I’m a big fan of using lowercase or capital letters to make the same word have different meanings.
I’m at it again–this time with happiness. A common myth is that we can or should feel happy all the time. But is it possible to feel Happy all the time?
Who cares about happiness?
Literally everyone wants happiness. It could be seen as the aim of every human act. Every one of us is moving towards pleasure and away from pain.
Happiness is the reason we try self-improvement. It’s the reason we cook nice meals. It’s why we love to love. It’s why we give gifts on Christmas. It’s why wake up each day to go through our routine. It’s even the connected to the reason we hate and hurt. We all seek it, wisely or blindly.
Parts of our culture communicate that we should, we deserve to, we’re supposed to, we CAN, be happy all the time.
Movies, the Facebook Newsfeed, and much of the self-help world imply that we can live in a state of bliss. And since that option is apparently out there, if we’re trying to improve ourselves and AREN’T happy all the time, it means we’re doing something wrong. This makes us even more unhappy.
“Those who value the pursuit of happiness … are more likely to be lonely – a characteristic that is closely linked to depression.” —Tal Ben-Shahar, Harvard professor, global authority on positive psychology
We can understand the statement “you can be happy all the time” on two levels.
Level 1: You can feel just happiness all the time.
Level 2: You can feel any emotion, but feel peace underneath it. This is a deeper happiness. Level 2 is the space in which the Level 1 emotions occur. It is the underlying tone for the overt emotions. It’s how we feel about how we’re feeling.
Common sense and observation shows us that “you can be happy all the time” is patently false on Level 1. It would be sort of weird and robotic if we felt only happiness.
Happiness would cease to have any meaning whatsoever if we had no other feelings with which to contrast it. And on top of that, when we really examine it, would we actually want to live a life in which we felt nothing but happiness? Isn’t the diversity of experience and emotion in which we can participate what makes life rich?
I point this out because we can labor under the false assumption that we’re supposed to be happy all the time. Do you know how much stress this ironically causes? It creates an inner war. (Definitely speaking from personal experience here.) It makes us feel wrong when we don’t feel good. And when the Level 2 emotion is shame or guilt, on top of feeling upset or sad—that’s a potent mixture for a pretty miserable day.
The human experience
There is a pretty fantastic experience of life available to each of us at every moment. That possibility is to feel any part of the entire range of human emotion and be completely OK with any of it.
It’s kind of like this quote:
“Develop a mind that is vast like the water, where experiences both pleasant and unpleasant can appear and disappear without conflict, struggle, or harm. Rest in a mind like vast water.” — the Buddha (supposedly)
Some of the worst emotional experiences occur when this possibility creates a negative experience. We feel an emotion (Level 1), and then we create a terrible, momentous meaning about that emotion (Level 2). It’s the feeling about how we’re feeling. For example, we feel sad and then feel shameful about our sadness. This might lead to bleakness or depression. Or we feel worried about something, and feel that we shouldn’t worry and try to avoid thinking about it. This might lead to anxiety.
There is also the opposite possibility. You could feel sad, and have it mean something positive.
Being sad could mean nothing. It just means we’re sad. When it’s like that–a sort of “pure” sadness–it arises, and then does what all moods and emotions do naturally: go away.
This is how children feel emotion. They’ll be really pissed at a kid for stealing a toy, skip over the part where they have a self-judgment about how pissed they feel, and five minutes later forget about it and play with that very same thief.
This is why Buddhists practice mindfulness meditation. Neurologically speaking, it has been shown to strengthen parts of the brain that tune into joy, and make us more resilient to stress or grief.
And mindfulness is all about–maybe even synonymous with–Happiness (as opposed to happiness). It’s about cultivating awareness that our thoughts and emotions are always coming and going. It’s about resting in a place where whatever emotional experience we’re having, we can stop fighting it and accept it.
In this place, anything we feel is OK because it is occurring within a space of peace. That’s Happiness.
When I said that Level 2 consists of the meaning around our emotions, it could sound like it’s our JOB to change the meaning we’ve made, or that it’s our FAULT if we have a meaning that doesn’t serve us.
Notice that this would be more of the same trap that catches us in painful emotional experiences in the first place. Coming to peace with emotions at Level 2 is about getting out of our own way and doing less. A lot of our pain comes from thinking it’s up to US to bring in good emotions. And our pain comes from trying to DO things with emotions like FIX them. So “do” the opposite–not doing. Just keep that awareness of what’s going on. And know that the way out is through. That’s mindfulness. That allows emotions arise and pass.
If emotions come from our thoughts, it’s sensible to want to change our thoughts. But that is really hard and abstract, usually doesn’t work, and also isn’t necessary.
In the happiness that we all truly want, the kind that is possible almost (I say “almost” to be realistic) all the time–Level 2 Happiness–you’re OK with whatever emotion you’re feeling on the surface.
So let’s not bother with the surface. On a day to day basis, you’ll feel what you’ll feel. The most beautiful possibility I can think of, though, is that we can be completely at peace feeling whatever we’re feeling.