How can we achieve lasting happiness?
Most people would readily agree that the purpose of life is to seek happiness. Yet for some reason we often see happiness itself as something mysterious and hard to define, and we have a poor understanding of what makes us happy. According to the Dalai Lama, by training one’s mind it is possible to learn how to be happier.
External events can affect a person’s happiness in the short-term, but our level of happiness tends to revert back to a certain baseline soon after the event. For example, winning the lottery only produces a short-lived happiness “high,” which usually subsides relatively quickly. Similarly, people who face sudden and tragic health problems like a diagnosis of cancer or paralysis typically – after a period of grieving – recover their previous level of happiness. Hence, it seems no specific external conditions can really affect our happiness in the long run.
But the mind is a powerful tool; our mental state greatly affects how we perceive the world. Consider, for example, how negative emotions skew our view of other people: when we’re angry, even dear friends can seem annoying, cold and hostile.
According to the Dalai Lama, it is possible to systematically train your mind so that you identify and cultivate positive mental states while eliminating the negative ones. Though this is a slow, gradual process, it eventually brings a calmness that allows you to live a happy, joyous life no matter what the external situation.
External circumstances cannot create lasting happiness – the right state of mind can.
The Dalai Lama places great emphasis on developing and cultivating compassion. It is an important component of not only Buddhist spiritual development but also of robust, lasting happiness.
Compassion can be roughly defined as a state of mind that is nonaggressive: a wish to see others free from suffering. In true compassion, this wish is deep and universal, not related to personal feelings or to attachments to particular people. Rather, it applies to all living creatures, including friends, enemies, and even a fish writhing on a hook.
The mental and physical benefits of a compassionate attitude have been well documented by research. These range from experiencing an emotional “high” after helping others to gaining a longer life expectancy themselves. But the most striking trait of a compassionate person is how widely their warmth to others is spread; they feel a strong affinity with all others, no matter whether they are rich or poor, close friends or total strangers.
To cultivate compassion, you must try to be empathetic toward others and actively try to understand things from their perspective. An effective method for this is to understand their backgrounds and focus on the commonalties you share. Say, for example, your cab driver tries to overcharge you. Instead of getting angry, you could think about what you and the driver have in common, like that you are both tired, hungry and want to get back to your families. Then, try to examine yourself in their shoes: How would you feel? This usually helps you develop empathy and reduce the anger you would feel, leading to more compassion and a happier life.
Cultivating universal compassion is a way to a healthier, happier life.
Having close, intimate relationships with other people promotes both physical and mental well-being, but the Western viewpoint that deep intimacy can only be achieved through a romantic relationship can be problematic. People who don’t find such a relationship often feel lonely and unhappy.
But in fact, the concept and limitations of intimacy have varied greatly across different times and cultures, and a wealth of intimacy lies beyond the exclusively romantic Western definition. The Dalai Lama himself said he felt an intimate connection with a wide array of people around him, for example his tutors and cooks; he even went as far as discussing state affairs with a cleaner sweeping the floors. By embracing the countless opportunities to connect to other people every day, we can lead happier lives.
Often, we run into problems in our involvements with others. In these cases, it is vital to understand the underlying basis of the relationships. For example, romantic relationships based on sexual desire or based on the Western ideal of “being swept off your feet by love” are unlikely to last if they have no other more permanent basis.
Lasting relationships, on the other hand, are based on respect and appreciation of the other person. This kind of relationship requires knowing the deeper nature of the other person, which requires time. As Mark Twain said, “No man or woman really knows what perfect love is until they have been married a quarter of a century.”
An important ingredient of leading a happier life is spirituality.
The benefits of a strong religious conviction are well-documented in numerous studies and range from happier families to better health. But, contrary to what many people believe, spirituality is not dependent on any specific religion; the Dalai Lama believes any of the world’s major religions can offer people the opportunity for a happier life.
In fact, there is also a kind of spirituality that exists completely outside of the sphere of religious belief: basic spirituality comprises basic human qualities like goodness, compassion and caring for one another, and it is therefore attainable by atheists and religious people alike. Embracing these qualities brings us closer to all of humanity, helping us become calmer, happier and more peaceful.
Though religious beliefs can be beneficial to happiness, you can cultivate basic spirituality without them.
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