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,