“Happiness is a fatality,” wrote the poet Rimbaud. I remember being somewhat puzzled when I first read that line, then feeling a sense of ease and liberation wash over me. Turning the idea of happiness on its head had suddenly made me happy.
I would guess that happiness has ruined many a life since it was invented, which may not have been so long ago. It is doubtful that our prehistoric ancestors had any idea of happiness, distinct from what it felt like to satisfy basic needs. If the lion was not at the door and there was enough food around for a few days, your ordinary Mr. or Ms. Homo habilis was probably quite happy, even by our standards. He or she just didn’t know it. Being happy wasn’t an issue. It wasn’t on anybody’s to-do list.
Now, we all want happiness. The American Declaration of Independence even proclaims that all humans have the right to pursue it, which implies, of course, that happiness is out there somewhere, and, for some reason, running away from us. But Chuang Tzu says, “My opinion is that you will never find happiness until you stop looking for it.”
Even though I know better now, I still find myself thinking I can catch happiness and take it home with me. I keep recognizing, hidden beneath my plans and fantasies, the assumption that if I can just get ahold of whatever I feel is lacking in my life at the moment—an empty mind, enough money, a great house—then I will “become” happy. And live happily ever after. I might as well wish for a magic carpet, special potion or power ring.
Maybe we aren’t supposed to be happy. Scientists have done experiments on the standard mammalian (that’s us) brain and found that it is not built for happiness. It functions so that, as neurologist Melvin Konner explains, “the organism’s chronic internal state will be a vague mixture of anxiety and desire—best described by the phrase ‘I want,’ spoken with or without an object for the verb.” Surely you are familiar with that brain, having seen it up close and personal in meditation.
It could be that nature simply does not select for happiness in mammals because it isn’t useful for survival. When you are feeling happy, you aren’t on the lookout for trouble, and therefore your life is in jeopardy. So if you feel anxious, you could consider yourself one of the well adapted—and likely to live a long, unhappy life. If you are feeling happy, maybe you should get some worry going as soon as possible.
My definition of happiness has changed over the years. When I was younger, I considered myself happy when I was engaged in an activity that stimulated my nervous system and made my heart beat faster. We used to call that feeling a “rush.” I was happy, therefore, at rock concerts where the high audio decibel levels automatically caused my blood vessels to constrict. Recently I had a rock concert experience, and the feeling was mainly one of irritation and discomfort. I have grown to enjoy the slows a little more than the rushes.
I have also often confused pleasure with happiness, especially when I was younger. Pleasant sensations can accompany happiness, but what we call pleasure is a particular experience of the senses, which usually includes some kind of intensity. Pleasure is the feeling you get when you step into a shower or a hot bath, or when you first bite into something that tastes good. If you look deeper, you may not be particularly happy at that moment, even though you are having pleasant sensations.
The act of sex is one of the most pleasurable experiences we can have, no doubt designed that way by evolution to keep us reproducing (a euphemism). When we have sex, many parts of our being—the nerve endings in our skin, the pleasure centers in the brain, the psyche, maybe even our genes themselves—all stand up and shout, yes, go baby go, this is what you’re alive to do! Go forth and multiply! But as many of you may know, even people who are sad can enjoy sex.
How do you know when you are happy? What exactly does it feel like? That question is similar to one asked by the cartoon character Zippy the Pinhead: “Are we having fun yet?” What does happiness feel like as a physical sensation? What is in your mind when you are happy? The better question may be, what is not in your mind?
These questions arose for me when I first began to meditate, which also started to alter my definition of happiness. Strange as it now seems to me, I was twenty-six years old before I first experienced the inner contentment I would now call happiness. Before meditation, I had never experienced such moments and therefore had no way to measure them against pleasure or other degrees of happiness. Oh sure, there had been some post-coital, post-meal or post-work moments, when I felt a kind of self-satisfaction, but that kind of happiness usually did not last very long. In meditation, for the first time I felt the happiness of nonself-satisfaction, the ease of not being dragged around by an ego or instincts.
The Buddha says, “True happiness can only be found by eliminating the false idea of ‘I’ or ‘self.’” The deepest ease and contentment comes when we have stepped out of our personal drama, perhaps because it involves letting go of the survival brain, which is perpetually twitching with “I want” and “I don’t want.” Only when we are free of that primal push and pull can we feel the true happiness that the Buddha describes. Of course, if you no longer identify with yourself when you’re happy, then there is no one home to enjoy the condition. Damn, it’s always something!
I am not happy. Happiness arises in me from time to time, often regardless of my attempts to cultivate it. If I were truly in charge of my emotional life, I would be happy all the time. But it turns out that I don’t have much say in the matter of my moods, only in my reaction to them. But the Dalai Lama says that the purpose of life is to be happy, so the pressure is on. I don’t want to blow the whole reason for living.
To tell the truth, maybe I don’t really know whether or not I am happy unless I ask myself the question. In other words, it’s not an issue unless I check in to see what condition my condition is in. When I do check in, sometimes I find happiness, but more often I just say, “I’m fine. And how are you?”
There is another feeling that I would distinguish from happiness, or add to it, and that is the experience of awe and wonder. I find that invoking awe is a powerful antidote to suffering. It is the same feeling that comes from seeing towering mountains or great natural beauty, from walking into a cathedral or mosque, or from watching a film about the enormity of the cosmos. The experience is one of no-self, but with a little rush to it, and it usually requires some reflection before it kicks in. There is no fear or desire in the mind, but the moment’s presence includes an openness and lightness, sometimes tinged with the sense of being part of a great mysterious unfolding.
After a period of experimentation, I now regularly practice awe and wonder, doing a meditation that I call “Be Here Wow™.” It involves feeling the energies in my body and recalling that it is composed of 100 trillion cells all working together, or that the sun’s energy is continually being transformed into my life’s energy, or that my brain, according to recent calculations, is processing 11 million bits of information a second. All of that, and I hardly have to lift a finger!
Another way of sitting in awe is simply to come back to my breath or my basic aliveness and sense the deep mystery of this life that moves through me. What is taking place here has not been explained by scientists or mystics, or even the Buddha. We have figured out some of the physics and chemistry that distinguish life from non-life, and some of us have realized that the constituents of body, mind or personality are not “I” or “mine,” but we still don’t know whose they are, or why they came about, or why we were incarnated. Okay, ignorance is to blame, but who thought of that? In the end, life is still a mystery, and dropping any concept or belief about it, just sitting with this pulsing body and the enigmatic power of awareness, can be both a calm and thrilling experience. Now there’s another type of happiness for you to pursue. Be sure to put it on your list.
A new edition of Wes Nisker’s book Essential Crazy Wisdom was published earlier this year by Ten Speed Press.