I’ve been pondering this question a lot over the past few weeks. We all wish each other a happy new year, we all wish happiness for our friends, our family and ourselves. So, what do we mean by that?
Do we want ourselves, and others, to be jumping for joy? Is that really what we want, all the time? Is joy a sustainable emotion? Or is it followed soon enough, for most of us, by the inevitable not-so-wonderful experiences of our lives? If moments of pure joy are really to be fully appreciated, they need to be just that – moments. High points of happiness, in which we are bubbling over with pleasure, excitement, exuberance. Which are all the better for the humdrum nature of much of our lives. And which are unsustainable in the long-term.
So, what is happiness? Is it merely the absence of sadness? Can we define it only by what is missing?
For me, happiness is a calmer emotion than joy. There’s a bit less excitement, a bit less disruption to my equilibrium! It can be quiet and still, calm and peaceful, brought on by the simplest things – spending time with loved ones, cooking, reading, walking by the sea or in the countryside. By laughter. By yoga and meditation. By being alone, and by being with others. It’s less fleeting than pleasure, which is ‘only the shadow of happiness’, according to a Hindu proverb.
Happiness, it is true, can be lost. But happiness can also be found. It can be cultivated quite deliberately. Happiness takes practice, but can become a habit. It’s a skill that can be learnt, and relearnt. Even when you think it’s gone forever, it can creep up on you and surprise you.
As Matthieu Ricard says in his book Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill:
‘..achieving durable happiness as a way of being is a skill. It requires sustained effort in training the mind and developing a set of human qualities, such as inner peace, mindfulness and altruistic love’
So whilst some of us have a more naturally sunny disposition than others, happiness can be created, fostered, tended to. It can grow. In his book, ‘Buddha’s Brain’, Rick Hanson talks about ‘taking in the good’, really noticing and savouring the good times we experience. If things aren’t great right now, we can recall a time we felt truly happy and bask in the memory. And don’t let the good moments pass by without noticing. Notice what being happy feels like, right in the moment. Pause for a moment, and truly experience the sensations of happiness. Truly, madly, deeply feel that moment. And at the end of the day, recall those sensations, those feelings of wellbeing before going to sleep. Write about them if you keep a journal, express gratitude for all the good in your life. Deliberately, patiently and tenderly foster good feelings. So that when things aren’t so great, your basic sense of wellbeing, your basic ground of happiness, isn’t rocked so violently as it might otherwise have been. So that you have resilience when things – inevitably – don’t go all your own way.
There will be days when nothing goes right. There may be weeks, months or even years that are more difficult than others. That’s life. As Jon Kabat-Zinn says in Full Catastrophe Living, Revised Edition: How to cope with stress, pain and illness using mindfulness meditation, life is the:
‘…full catastrophe….the poignant enormity of our life experience. It includes crisis and disaster, the unthinkable and the unacceptable, but is also includes all the little things that go wrong and that add up….life is always in flux’.
And we won’t always feel happy. Not by any stretch of the imagination. Unless we have reached enlightenment! But with mental health such a huge concern, we can work to improve our underlying happiness. We can build our happiness muscle as if we’re working out at the gym, being grateful for all the good in our lives. We can make time for things we enjoy, we can look after ourselves emotionally as well as physically. We can make sure we get enough rest, sufficient exercise and good nutrition. We can practise being happy.