We all want to be happy. So much so that it is now even a political issue, one of international importance! Governments have been trying to measure their people's happiness with an index - in which Denmark came top, leaving the UK trailing in its wake in 22nd place.
But what is this happiness? Is yours the same as mine? If not, then happiness is subjective - depending on what it is that pleases us. And for how long? You can view happiness as a shot of happy drugs. Hormones are released, giving us a sense of reward, thrill and satisfaction. We are hooked. Then it wears off. The same pleasure or the same amount of it won't work to the same extent next time because it will no longer be novel. We have to increase both the quantity and quality of the drug. Over time, that too may get repetitive, boring or even exhausting.
You may go on changing partners or having different partners in different towns until you realise you're not happy and decide to keep just the one. But after some years, that one too may become dated and unsatisfactory. This search for who-knows-what happiness can go on a whole life time without it being found. If we get our views on happiness wrong, we can carry on searching in vain. It's like buttoning a shirt; you get the first one wrong, all the rest will be awry.
The kind of happiness that comes from pleasure of the senses has a severe shortcoming: we can never get enough of the good things. We need to top up - like pay-as-you-go phone credit. One designer bag is not sufficient, you need another one to go with another dress. A small house is no good, you need a bigger one. The big house is no good, you need one in smarter area. Better still a mansion. Or why not one on each continent?
And what of the body? What nature gives us is not enough, we crave to augment here, reduce there. We attempt to mould the body for greater appeal, utility or satisfaction. The more we mould, the greater the desire to mould some more. This fruitless search for the way we look does not make us happy.
When asked if we are happy, all of a sudden we feel less happy than we were a minute ago. This is because we start thinking and searching for supporting evidence: am I happy? Most of the time we don't feel happy. We wait for success, fame and fortune to arrive or for things to get sorted before we can be happy. This is wait-a-minute sort of happiness - waiting for a future happiness that we can never attain because there are always other things to achieve or sort out before we can be happy. Once we get them, we wait for the next one. We move the goalposts.
We can spend all our life procrastinating to be happy! We forget to be happy right here and right now. But we may answer 'yes' to the question anyway because we don't want people to know how we really feel.
In trying to embrace happiness, we try to avoid unhappiness. Yet happiness and unhappiness are actually two sides of the same coin. When unhappiness subsides, happiness can be experienced; when happiness subsides, unhappiness emerges. To attain happiness, one needs to work through misery and unhappiness.
In the practice of mindfulness, one needs to contemplate suffering so that the mind can let go. The fact that we suffer more from perceived stress than real stress shows that unhappiness is less about what's going on out there than what's going on within our mind. The key to happiness is a mind that is free from stress and anxiety. If the mind is still moved by pleasure and pain, our emotions will carry on swinging from one end to another. We can find no peace. This freedom from stress and anxiety is a subtle kind of happiness, for it comes from the stillness of a mind that stays at peace. Peace of mind is priceless. There is no need to search for pleasure. When the mind is stable, you can remain at peace and be contented anywhere, anytime, even when you are ill, in pain or in trying circumstances.
As a poet, Robert Green, wrote wisely in the sixteenth century:
"A mind content both crown and kingdom is."