’re hungry or when you go to home rest after a long day’s work; or the psychological relief you feel when you find a secure job after a long period of temping, or the emotional relief you experience when you find a romantic partner after being alone for a long time.
Some of us are more oriented around one particular type of happiness than another. People who live in a state of ‘need-deprivation’ – who are homeless, poor, or don’t have a romantic partner, for example – usually think of happiness purely in terms of satisfying their needs. A rich housewife who spends most of her time shopping is mainly oriented around ‘materialistic happiness’, while first year university students who spend their time socialising and drinking are probably mainly oriented around ‘hedonistic happiness’.
Most of us spread our search for happiness fairly evenly though. If you look closely at your own life, you’ll probably find that you experience (or at least look for) all of the different kinds of happiness we’ve looked at on a fairly regular basis. You might have ‘fixes’ of materialistic happiness when you buy new clothes or CDs, fixes of hedonistic happiness when you drink alcohol or go to a party, and fixes of ego-based happiness when you catch a member of the opposite staring at you across a bar or when your partner tells you that you’re a fantastic cook. You might experience need-satisfaction happiness when you have social contact after being isolated for a while; ‘event-based happiness’ when you hear that a friend is going to get married; and ‘future-based happiness’ when you think of the holiday you’ve book in a month. You might also look for happiness through changing your circumstances – by re-decorating your kitchen or having a new hairstyle, or by dreaming of moving to a country with a better climate or of winning the lottery.
The first three types of happiness (materialistic, hedonistic and ego-based) are undoubtedly the ones which are most important to us though. Many of us take it for granted that we can find happiness by pursuing the ‘American Dream’ of wealth and success, and think of life as a kind of competition to ‘get on’ and accumulate as much of them as possible. But whether these kinds of happiness actually can satisfy us – even the highest levels of wealth and success – is very debatable. In fact there are many studies by psychologists which suggest that this isn’t the case. Studies of pools and lottery winners, for example, show that their new found wealth has little effect on their level of happiness. After a short period of high level happiness they return the same ‘base level’ they experienced before. Surveys also show that America’s increasing wealth since the Second World War hasn’t been accompanied with increasing happiness. In 1946 38% of Americans said they were ‘very happy’. In the late 50s the figure had risen to 53%, but in the mid-70s it was down to 27%, and in the mid-80s it had risen again to 33%. Surveys of the levels of happiness in different countries also have some surprising results. As the psychologist Michael Argyle writes, they show that ‘International differences in happiness are very small, and almost unrelated to economic prosperity.’
We’ve all seen plenty of evidence for this too. We all know of pop stars, film stars and other celebrities whose massive wealth and success doesn’t seem to have brought them any happiness. We’ve all heard stories of ‘privileged’ aristocrats and other children of rich parents whose inherited wealth seems more of a curse than a blessing, and who experience a sense of emptiness and purposelessness which leads to drug abuse and psychological problems. The richest person in Great Britain, for example, is the Duke of Westminster, with an estimated fortune of 1,750 million. But apparently his wealth hasn’t made him any more immune to unhappiness than anybody else. In a recent newspaper interview the Duke revealed that a year ago he’d suffered a breakdown which had plunged him into ‘a black hole of despair,’ and stopped him working or attending any social events for three months. The experience had only served to forcibly remind him of what he’d always known, which was that, as he said, ‘You can’t buy happiness, you can’t buy health, and you can’t buy inner peace…People think a new video recorder or a fast car can make them happy but they don’t.’
But if we look closely we can see some very obvious reasons why these types of happiness can’t truly satisfy us. One problem is that they are all very temporary. The sense of well-being we experience when any of our ‘pleasure buttons’ are pressed only lasts for a short time. With hedonistic happiness it only lasts as long as the act or situation which produces it – as long as the party lasts, as long as it takes for the drugs or alcohol to wear off, or as long as you can make sex last. Materialistic happiness usually lasts a little longer, since the short-term thrill of buying something is followed by the instinctive pleasure of owning it. And ego-based happiness probably – at least in certain cases – lasts longest of all. If a stranger comes up you on the street and tells you you’re beautiful, for example, or if your first novel is published and is given rave reviews by every newspaper, you might feel a glow of ego-based happiness which can last for days.
But so what if they wear off after a while? you might think. There’s no reason why we can’t give ourselves another ‘fix’ of happiness as soon as that happens, and so keep ourselves in a constant state of happiness. And this is what many of us try to do, of course. But the problem here is that all of these types of happiness are subject to the law of diminishing returns. In the same way that, say, a heroin addict has to ingest larger and larger quantities of the drug to achieve the same effect, if we regularly treat ourselves to these types of happiness we become slowly resistant to them. Every time you buy yourself a new dress or a new item of furniture the amount of pleasure you experience decreases slightly, so that if you want to have the same effect next time you have to buy yourself something a little more special and a little more expensive. Every time you achieve a little success which gives you some ego-based happiness, you need a higher level of success next time around to feel the same. In the same way the pleasure you derive from a casual sexual encounter or from driving a fast car becomes slightly duller every time you experience it. This effect may be so small that it’s difficult to notice, and if you don’t experience these pleasures very frequently it may not take place at all, but people who live very hedonistic lives may find that they need to progressively intensify their experiences until they enter the realm of ‘dangerous’ pleasures like hard drugs or promiscuous bondage-based sex. And they may also find that, after this, they reach a point which I call the ‘end of pleasure’, at which they have become so numb that no amount or intensity of hedonism can stimulate them, and they feel a sense of dissolution and boredom which may result in suicide.
Another similar problem is that most of these types of happiness are subject to what psychologists call ‘adaption’, the process by which we get used to situations once we’ve been in them for a while, and cease to value and appreciate new aspects of our lives. One of the main pieces of evidence for ‘adaption’ was the finding that badly disabled people such as quadriplegic patients were just as happy as other people, and also that – as I mentioned above – people who won large sums of money were no more happy than others. It seems that at a certain point we ‘switch off’ to the past and stop seeing our present situation in relation to the previous, so that we don’t feel lucky or unlucky in the present, but instead a kind of neutral blankness. And it’s easy to see how this would affect the kinds of happiness we’ve mentioned. A high degree of wealth or success might make us happy for a while, but as soon ‘adaption’ takes place we’ll be back where we started. In the same way we also quickly become adapted to changes in circumstances, such as a move to a new area or a newly decorated house, so that they cease to affect us after a short time.
Finally, these kinds of happiness are also problematic because they all come from outside us. This means that they’re all dependent on external circumstances, which are always liable to change in such a way that they can no longer provide us with happiness. If this happens we’re completely helpless. If you’re a person who lives off ego-based happiness, for example, what happens when you start to lose your looks, when the company which you’re head of goes bankrupt, or when your fame or celebrity begins to take a downturn? Or if you live off materialistic and hedonistic happiness, what happens when you lose your job, when a burglar steals all your prized possessions, or when you lose all your savings in a stock market crash?
It’s because of this seeming unattainability of happiness that some philosophers have concluded that it’s impossible to find contentment, and that human life is destined to be full of frustration and suffering. Albert Camus, for example, believed that true happiness is impossible because life involves a continual striving which can never be satisfied – he compares human life the Greek myth of Sysiphus, who the gods condemn to roll a boulder up a hill until gravity forces it down again, whereupon he goes back to the bottom and starts rolling again. Similarly, the German philosopher Schopenhauer believes that happiness is impossible because we look for it in the present, but the present moment is so fleeting that as soon as any situation arises which provides happiness, it disappears straight away.
But there is another possibility, which Eastern – rather than Western – philosophy suggests to us: that there is a kind of happiness which comes from inside us, and isn’t subject to any of these problems.
There is, in fact, a kind of inner-based well-being we regularly experience but which we don’t normally think of as unhappiness because it’s not part of culture’s ‘happiness paradigm’.
The American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has spent over 30 years studying the question of what makes human beings happy, and has also come to the conclusion that happiness is not, as he says, ‘the result of good fortune or random chance,’ or ‘something that money can buy.’ According to him, we come closest to experiencing true happiness when we experience the state of ‘flow’, which he defines as ‘a state of concentration so focused that it amounts to complete absorption in activity.’ When we’re in ‘flow’ we forget ourselves, forget our surroundings and the circumstances of our lives. The negative self-talk which normally fills our minds fades away and we feel that we are one with the activity we’re performing. We experience flow when we have challenging and demanding tasks to do at work, when we play games, sports or musical instruments, or even when we become absorbed in household chores like mending a fence or doing the garden. And it’s always a positive experience, generating a powerful sense of well-being. A chess player told Csikszentmihalyi, for example, that when he plays the game, ‘I have a general sense of well-being, and a feeling of complete control over my world.’ A dancer described to him the state of well-being she experiences during a performance: ‘A strong relaxation and calmness comes over me. I have no worries of failure. What a powerful and warm feeling it is! I want to expand, to hug the world. I feel enormous power to effect something of grace and beauty.’
The state of ‘flow’ corresponds to the state of consciousness which the Hindu eightfold path of yoga refers to as dhyana. And in fact Hindu philosophy explains why this state creates a powerful sense of well-being. The key to it is the way that concentration affects our prana or life-energy. As Stephen Cope writes in Yoga and the Quest for the True Self, ‘as states of concentration deepen in the body-mind, prana also becomes more concentrated. Deep states of mental and physical absorption gather and focus prana into a powerful stream.’ When we live our normal lives in normal states of consciousness, our prana – consciousness-energy, as I like to call it – is continually being drained away, by the thought-activity which continually buzzes through our minds, by the external stimuli which we’re continually bombarded with (the sights, sounds and other kinds of information which we absorb) and by the effort we have to make to interact and communicate with other people. As a result our consciousness-energy is always in a state of dissipation, or low concentration. But when we become absorbed in an activity all this changes. We close down the channels through which our prana leaks away: our minds stop thinking, and we close down our senses to external stimuli. As a result the level of prana inside us rises, or intensifies.
This high concentration of prana brings a sense of well-being simply because, it seems, happiness is the nature of prana, in the same way that the nature of water is wetness. There’s no reason for this, it’s simply a natural fact: consciousness-energy (or prana) possesses a natural quality of warm radiance, of serenity and well-being. Normally it’s too dissipated for us to feel this, but when it becomes intensified in states of concentration this glow of well-being spreads through us.
Flow without an Activity
One problem with ‘flow’, you could say, is that it’s still externally based, since it depends on having a challenging activity to focus your attention on. However, this isn’t always the case. In fact it’s possible to experience the state of intensified consciousness-energy which equates with flow without concentrating on an activity.
We experience some of the happiest moments of our lives – although again we might not think of these in terms of happiness, since they’re not part of our happiness paradigm – in times of quietness and solitude. Sometimes we can just spend an evening at home, doing nothing in particular, perhaps just lying down and listening to music, and feel a powerful glow of inner well-being. We might also feel this when we’re walking alone through the countryside, when we stay up late and the streets are quiet and empty around us, when we do yoga or Chi Gung, or while we’re having a massage. Or, perhaps most frequently of all, we might feel this while – and after – meditating, when a sense of purity and ease fills our being, combined with a feeling of being more rooted within ourselves.
Again, the key to these experiences is an intensification of consciousness-energy. In moments of quietness and stillness the level of external stimuli falls to a low level, so that we no longer use up so much consciousness-energy in processing it. In the right circumstances the chattering of our minds become silent too. In meditation we make a conscious effort to do this by focusing our attention on a mantra (or another object of concentration), while in the countryside – for example – the beauty of the scenery acts as a focus for our attention. The chattering of our minds is fuelled by the attention we give to it, so in these moments it fades and no longer drains away our consciousness-energy. As a result there is a high concentration of it inside us which – as with ‘active’ states of flow – generates a sense of well-being.
This isn’t the only reason why we experience a sense of well-being in these situations though. As I’ve already implied, it’s also because we become free of the normal negativity which plagues our minds. As Csikszentmihalyi points out, we spend most of our lives in a state of ‘psychic entropy’, because of the endless stream of uncontrollable thought-chatter which runs through our minds. Our thought-chatter is usually negatively based too, centred around worries, and constantly triggers negative emotions like guilt, regret and bitterness. So when – in states of dyhana – our minds quieten down, we become free of these problems too. Our ‘psychic entropy’ gives way to a controlled stillness of mind.
Another reason why we feel a sense of well-being in these moments is because we have a feeling of being more in contact with ourselves. In deep states of meditation, for example, it’s possible to experience a kind of ‘identity shift’, in which our centre of gravity shifts from our normal ego-self to a much deeper and truer kind of ‘I’. We feel that the ‘self’ we normally live with is a shadow of this true self, and experience a sense of stability and rootedness, as well as a sense of coming back home. This feeling makes sense when you consider that our being consists of consciousness-energy, that in a way we are consciousness-energy. Our sense of identity is bound up with it, so that when there is a higher intensity of it we feel a more complete sense of identity, a sense of becoming who we really are. When – more normally – our consciousness-energy is in a state of dissipation, however, we lose this sense of connection to the ‘real self’ and become wholly oriented around the superficial ego-self.
‘Inner-based happiness’ – or spiritual happiness, as I sometimes call it, since consciousness-energy is basically the same as ‘spirit’ – doesn’t have the same problems as the other kinds of happiness we’ve looked at. It isn’t subject to the law of diminishing returns or to adaption – no matter how often we experience it, it never fades in intensity. Because its source is inside us, it’s not dependent on external conditions, and therefore much more durable and stable. And because it comes from a particular state of being – rather than from fixes of external stimuli which fade after a while – it’s the only kind of happiness which can become permanent. If we feel a powerful sense of well-being at times when there is a high concentration of consciousness-energy inside us, then presumably we would feel a permanent sense of well-being if we could build up a permanently high concentration of consciousness-energy inside us (which would also mean being permanently in contact with our ‘true selves’).
In fact we all know people who have developed a degree of permanent inner-based happiness because they have a permanently high concentration of consciousness-energy inside them. We might have met people who follow spiritual paths, for instance, who seem to glow with inner contentment and to be free of worries and anxieties. People who live, quiet, sedate lives in country areas sometimes seem to have a degree of spiritual happiness too, as do old people. And there are some people who just seem to be born with it, who live the same stressful and hectic lives as you and I do but who radiate a natural well-being which no disappointments can affect, and are so laid back that they’re always cheerful and calm no matter what’s happening around them.
One interesting possibility this suggests is that the claims older people sometimes make that ‘people were happier in the past’ may have some truth to them. Probably the main reason why old people or country people often seem to have a degree of spiritual happiness is because of the lower level of activity and external information in their lives, which means that they ‘lose’ less consciousness-energy than city dwellers or working younger people. And in the past people’s lives in general were less active and less full of external stimuli than ours in the modern world, suggesting that they would also have been closer to ‘spiritual happiness’ than us.
The most important point for us though is that it’s possible for us to cultivate a state of permanent spiritual inner-based happiness. This simply means following certain practices, and living our lives in such a way, that we generate a high concentration of consciousness-energy. This is the whole purpose of spiritual paths like Buddhism and Yoga, for instance – they are systematic, tried and test ways of intensifying consciousness-energy. On the other hand you could try to do this more independently, by meditating and doing yoga regularly, by simplifying your life so that it’s less busy, making sure you have regular periods of solitude and activity, taking regular country walks, and so on. When you are active you could try to make sure that you practise the kind of stimulating and challenging activities which generate ‘flow’. And ironically, another important part of developing spiritual happiness is to not be too oriented around the kinds of happiness we mentioned earlier. All of them – at least when they are indulged too much – work against the cultivation of spiritual happiness. Materialism and hedonism can also drain away our consciousness-energy, and ego-based happiness stimulates our false sense of ego-identity.
All of this suggests that, far from being unattainable, happiness is actually natural to human beings. Since our beings consist of consciousness-energy, the nature of which is well-being, happiness is our nature. We don’t need good fortune or any new circumstances to be happy, and we don’t need material goods, fun activities or success or power. It’s possible for us just to be happy, without any reason at all, because happiness is just there, inside us, in the same way that the sky and the air are outside us.
In one of his most famous poems the Indian mystic Kabir compares human beings to fish who complain about being thirsty, without realising that they can drink the water they’re swimming in. ‘You wander restlessly from forest to forest,’ he tells us, ‘while the reality is within your own dwelling. The truth is here!’
Many of us spend our lives looking for happiness from external things, and all the time, while we go to the ends of the earth in search of it, it’s nearer to us than anything else: in our own being. Once we turn our attention in the opposite direction, however, and begin to change ourselves rather than our circumstances, we realise that it was always with us, and always will be.