Philosophers have been exploring the question of what makes humans happy, and even more fundamentally, what happiness is, for thousands of years. Sidestepping much of this debate, as I discuss it here, a happy life includes times of dissatisfaction, hurt, pain and even despair. The human condition makes these experiences unavoidable. How we relate to them makes all the difference. Like others, I draw a distinction between pleasure and happiness. Pleasure is a more momentary experience. It can arise in all sorts of ways: a mouthful of chocolate cake; achieving a personal best; reflecting on a loved one’s success; a hit of cocaine; a new car; vanquishing your rival etc. Pleasure can arise in situations that are supportive of your well-being. It can also arise in situations that are ultimately destructive of your own well-being and the well-being of others.
Distinguishing happiness from pleasure – happiness has a more sustained nature. Also, your happiness supports others rather than being at the expense of others. This is a deeper understanding of happiness than how it is sometimes used. Some call it eudemonic happiness (happiness connected to a sense of meaning and interconnection) as contrasted to hedonic happiness (connected to satisfaction of personal pleasure).
Although events such as illness, loss and disappointment make a sustained experience of well-being more difficult, it is possible to develop inner peace such that these ups and downs of life have less impact. We usually want escape what we don’t like. A fascinating insight gleaned through mindfulness, is that this reactivity often causes more unhappiness than the ups and downs themselves. Cultivating our capacity to accept the blah parts of life, without reactivity, supports our well-being and happiness.
Pleasure is a lovely part of life – that buzz that comes from satisfying a desire. Problems can arise though, when we get caught up thinking that satisfying our short-term need for pleasure is what is going to bring us happiness. Today’s momentary pleasure can often come at the expense of our long-term well-being. Chasing the satisfaction of a current desire can cause long term unhappiness. It is not a reliable path to follow. The future version of myself (eg when I’m 70 years old) is likely to be significantly happier if I can make decisions now that are not primarily based on the immediate gratification of my 53-year-old wants. Putting in effort to exercise, eat a healthy diet and to meditate are shown in study after study to benefit our long-term mental, emotional and physical well-being (happiness). And it is not just the future ‘me’ who benefits from holding the pursuit of pleasure in perspective. Our relationships, and the planet itself, are better off if we can value the interests of others as well as our own.
Remembering that satisfying every desire does not bring about long-term happiness is a basic wisdom. We can learn to observe the desire for pleasure arise and the thoughts that encourage us to satisfy it. As we acknowledge the impulse and what it generates inside us, we have a greater chance of engaging the pre-frontal cortex and making a choice that is for a greater good than our immediate gratification. This takes time and practice. I have a such a vivid memory of my young nephew promising his parents that when he got the new pair of sneakers, he would stop annoying them because he would be happy. He firmly believed what he was saying. He was wrong. Satisfaction of that desire did not extinguish his desire for the next item that he just had to have.
How does mindfulness help?
- awareness that uncomfortable experiences are part of life – they come and go. (Discomfort is not destructive of our happiness per se.)
- capacity to sit with uncomfortable emotions, listen to their message and bring wisdom to how to respond.
- greater ability to ride the waves of craving and let them pass, without being a slave to the impulse.
- strength to resist the messages that tell us that happiness comes from outside.
- greater inner peace, balance and a happiness that is more dependable than relying on outer conditions for happiness
- enhanced Inner resources that support well-being from the inside out.
Before I finish, it is worth remembering that chasing happiness anywhere is likely to cause unhappiness. Constantly measuring our inner experience against a perception of where we should be and falling short, creates anxiety. The importance of acceptance as one of the foundations of happiness is not to be under-estimated. Active recognition of things being the way they are allows us to wisely respond rather than deny reality or try and force things to be the way they are not.
May everyone benefit from your sustained happiness.
Kathryn Choules (PhD)
Dr Choules is a certified instructor of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction from the University of Massachusetts and a Senior Teacher of Meditation (Meditation Association of Australia). She has been offering mindfulness programs, workshops, training and retreats in Western Australia since 2013. With many years’ experience in government, academia and the community sector, both in Australia and overseas, she understands the challenges and benefits of finding calm amidst the storm of modern living and the modern workplace.