Which type of Happiness do you seek?

By Desmond YSC


There are generally two types of happiness. The first type is one which we are familiar; it depends on external factors such as the joy we get when we hear good news or while we are doing something exciting. It requires energy and effort on our part in order to create these circumstances, for example, a holiday overseas will require months of hard work and budgeting in order to save up for the trip.

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However, these so called joyful events, may also create problems for us, for example, we may lose our passports while holidaying overseas or there may be irritating flight delays and so on.

This form of happiness is imperfect because it makes us dependent on externalities for our happiness. We form ideas about the things or events that can bring us happiness and struggle after them. Even when we achieve them, we may find that they are not as great as we expected or we may just get bored. Something or someone who looks beautiful a month ago may now just appear mediocre. The new device we bought a month ago may now bring us frustration instead of excitement.

If we depend on externalities for our happiness, it would also mean that external factors will also bring us a lot of suffering. The problem is, our mind tend to give more weightage to negative events compared to positive ones. We know this from experience and this had also been confirmed by science. Barbara Fredrickson, an expert in positive psychology, found that it takes three positive experiences to overcome a negative one. What this means if that even if we have twice as many happy experiences in our life compared to negative ones, we will still feel unhappy. Now we can understand the problems faced by celebrities. They need to be praised three times to keep them from feeling bad after every negative comment.

The other form of happiness is a natural joy within us which does not require any effort. It feels light and peaceful unlike the excitement that comes with the conditional joy described earlier. The excitement makes us restless and our mood can easily change to anger whenever we encounter some obstacles that block us from the object we desire. With effortless joy, there is clarity of mind. Everything looks more beautiful and amusing. Every little thing can bring a smile to our face. When we encounter problems, we do not make a mountain out of a molehill; we solve them with clarity and wisdom.

Steven Cole, a UCLA professor in medicine found that those who depend on materialistic pleasures for happiness had weaker immune systems and had higher risks of cancer, heart disease and diabetes. He said, “real distinction is whether your happiness is tied into purpose and meaning outside yourself”.

Matthieu Ricard, the man whose brain was scanned and measured with FMRI and found to be the happiest man in the world, said that compassion is the highest state of happiness and that open awareness was the second highest state. In other words, the more we move away from our selfish ego, the happier we become. Indulging in sense pleasures strengthens our ego while compassion focuses our attention on others and draws us away from our ego.

We can attain this effortless joy by practicing mindfulness. Mindfulness can be illustrated in the following story:

It is a beautiful day and Jim is sitting on a bench in a playground watching his daughter playing with her friends. He sees two kids arguing and suddenly he is caught in a memory of an argument he had with his coworker a month ago. At that point, his body is in the playground but he is actually present in his office. Even his emotions and the tension in his body reflect the argument that he is now playing in his mind’s eye. He no longer sees his daughter and is not conscious of anything that is happening in the playground. In other words, he is no longer in the present moment.

After a few minutes, Jim notices that he was caught in an unpleasant memory and realizes that he is causing himself unnecessary pain. He starts to focus on his breath. He watches his body and lets go of all the built up tension there. As he continues to pay attention to his breath, he starts to experience and enjoy the cool morning air and the chirping of the birds. He watches his emotions; there is still some heaviness in his chest but he can feel it lightening. He watches his mind and feels it expands as he rests in the gap between his thoughts. He feels light and inner-peace swells within him effortlessly.

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