Everyone wants happiness. Nobody wants suffering.
Buddhists feel tremendous empathy by seeing everyone in this light. The Buddha himself sought after the cure of suffering and finally found the happiness that is free from conditions. In the same way the lovers of wisdom, the philosophers from ancient Greece, tried to seek out the highest human good and a way to embody it. The buddha called it ‘being awake’, seeing reality as it as and acting accordingly. The genius from ancient times that were in love with Sophia called it eudaimonia: the happiness that stems from human flourishing.
What is eudaimonia?
Eudaimonia is often translated as happiness or genuine happiness. A somewhat better translation would be human flourishing, the way to reach the perfect life in so far as perfection is attainable by humanity. Something not to be found in outer means but, according to Plotinus, something found within the human spirit, itself.
Socrates thought all human beings wanted eudaimonia more than anything else and that virtue was both the seed and the fruit. Virtues such as self-control, courage, justice, piety and wisdom guaranteed a good and happy life. He contrasted eudaimonia with the life that seeks after honour (modern fame) and pleasure (modern hedonism) because that does nothing for the state of ones soul and thus can never lead to the ‘incomparably more important’ eudaimonia.
Epicurus went even further down this road and said hedonism was the most ethical way of life since pleasure was intrinsically good and pain intrinsically bad. This is different from the way we currently think about hedonism because he thought virtue would bring the most pleasure and so, naturally, everyone would try to be the most virtuous, while nowadays virtue is often viewed as weak or archaic.
These views are also present in Buddhism where wisdom and compassion are the two highest virtues, both of which are achieved by walking the eightfold path. Right view and right intention will lead to wisdom, or, in other words, seeing reality as it is and act accordingly. Right speech, right action and right livelihood leads to compassion where self and other overlap. And these dispositions will greatly be enhanced by mental development of right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration.
So, if you aren’t happy now, try asking yourself the following question: Are you sure it comes from a desire not yet fulfilled or is it because you have a fragmented unsatisfiable? If it stems from the latter, it won’t matter what you gain in life.
How do we normally think about happiness?
This is a large and vague topic and so I will make it brief. Normally we think about happiness as states of mind, contentment, joy, pleasure, love, that are caused by external factors. We also think money, education and the weather have great influence on our happiness while in actuality, they don’t. The main problem with these hedonistic utilitarian perspectives is that at the moment you take away the stimulus the happiness will disappear with it.
Daniel Kahneman found out that most researchers fucked up happiness research because people respond to the ‘Are you happy?’ question in two different ways. The question could either mean ‘Are you happy right now in this moment?’ or ‘Are you happy about your life?’ In other words, which self answers the question? Is it the experiencing self (ES) that checks whether he feels happy right now, or is it the remembering self (RS) that looks at a picture constructed by peak and valley experiences from the past and assesses if it matches your personal idea of happiness.
Those interpreting the question as being about their life as a whole choose between memories of experiences, not experiences themselves. They end up thinking about the future, not as experiences they are going to have but as anticipated memories.
What Buddhism can teach us about happiness.
One of the assumptions we have is that we are healthy if we don’t suffer from any mental diseases. Buddhism takes a radically different approach and says we are all sick. Normal well-being just sucks. We are still prone to frustration, anger, irritation, disappointment, depression, insomnia, crankiness, grumpiness, and self-centeredness. Since we lost the idea of eudaimonia during the enlightenment, we lost the idea of exceptional states of well-being with it. Buddhism has not forgotten and argues that we humans are endowed with reason; we can use this reason to condition ourselves to eliminate all conflicting and harming state of minds and cultivate positive ones. For animals without reason, normal will stay normal. For us humans, normal can lead to exceptional.
Now, what the Buddha found out is that our remembering self (RS) alters the experiencing self (ES), that which we are experiencing in each moment, as far as you allow it to. The more you identify, grab hold, contract or let certain concepts persist in your experience, the more they filter the direct experience you are having right now.
In other words, RS filling more ES space. And most of the time the dominance of the RS is for the worse. Because the RS is never satisfied until it gets another peak experience, and even then it is only satisfied for a moment until you are accustomed to it. The ES might enjoy an iPod for years but the remembering self already starts fantasizing about the new release, thus influencing the experiencing by making it actually unhappy, of course until the new release is purchased, starting the whole samsaric cycle all over again.
To get off the hedonistic treadmill and find a way to walk that really gets you somewhere you can try to cultivate one or more traits from this list:
Realize: This is the most important thing in this list. Live as much in the now as possible, come back to the ES as much as you can. Don’t let the RS control you because then you need to create another RS to control that one. And another and another. If you just don’t give it attention, it will shut up and you will realize that all memories are based on experience anyways.
Physical strength: There is no such thing as a healthy person in a sick body. Yoga is great for this. So is running barefoot.
Charity: Find a cause in which you believe and offer any help you can give.
Justice: Be just, you don’t want your soul be at war with itself, now do you?
Honest: The more conscious you get the more you will notice that lying actually hurts yourself in the long run, not protecting it like we usually think. This is why walking this path is sometimes called the razor’s edge, one small lie and you cut yourself.
Moderation: Too much of anything can be harmful. Everything in moderation.
Simplicity: Trees don’t make things complicated, nor do oceans, dogs or butterflies. It’s one of the many lessons nature gives us for free.
Self-discipline: To learn something, you have practice and keep with it. Self-discipline is key.
Self-acceptance: If you can’t even accept yourself, how can you accept others and eventually, reality as a whole?
Autonomy: As long as you rely on others you are missing a crucial part yourself.
Personal growth: Grow your passion!
Environmental mastery: Clean up your place, make it conducive to well-being and attaining your goals.
Positive relation with others: This is where a huge part of well-being lies!
Compassion: The world needs more compassionate (and happy!) people. Check out this amazing TED talk for inspiration!
Purpose: Find some purpose in life, this will make you more grounded and less prone to depression.
Fortitude: This will keep you on the path.
Courage: There are many things of which one can be afraid. Don’t be afraid of fear, be courageous!
Patience: Not everything will come in the speed you want it. Have patience.
Meditation: The foundation for all your actions if you devote some time to it. It will change all aspects of your life for the better.
Educate yourself: Start here!