The pursuit of happiness is often seen as the driving force behind most of our actions throughout history. It is commonly thought that human capacities have increased over time, which has allowed us to alleviate misery and fulfill our aspirations. It therefore follows that we must be happier today than our medieval ancestors, and they must have been happier that Stone Age hunter-gatherers.
The American Declaration of Independence asserts that we all are created equal and that we are endowed by our Creator with the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Our country is aligned and organized around the principle that if we act according to the sacred principals of the constitution, we will be able to live safely and prosper, thus leading to greater happiness for all.
Bu what is happiness? Philosophers, priests, and poets have brooded over the nature of happiness for millennia. Many have concluded that social. ethical and spiritual factors play as large (if not larger) a role in determining our happiness as material conditions and wealth.
In recent times, psychologist and biologist have taking up the challenge of trying to scientifically determine what makes people happy. They have looked at everything from money, family, genetics, meaningful employment and virtue, and tried to correlate these factors with a subjective sense of well-being.
Happiness from a scientific viewpoint is defined as something one feels inside, a sense of either immediate pleasure or long-term contentment with the way they “feel” life is going. While external factors can affect how we feel, it is really our internal sense of pleasure and pain that defines how happy we are. By giving people questionnaires and tallying the results psychologist and biologist hope to characterize the relative amount of happiness that can me attributed to various objective factors.
Buddhism takes a different approach to happiness. For 2,600 Buddhist practitioners have studied the causes of happiness, which is why there is growing interest among the scientific community in both their philosophy and meditation practices. While Buddhism shares the basic insight of the biological approach to happiness, namely that happiness results from processes occurring in our bodies and not from events in the outside world, it reaches very different conclusions about what engenders true happiness.
The general message is, ff you want to be happy, do not dwell in the past, do not worry about the future, focus on living fully in the present. Doing so obviously takes a lot of practice, but as Jack Kornfield writes, “When we understand that freedom of the heart is a possibility for us, we can awaken to our own happiness wherever we are.”
Or as Thich Nhat Hanh says, “There is no way to happiness – happiness is the way.”