Searching for Happiness
It is probably fair to say that most people want to be happy. Indeed, the 1776 US Declaration of Independence refers to happiness as an ‘unalienable right’. However, given the rising prevalence of mental illness, and given the amount of general unrest, conflict, and suffering in society, it’s also fair to say that, on the whole, human beings aren’t very good at cultivating happiness. In today’s post, we draw upon insights from the classical and research literature, and from our own practice and study of wellbeing, to examine the subject of how to nurture lasting happiness.
Before we take a look at how to cultivate happiness, it may be useful to reflect upon what it actually means to be truly happy. Aristotle believed that happiness is a function of self-sufficiency and intelligent enquiry, whilst others emphasise the importance of social status, wealth, career performance, and somatic health. Although the World Health Organization doesn’t provide a specific definition of happiness, it defines mental health as “A state of wellbeing in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community”. The Dalai Lama provides a different perspective and describes happiness as a condition determined by one’s state of mind as opposed to external conditions, and even argues that too much desire for happiness can be the very cause of suffering. Thus, there are numerous different takes on what it means to be happy, with each perspective placing different degrees of emphasis on material, psychological, and spiritual factors.
From the Buddhist perspective, and as indicated by the Dalai Lama’s abovementioned description of happiness, true happiness refers to a state that is completely unconditional and that remains untainted by changing circumstances. This not only includes circumstances such as poverty and sickness, but also circumstances such as death. In other words, true happiness transcends even the passing of time. Any other type of happiness is subject to external conditions (e.g., wealth, status, health, intelligence, creative output), but since these conditions do not endure with time, then neither can a happiness that is built upon them.
An interesting quality of happiness is that it relies for its existence upon the presence of suffering. Suffering provides us with the raw material we need in order to cultivate happiness. There is a saying in the Buddhist texts that there is nothing like a bit of suffering to spur a person on to enlightenment. Therefore, the real problem it is not suffering itself, but that most people don’t know how to relate to their suffering, or how to bring it onto the spiritual path. When we understand exactly what suffering is and why it manifests, then we are already half way towards transforming it into enduring happiness.
In a recent paper we published with Prof Mark Griffiths in the Journal of Behavioural Addictions, we introduced the concept of ‘ontological addiction’. Ontological Addiction Theory is basically a means of operationalizing a spiritual model of mental illness and asserts that ontological addiction is the root cause of unhappiness. Ontological addiction is defined as “an unwillingness to relinquish an erroneous and deep-rooted belief in an inherently existing ‘self’ or ‘I’ as well as the ‘impaired functionality’ that arises from such a belief”. To put things in a slightly different way, and as we discussed in our post on ‘Suffering Exists’, due to failing to recognise that we do not intrinsically exist, we become attached to perceiving ourselves as a definite and substantial entity. We begin to see the world through the lens of ‘me’, ‘mine’, and ‘I’. By doing this, we create what is known as a ‘dualistic outlook’. This means that we start to create separations between ‘self’ and ‘other’. Then, depending upon whether we deem that other person or thing to be of value to us, we either start to desire it (known as attachment), or try to repel it (known as aversion). A dualistic outlook separates the whole into many, and places the interests of the self above all other things. Putting things very simply, ontological addiction makes people behave very selfishly, and this selfish behaviour only serves to strengthen the intensity of their ontological addiction.
The greater the severity of ontological addiction, the further a person finds themselves from seeing reality ‘as it is’. In turn, the further away a person is from accurately perceiving reality, the more ignorant they become. Generally speaking, the more a person allows ontological addiction to establish itself, the more concrete, fixed, and uncompromising things appear. Although the empirical study of ontological addiction is still at an early stage, it is probably safe to speculate that as the severity of ontological addiction increases, the more a person’s choices and behaviours are driven by primitive instinct rather than by clear intuition. A person who allows primitive instinct to govern their behaviour is likely to have little control over mental and biological urges. Accordingly, a person with severe ontological addiction disorder would be somebody who does nothing more with their life other than eat, defecate, sleep, fornicate, make money, find somewhere to live, scheme and squabble, try to outcompete others, indulge and entertain themselves, and engage in meaningless chatter. In this sense, perhaps we can say that the more a person allows ontological addiction (and therefore ignorance) to take hold, the more animalistic they become (although some animals might find it highly offensive to be placed in the same category as human beings afflicted with the more persistent and severe form of ontological addiction disorder).
As we have already indicated, ignorance is symptomatic of ontological addiction and so it can be expected that the person with ontological addiction disorder will frequently engage in irrational, foolish, wasteful, and self-injurious behaviour. Examples of the types of ignorance-induced behaviours and attitudes exhibited by people with ontological addiction disorder are as follows: (i) spending all of their time trying to amass wealth and reputation, when they know that death is a certainty, (ii) not taking time to prepare for death (i.e., by practicing spiritual development) when they know that the time of death cannot be foreseen, (iii) limiting their construal of ‘family’ to mean only those people to whom they are emotionally attached or biologically related, (iv) allowing their future wellbeing to be dictated by the tides of karma rather than understanding that enduring happiness amounts to nothing other than a simple choice, (v) insisting on looking for happiness outside of themselves, (vi) continuing to blindly adhere to certain religious systems and protocols despite the fact such behaviour never truly brings them any happiness, (vii) after spending an infinite number of lifetimes in the lower realms, returning empty handed after they have had the good fortune to be born as a human being, (viii) not devoting their life to spiritual teachings and choosing to remain alone after they have met a Law Holder, (ix) continuing to act carelessly towards their brothers, sisters, and natural environment such that they foster negativity in the world that they then have to live in, and (x) going to great lengths to please their “friends” and upset their “enemies” only to change their mind at a future point in life and decide that some of their “friends” have now become their enemies and some of their “enemies” are now their “friends”.
The best way to think of ontological addiction is as an addiction to self. According to Buddhist philosophy, it is this addiction to oneself that drives cyclic existence and that keeps a person locked within samsara (i.e., the unending round of birth, sickness, old age, and death). As soon as a person stops being addicted to themselves (i.e., as soon as they recover from ontological addiction), then they break the samsaric cycle and are no longer compelled to take rebirth (but can choose to do so if they wish to).
So the obvious question that we should ask next is how do we stop being addicted to the belief that we inherently exist? This is basically the same as asking how do we cultivate true and enduring happiness? We will address this question by outlining what we believe to be ten important steps for cultivating lasting happiness. Each step provides a link to a previous post that discusses that subject in more detail. Although these steps are intended to be sequential in order, please try to bear in mind that one shouldn’t ever stop trying to develop ones proficiency in the previous stages.
Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon
Bentall., R. (1992). A proposal to classify happiness as a psychiatric disorder. Journal of Medical Ethics, 18, 94-98.
Dalai Lama & Cuttler, H. (1998). The Art of Happiness. London: Hodder & Stoughton
Dalai Lama. (2001). Stages of Meditation: Training the Mind for Wisdom. London: Rider.
Nhat Hanh, T. (1999). The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching: Transforming Suffering into Peace, Joy and Liberation. New York: Broadway Books.
Segal, S. (Ed). 2003. Encountering Buddhism: Western Psychology and Buddhist Teachings. New York: State University of New York Press.
Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2013a). Buddhist philosophy for the treatment of problem gambling. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 2, 63-71.
Sogyal Rinpoche (1998). The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. London: Rider.
Trungpa, C. (2003). The Collected Works of Chogyam Trungpa: Volume Four. Boston: Shambala.