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Happiness and time

Here in New York, many people rush about almost continually, and it’s a common complaint that “I don’t have enough time!”  Of course there are others of us who have too much time on our hands, and either of these conditions is at best uncomfortable.  In either case, what can we do about it?

Let’s begin at the beginning, and let’s start with a basic assumption, which is that everyone wants to be happy, and whatever we do is done with that as an ultimate (but not exclusive) goal.  I can hear some of you quibbling already, but bear with me on this.  In fact, almost nobody (and certainly not you) gets out of bed and thinks “I hope I’m miserable today”.  If we deconstruct our actions, this point might become clearer.  For example, if we have a bad job, we keep doing it in order to provide us with the basics, because without the basics we’d be worse off, so it’s a choice to be relatively happier, if not ultimately happy.  If we have no job, we look for one for the same reason.  We can see that we make choices all day long with the goal of making us more happy – what’s for lunch, what movie to see, should I go on facebook now, should I talk to this person, whatever we do, no matter what our particular situation is.  Even if we think we’re doing something totally altruistically that may be difficult for us, or if we’re working tirelessly for a cause, we’re doing it because we believe the end will result in more happiness for others, which will make us more happy.  And the main point here is that wanting to be happy, is not in itself a problem -- it’s just the human condition.

What do we mean by happiness anyway?  We could mistake happiness for pleasure, or even relief from pain, but it’s not just about feeling better, or putting a temporary fix on a situation (which gets into why people become addicted to substances or sensations), or relying on external circumstances to change.   There’s no real word in English for the kind of happiness that buddhism talks about, but in Sanskrit the word is suhkha, which means wellbeing in all emotional states, including grief, sadness, anger, even jealousy – we could still have an unconditional sense of wellbeing underenath it all.

We might have a view that wanting to be happy is selfish, with all the suffering that goes on -- actually it isn’t.  First off, when we chant, “May all sentient beings enjoy happiness”, that includes ourselves – we’re sentient beings too.  Furthermore, and this may not be self-evident, becoming happy ourselves makes our friends happier, and that makes their friends happier. In a study published in the British Medical Journal in 2008, using data from the wide-ranging Framingham Heart Study, researchers mapped the flow of happiness through social networks and found that happiness can spread up to three layers deep through a network -- while sadness was less likely to spread.

So if you’re serious about wishing happiness to others, the most efficient (and maybe only) way to do that is to increase your own happiness.  It’s a bit like what you do with an oxygen mask on an airplane – put it on yourself first, then you can more easily help others around you.

How to become happy is in a sense the essence of the buddhist path, and the answer is that the way to liberation, to unconditional happiness, is through the path of meditation, of becoming intimate with our minds and the ways in which we’re confused about the nature of our world, and therefore understand why we tend to act in ways which cause suffering to ourselves and others instead of happiness.  With this insight we can start to act differently.

This brings us back to the issue of time.  We all have assumptions about the nature of our world which we never question, but are in fact neither useful nor true. One such assumption is about the nature of time.  We believe that there’s a past, present, future – but if we look at this belief carefully, we can see that actually the past is gone, the future is a dream, and it’s only ever now.  We can know that intellectually of course, but we don’t live as if we do.  We tend to look at our lives and think, well, I did this, and I have this much more to go, and I want to accomplish this in that time frame, and then later I’ll be – happy, relaxed, I’ll feel better.  We’re planning how to make ourselves feel better.  This isn’t to say we shouldn’t plan, and strive, and try to reach our goals – but we're expecting that we’ll be happier in the future, once the goal is reached and conditional on external circumstances.

But if we’re serious about helping all sentient beings, then as Chögyam Trungpa was fond of saying, we could just cheer up on the spot!  True happiness isn’t a function of external circumstance – it’s unconditional. There’s nothing stopping us from cheering up – right now!  The path of meditation helps to understand this point, but it's not as hard as you might think.  Try it – you’ll like it.

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excellent post!

I just love this theme. "One day once I have x, then I'll be happy." Thank you for this post. A great reminder to cheer up.

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