What is happiness and what are its causes?

Feb 9, 2023


This is the fundamental point of Buddha’s entire path to liberation. It’s literally what it’s about, except that he frames it in terms of suffering: what is suffering and how to be free of it. For Buddha, that’s another way of saying how to get happiness, because happiness is the end result.


For us, it sounds like an odd approach, even boring. But when we understand it, it’s very exciting!


So, first, what are suffering and happiness? For Buddha, fundamentally they’re states of mind. Pleasure, joy, happy feelings: they’re all synonymous: they refer to happiness. Pain, unhappy feelings: they’re synonymous with suffering. And we can see that there are levels of these.


We sort of know that, but because we’re so addicted to believing that happiness is the result of getting what attachment wants – objects, people, events, sounds, and the rest – we conflate the happiness with the objects, people, events, etc. When I ask you about your happiness, you won’t describe your feelings; you’ll describe your new boyfriend, the meal, the party.


And suffering, of course, is the opposite, but the same analysis.


So if happiness is in the mind – both mental and sensory – what are the causes? 


The long-term approach is basically the view of the law of karma: that every millisecond of anything virtuous that we do or say or think – such as being kind, generous, patient, refraining from harming others – leaves imprints in the mind, seeds in the mind that will necessarily ripen in the future as happiness. 


There are four ways they could ripen. 1. As a good rebirth. 2. As a tendency to be kind, generous, patient, etc.; 3. As an experience at the hands of others of generosity, patience, etc.; and, finally, 4. A good environment result. 


The same analysis for suffering: every millisecond of anything nonvirtuous that we do or say or think will ripen as future suffering.

How boring, we think: I don’t want to wait till next life, I want happiness now. Well, that’s possible too. By training our body and speech to stop harming others and training our mind to be less neurotic, deluded, even though it’s hard work, it brings satisfaction even now. 


It’s like going to the gym: every minute of training will eventually produce the long-term result of your lovely body, but even now, with all that puffing and panting, we feel good about our efforts.


And not only that. Right now by training our minds to be pro-actively positive, by wanting others to be happy, which is love, and wanting others not to suffer, which is compassion, we ourselves get huge benefit from this. We are more happy, we suffer less. 


That sounds selfish to us, but it’s so sensible, so practical. I remember when I first heard all the teachings about the levels of compassion and love that we’re capable of accomplishing, it was overwhelming. “Not possible!” I thought. 


And then His Holiness the Dalai Lama said, “If you want to benefit others, practice compassion. If you want to benefit yourself, practice compassion.”


So, we keep moving, one step at a time, creating the causes for our own happiness and freedom from suffering.

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