What is Happiness?
What is the purpose of life? It is to become happy. Whatever country or society people live in, they all have the same deep desire: to become happy.
Yet, there are few ideals as difficult to grasp as that of happiness. In our daily life we constantly experience happiness and unhappiness, but we are still quite ignorant as to what happiness really is.
A young friend of mine once spent a long time trying to work out what happiness was, particularly happiness for women. When she first thought about happiness, she saw it as a matter of becoming financially secure or getting married. (The view in Japanese society then was that happiness for a woman was only to be found in marriage.) But looking at friends who were married, she realized that marriage didn’t necessarily guarantee happiness.
She saw couples who had been passionately in love suffering from discord soon after their wedding. She saw women who had married men with money or status but who fought constantly with their husbands.
Gradually, she realized that the secret of happiness lay in building a strong inner self that no trial or hardship could ruin. She saw that happiness for anyone—man or woman—does not come simply from having a formal education, from wealth or from marriage. It begins with having the strength to confront and conquer one’s own weaknesses. Only then does it become possible to lead a truly happy life and enjoy a successful marriage.
She finally told me, “Now I can say with confidence that happiness doesn’t exist in the past or in the future. It only exists within our state of life right now, here in the present, as we face the challenges of daily life.”
I agree entirely. You yourself know best whether you are feeling joy or struggling with suffering. These things are not known to other people. Even a man who has great wealth, social recognition and many awards may still be shadowed by indescribable suffering deep in his heart. On the other hand, an elderly woman who is not fortunate financially, leading a simple life alone, may feel the sun of joy and happiness rising in her heart each day.
Happiness is not a life without problems, but rather the strength to overcome the problems that come our way. There is no such thing as a problem-free life; difficulties are unavoidable. But how we experience and react to our problems depends on us.
Buddhism teaches that we are each responsible for our own happiness or unhappiness. Our vitality—the amount of energy or “life-force” we have—is in fact the single most important factor in determining whether or not we are happy.
True happiness is to be found within, in the state of our hearts. It does not exist on the far side of some distant mountains. It is within you, yourself. However much you try, you can never run away from yourself. And if you are weak, suffering will follow you wherever you go. You will never find happiness if you don’t challenge your weaknesses and change yourself from within.
Happiness is to be found in the dynamism and energy of your own life as you struggle to overcome one obstacle after another. This is why I believe that a person who is active and free from fear is truly happy.
The challenges we face in life can be compared to a tall mountain, rising before a mountain climber. For someone who has not trained properly, whose muscles and reflexes are weak and slow, every inch of the climb will be filled with terror and pain. The exact same climb, however, will be a thrilling journey for someone who is prepared, whose legs and arms have been strengthened by constant training. With each step forward and up, beautiful new views will come into sight.
My teacher used to talk about two kinds of happiness—“relative” and “absolute” happiness. Relative happiness is happiness that depends on things outside ourselves: friends and family, surroundings, the size of our home or family income.
This is what we feel when a desire is fulfilled, or when something we have longed for is obtained. While the happiness such things bring us is certainly real, the fact is that none of this lasts forever. Things change. People change. This kind of happiness shatters easily when external conditions alter.
Relative happiness is also based on comparison with others. We may feel this kind of happiness at having a newer or bigger home than our neighbors. But that feeling turns to misery the moment they start making new additions to theirs!
Absolute happiness, on the other hand, is something we must find within. It means establishing a state of life in which we are never defeated by trials, and where just being alive is a source of great joy. This persists no matter what we might be lacking, or what might happen around us. A deep sense of joy is something that can only exist in the innermost reaches of our life, and which cannot be destroyed by any external forces. It is eternal and inexhaustible.
This kind of satisfaction is to be found in consistent and repeated effort, so that we can say, “Today, again, I did my very best. Today, again, I have no regrets. Today, again, I won.” The accumulated result of such efforts is a life of great victory.
What we should compare is not ourselves against others. We should compare who we are today against who we were yesterday, who we are today against who we will be tomorrow. While this may seem simple and obvious, true happiness is found in a life of constant advancement. And, the same worries that could have made us miserable, can actually be a source of growth when we approach them with courage and wisdom.
One friend whose dramatic life proved this was Natalia Sats, who founded the first children’s theater in Moscow. In the 1930s, she and her husband were marked by the Soviet Union’s secret police. Even though they were guilty of no crime, her husband was arrested and executed and she was sent to a prison camp in the frozen depths of Siberia.
After she recovered from the initial shock, she started looking at her situation, not with despair, but for opportunity. She realized that many of her fellow prisoners had special skills and talents. She began organizing a “university,” encouraging the prisoners to share their knowledge. “You. You are a scientist. Teach us about science. You are an artist. Talk to us about art.”
In this way, the boredom and terror of the prison camp were transformed into the joy of learning and teaching. Eventually, Mrs. Sats even made use of her own unique talents to organize a theater group. She survived the five-year prison sentence, and dedicated the rest of her long life to creating children’s theater. When we met for the first time in Moscow in 1981, she was already in her eighties. She was as radiant and buoyant as a young girl. Her smile was the smile of someone who has triumphed over the hardships of life. Hers is the kind of spirit I had in mind when I wrote the following poem on happiness:
A person with a vast heart is happy.
Such a person lives each day with a broad and embracing spirit.
A person with a strong will is happy.
Such a person can confidently enjoy life, never defeated by suffering.
A person with a profound spirit is happy.
Such a person can savor life’s depths
while creating meaning and value that will last for eternity.
A person with a pure mind is happy.
Such a person is always surrounded by refreshing breezes of joy.