The Pursuit of Happiness

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Satisfying conditions — a deeper happiness

At a deeper level we can experience a happiness that is not tied so directly to sensory pleasures, a happiness that can, in fact, overcome sensory or emotional suffering.

The Dalai Lama gives the example of a soldier, wounded in battle, but happy with the battle won. Closer to home, we can reflect on the happiness a mother experiences while experiencing great pain in childbirth. If you are a parent, do you experience the happiness of parenthood even in the midst of the pains and sufferings of child rearing?

Music, the arts, and nature each offer deeper satisfaction than the happiness of acquiring material things, yet they still depend on the senses — hearing, sight, smell, etc. — and so are subject to external factors.

The Dalai Lama is not denying the importance of outside conditions to a satisfying life. Certain things are conducive to our experience of happiness and the lack of certain things makes it harder to achieve. Some other examples are:

  • good health
  • family and friends
  • freedom
  • a degree of prosperity

Reflect on how the absence of these conditions might hinder the pursuit of true happiness. True friends help us when we face adversity. The freedom to pursue happiness and to express personal views surely contributes to our sense of inner peace.

Yet while such factors may contribute to a sense of individual well-being, reflect on whether any of these can ever make you completely happy. Does the absence of these preclude your happiness? Does good health or prosperity guarantee happiness? Does their absence guarantee suffering?

Why are these conditions, even though we recognize them as valuable to have, not the root of true happiness?

And yet...

While such factors plays an important part in establishing a sense of individual well-being, they can not make us genuinely happy. Let's look at some of the reasons this is so.

As we saw earlier, all conditions are subject to change. We might have good health and then one day become ill. Our friends may leave us or die, our prosperity is always changeable, and we can see from world history that freedoms can always be taken away.

Likewise we can see deep satisfaction and inner peace in people who lack these favorable conditions — people sick or dying, those who are poor and suffering political oppression, The Dalai Lama offers the Tibetan exiles as an example of people who have suffered enormously:

For all their hardship, few entirely lost confidence. Fewer still gave in to their feelings of sorrow and despair. The majority remained quite optimistic and, yes, happy. It is these people's inner peace that demonstrates for us the paradox that while we can all think of people who remain dissatisfied, despite having every material advantage, there are others who remain happy, notwithstanding the most difficult circumstances.

Return again to this question: Is your happiness tied to your "circumstances"? We've pointed out that it is not. The question here is: do you feel that circumstances dictate your happiness?

Finally, all of the sources of happiness we have discussed are subject to what the Dalai Lama calls internal suffering. They derive from our impulsive approach to happiness. We take such an approach so much for granted that we do not even see how we are depriving ourselves of a deeper fulfillment. The Dalai Lama points out how ironic this is:

We do not allow our children to do whatever they want. We realize that if given their freedom, they would probably spend their time playing rather than studying. So instead we make them sacrifice the immediate pleasure of play and compel them to study. Our strategy is more long term. And while this may be less fun for them, it confers a solid foundation for their future. But as adults, we often neglect this principle. Thus there is no hope of attaining lasting happiness if we lack inner peace.