participating in happiness

I’ve been scouring reams of published scholarly papers on spiritual wellbeing for my Chaplaincy final project.  There’s a comfort and – dare I say it? – familiar happiness in reading these articles, contemplating the implications of the various findings on the relationship between spiritual and mental health, and percolating the possibilities for future investigations.  Of course, what makes me happiest are the elegant statistical models and the anticipatory delight of long afternoons playing with data sets from our studies of spiritual and mental wellbeing.  Now the idea of statistical analyses may not tickle your fancy but if you ever want to make me happy, give me a data set.

Thich Nhat Hanh’s third factor of practice is to find happiness in our life.  It seems a simple enough task: find what makes you happy and just do it.  But, data sets notwithstanding, we each have a different view of what happiness is about.  In sangha, someone asked what it meant to find happiness in the moment, especially when the moment is filled with sorrow, loss, and uncertainty.  An equally important question is a cautionary one: how do I know that the search for happiness in this moment is not a denial of the reality of my life?  In psychology, it’s called “flight into health.”  In spiritual practice, it’s called a “spiritual bypass.”

Although we tend to believe that happiness is about feeling wonderfully pleasant sensations most of the time, happiness is actually not related to the intensity of pleasant feelings.  People who rate themselves as happy report more time feeling pleasant emotions even if they also feel unpleasant emotions.  So, the quest for peak moments of pleasant emotions is futile to experiencing happiness.  In fact, that quest is the very thing that creates dukkha.

Brickman and Campbell in 1971 defined this drivenness for pleasure as the “hedonic treadmill.” They pointed out two really important ways our craving dams up the potential for true happiness.  When we achieve or acquire something that makes us happy, we habituate to the feelings and set higher expectations.  This “new-toy-gone-old” combined with “more is better” is a potent mix that drives the addiction.   Now, here’s the scary part: we also adapt to the dissatisfaction we feel so we no longer are bothered by it to the same degree!  Put the two together and we find ourselves stuck in “hedonic neutral.”

Happily, there’s a way out!  Temperament and the ability to adapt our expectations to the event make a difference in how we experience events.  Staying open to the ever-changing features of our experience and the nature of the objective event also helps shift the flavour of our experience; this is mindfulness of the objects of mind. 

Certainly it’s a strong argument for continuously attending to what is present, to see that process as a constant invitation to take a new stance.  And what is present for me right now are twenty-five articles published in five erudite journals with delicious pedigrees, one cup of chai, sixty minutes of unfettered time, and two awesome analyses to bend my delusional mind around.

Find something you love.

And do it.

Even if only for a second.

Thank you for practising,


7 thoughts on “participating in happiness

  1. It’s interesting that the Buddha figured all this out, without data, 2500+ years ago. Please understand that I like what you are saying, and I like that you are finding many ways to disseminate the value of happiness in spite of existing pain and suffering.
    Thanks for your blog, which I read regularly.

    • Hi Mark! So nice you commented. Yes, the Buddha taught that there is a path out of suffering and his data was his own observations. A single case study, if you will. The problem is Western history threw out the validity of observational data especially if it was in the form of self-report. Practice reclaims that aspect of inquiry.

      The other thing is, like Newton’s Law of Gravity, the Law of the Dharma manifests whether we examine it or not. I think that’s the tricky part of practice. We’re better off being aware of how it rolls out of the parking lot and that’s where it’s important to look at that various ways we have come to live our suffering in 21st c. terms.

      Thanks for the inspiration. Looks like I have more material for blogging!


  2. ZM Seung Sahn sometimes said, “You like, I like.” Seems like a nice formulation of happiness . . . provided that one’s mind/heart/life walks the bodhisattva path. (Metaphor alert!)

  3. So much has been written about happiness in the popular non fiction field in the last 5 yrs or so, it boggles the mind. It is obviously a topic of big interest here in the west. Is it that we want to always be experiencing the best (denying change) or do we truly not know how to be happy?

    My one thought (which is a basic Buddhist premise) is about tying our happiness to outside experience. What is the defn of happiness, of equanimity, of pleasure? While certain things may make us feel good, lasting happiness it is taught, comes from inside, the state of the equanimous heart/mind. Simple but not easy! Metta is a lovely way of generating happiness.

    • Thanks, ZDS. The cynic in me says we don’t want happiness. We want to have our feelings of entitlement fulfilled.

      You and Mark are really encouraging me to dig deeper on this question. Even on the inside, does happiness last? Or is it happiness when we can feel the ebb and flow of happiness and still continue to live, love,and laugh?

      Fantastic questions!

  4. Thank you for this lively, rich blog! I think Buddhism helps us redefine happiness from a feeling that everything is going “our” way, to a feeling of peace of mind regardless of conditions. At least that is what I am practicing as my search for “happiness” If you are ever inclined to visit, I am writing about using Buddhism as my “retirement” plan at

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.