Redefining Happiness: A Reflection on Buddhist Living


The following reflection originally appeared in the newsletter I sent out on April 26th, 2022.

Feel free to read just the bold words and skip the rest.


Redefining Happiness

In our culture, happiness is a loaded word that often has connotations of feeling great, joyful, or blissful.  It suggests that if we’re truly happy, we should be bubbling over with enthusiasm or positivity all the time.  We should also probably be smiling, always.

As this version of happiness isn’t particularly realistic or helpful, it can be a powerful process to deeply question whatever ideas about happiness we’ve inherited.  Through doing this, we have the opportunity to reclaim happiness for ourselves.  To frame it in a way that is realistic and transformational.

What follows are some of my own reflections on how I’ve reclaimed happiness for myself. 

For starters, consider this quote by Thich Nhat Hanh:

“I am aware that happiness depends on my mental attitude and not on external conditions, and that I can live happily in the present moment simply by remembering that I already have more than enough conditions to be happy.”

For me, that attitude part is crucial. Not an attitude of “everything is always great,” but rather an attitude of, “I say yes to this moment.”  This is an attitude of contentment.  An attitude of making friends with what is.  Of a radical allowing and a capacity to see “it is what it is.” This attitude uses mindfulness to drop a level beneath our fears, resistances, dislikes, cravings, delusions, and stories, and to really be here for this moment, whatever it holds.

A practice I often use throughout the day is dropping into mindful presence, and saying to myself, “this is nice. I’m glad to be experiencing this moment.” 

However, I’m not just plastering rosy thoughts onto whatever’s happening and forcing a smile on myself.  Instead, I’m utilizing what Bhikkhu Analayo calls “the subtle joy of being present” (page 114 of the book-not-pdf for some deep dhamma).  What this means is that when we actually have a moment of mindfulness, it’s a moment where we’re free from all the noise.  Of course, the noise might still be present, but it’s more in the background of experience — what’s in the foreground is that subtle joy, that contented gladness, that true “yes” to this moment.

In this way, it’s a gladness to be alive, not in an abstract sense, but right here right now, by way of touching into something deeper than how we feel or how it’s going.

As I’ve continued to practice this over the years, it’s become so clear to me that this type of happiness is a choice — that through practice, I can actually choose the lens through which I take in this moment.  Sure, I might get tripped up in unhappiness / a bad attitude for a few moments or hours (or months!); but, once I realize it, and am willing to really look at my attitude, everything can turn around in a moment.  As my teacher, U Tejaniya, has said, “Have a problem? For an advanced meditator, change your attitude, and there’s no more problem.”

Of course, I don’t mean to dismiss life’s challenges.  Sometimes we’re pretty caught in the noise of the mind and it seems like there’s no way out.  Other times the conditions are so oppressive, like poverty, abuse, or racism.  Or maybe we’re decades deep into living a lie, perhaps we don’t really know who we are or what even matters, or maybe it’s trauma, aging, poor health, or loss we’re overwhelmed by.  And, whatever it is, for someone to say we just need to “change our attitude” may seem pretty unhelpful and perhaps even infuriating.

However, this is why the Buddha taught a gradual path.  We train our minds over the course of decades (perhaps even lifetimes), where with each passing year of sincere engagement, we learn to harness the power of our actions where we can make a difference, and likewise the power of our minds to shift our attitude at the snap of the fingers.

Basically, the happiness offered by meditation really has nothing to do with what’s happening, how we feel, or what our circumstances are.  It has everything to do with our ability to be at peace with what is.


One Stumbling Block To Look Out For:

This might not be everyone’s experience, but one zone I spent a few years in was faux-contentment.  Instead of really being at peace with what is, my experience was colored with a little indifference, apathy, and resignation.

It’s beyond the scope of this reflection to go too into that, but what I found helpful for getting to the other side was exploring heart practices, like loving-kindness and compassion, and doing some psycho-emotional work to see where my inner blocks were, especially around relationship and purpose.

Really, the key is simply noticing if you’re slipping into those “near enemies” and starting to experiment!


Is Happiness Worthwhile?

In some spiritual circles, happiness gets a bad wrap.  Like we’re not supposed to enjoy anything, and if we do, it’s a sign of attachment (which is bad, of course).

However, a big part of the Buddha’s awakening was realizing the middle way; avoiding the extremes of the sensory indulgence of the world and also of denying enjoyment & torturing oneself.  Specifically, he noted there were types of joy that were to be cultivated, like that found in meditation, letting go, loving actions, or ethical integrity.

Personally, my meditation practice really took off when I learned how to enjoy it, even when it didn’t feel good.  Likewise, in life, when I can approach my days with a sense of openness as opposed to blah or irritability, it’s just so self-evident how much more helpful it is.

Basically, happiness talked about as an attitude is a skill that can be developed, and in my experience, is absolutely worthwhile.


Other Forms of Happiness:

Thinking more broadly, there’s certainly a form of happiness to be found through living with great integrity, where we’ve aligned our actions, words, and environment with our values; where we’re living purposefully.  There’s also a form of happiness to be found through a balanced life, like our relationships, home, work, finances, and health, all being in a harmonious place.  And, of course, there’s something wonderful about accessing a zone where everything does feel great, and there’s overflowing joy, bliss, and perhaps a palpable sense of oneness.

The list of additional forms of happiness could go on and on.  However, while all of the above things are wonderful, and perhaps even worth aiming for, our entire life situation could be a mess and with the right attitude, we could still be profoundly happy.  As Thich Nhat Hanh said in that initial quote, the deepest happiness has nothing to do with our conditions, and everything to do with our attitude: a deep contentment, a resounding “yes” to what is.


How About You?

I’d invite you to take some time to consider what happiness means to you.  What definitions have you inherited from your family, culture, or other influences?

How could you redefine that word for yourself to mean something helpful & transformational?


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