Holding Happiness Lightly

happiness

Savouring happy moments is important. In the same way repeated exercise makes our muscles stronger, paying attention to what makes us feel good helps our brains become better at noticing positive things. You can read more about this in our blog post Being Open To The Good Things In Life. However, that savouring of happiness can all too easily turn into clinging, and clinging to any experience, even a lovely one, will inevitably cause suffering as all experiences are transitory.

Wanting More

Sometimes happiness can sneak up on us and take us completely by surprise: an unexpected present or compliment, the chance discovery of a great book or café, falling in love, being outside during a beautiful sunset, etc. In those moments, we feel a kind of deep and pure happiness; we weren’t necessarily looking for those things, and so our minds are free of expectations. We just enjoy the joy. But then, after the moment has passed, we may start to feel that our happiness is dependent on those things happening again, or in different, better ways. The compliment made us feel good, and so we want more of them. The sunset was awe-inspiring, but perhaps if we were to watch the sunset on a beautiful island rather than in the middle of the city it would be even better. Rather than simply savouring the pleasant feelings and then moving on, we start forming criteria for our future happiness based on what has made us happy in the past.

Conditional Happiness

From a young age, we start collecting these ideas and beliefs about what must happen in our lives in order for us to feel happy. For example, when we are small we feel happy and safe when our parents approve of us, and so we carry that idea with us, perhaps for our whole lives: “If I can just win my parents approval, then I’ll be happy.” Or maybe we picked up the belief somewhere along the way that we can’t be truly happy unless we’re in a relationship, but then when we’re in one it may seem that being in a relationship isn’t quite as joyful as being married, and then we think we’ll perhaps find an even greater sense of happiness if we have children, and so on.

The problem with conditional happiness is twofold. We suffer in the lead up to achieving it, because we are filled with a desire for something we don’t yet have, and so therefore feel a terrible sense of lack. Then once we do have it, rather than finding that place of eternal happiness that we had been hoping for, the emotion naturally passes and we have to set our sights on the next goal that will make us happy. If we’re not mindful, we could get stuck on this treadmill for the rest of our lives.

Cultivating a Sense of ‘Enough’

Some of the happiest people are not those who have everything they ever wanted, but are those who find contentment in what they have. It’s an unconditional happiness; a steady peace of mind that doesn’t fluctuate so wildly depending on whether life goes our way or not. We can cultivate this sense of ‘enough’ by becoming more accepting of the way things presently are, and by becoming more appreciative of the little things in life.

Mindfulness helps us see that reality is not our idea of how things ought to be, but that it is simply what is. When we believe that ‘what is’ is incorrect somehow, this can cause us tremendous amounts of suffering. For example, if we don’t get a job we really wanted, or if the person we are in love with doesn’t love us back, we can get totally lost, not just in sadness and despair (which are understandable reactions to painful events), but also a sense of things not being the way they should be. We are at odds with reality, and that really hurts. Yet by learning to accept that things don’t always go our own way, and by learning to compassionately accept painful feelings, we can become more steady and more in the driving seat of our own peace of mind.

Appreciating the little things in life is also important, and nice to do! While we may believe that to be happy we must have wealth, our dream job, our dream partner, etc, we can actually find happiness in the very act of being appreciative. Try noticing something right now that you can appreciate, no matter how small. Maybe it’s your cup of coffee, the fact that you have the ability to hear traffic on the street, or simply that you are breathing. They may seem like mini-happy-moments compared to “important” ones like getting married or winning the lottery, but while we are in these little moments, while they fill us with contentment, don’t they seem almost as big?

Learning to hold happiness lightly is a work in progress for us all. We’re bound to get stuck, to find ourselves projecting our happiness onto future events, or to think that we would be happy now if only it wasn’t for X, Y or Z. But by practicing, by noticing our expectations and conditions for happiness a little more each time they arise, we can eventually loosen our grip, and make way for a more unconditional kind of joy.

In the following meditation, we will bring to mind somebody and something we are grateful for, and will be guided to not only ‘think’ gratitude but to also feel it in our body. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wxKU4scnoUA&t=281s

Our Gratitude Workshop with Dr. Cinzia Pezzolesi next month is perfect to learn how to cultivate gratitude, happiness and a sense of enough. Check it out here.

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