Stop Seeking Happiness
To seek happiness is a sign of health and sanity. The Founding Fathers of the United States acknowledged this indirectly when, on July 4, 1776, they declared the “Pursuit of Happiness” to be one of the “unalienable Rights.” Happiness has been called the American Dream. But it is the dream of all peoples and races, so long as their vital powers are not sapped. Only those who are enervated will choose unhappiness, pain, or suffering over joy and delight. I am not merely talking about pleasure or amusement when I mention happiness or joy. I mean bliss, ecstasy, rapture, felicity—what the sages of India call ananda.
Could it be a sign of our times that so much attention, energy, time, and money are invested in the contemplation of disaster, misfortune, crime, war, conflict, trouble, and violence of one kind or another? We read about all kinds of adversity in the papers, see them on TV, hear about them on the radio, and gossip about them with our friends and coworkers. It seems that we are intent on bombarding each other with bad news. Somehow it keeps the adrenaline going—and we do tend to confuse stress with aliveness.
Then, suddenly, for one reason or another, we come to a halt and ask ourselves: Am I happy? Am I happy living like this, doing what I am doing? The fact is, we would not be asking ourselves these questions if we were not experiencing unhappiness. We may be blessed (or cursed, as the case may be) with material plenty, and yet we may be deeply disturbed. Why? Most of the time, we do not know a cure for our distress. Sometimes we imagine that if the right job turned up or the right man or woman came along, all would be well with us. Or perhaps we feel that a glass of bourbon or a nice long holiday might fix it all. But we are only fooling ourselves. The glass will become empty, and our vacation will come to an end, as indeed will everything else. Sooner or later, the same feeling of unfulfillment or unhappiness will surface again.
There are many people who would claim that they are generally happy. But are they really happy? Blissfully happy? Ecstatically happy? Happy even when things around them seem to come apart at the seams? Or does their happiness depend on external circumstances or internal conditions? Can they remain blissful when their son has just totaled their car? Or when they learn from their accountant that they owe back taxes?
It is natural enough for feelings of anger or frustration to come up under such circumstances. The question is whether we can feel beyond these negative emotions and continue to be a loving presence. If we can honestly say yes, then we are in a state that has traditionally been celebrated as a highly positive spiritual accomplishment; maybe not yet enlightenment or Self-realization, but reasonably close to it.
But let us assume that we are not so fortunate. What can we do to become happy? The short answer is: nothing! In fact, the more actively we seek out happiness, the less likely we are to find it. This is because all forms of seeking pertain to the finite, egoic consciousness (our everyday identity), whereas true, permanent happiness is the unconditional Reality itself, which transcends the ego. So all we can hope for in our search for happiness are pleasurable experiences, and we already know that they do not last.
But when I say we can do nothing to become happy, this is only half the truth. It would be unfortunate if happiness were to elude us forever. Happily, it does not. It is accessible to us: We must simply be happy in every moment. I learned this secret from one of my teachers, and I do not think I would ever have discovered it on my own. It sounds so simple—even paradoxical. Yet it is really profound wisdom. We cannot become happy; we can only be happy.
In those precious moments, we are in touch with something more real than our ordinary self or the world that our ordinary self experiences.
Most people have experienced moments of joy or delight at one time or another in their lives. That means we know what happiness feels like—it is what we experience when our whole body radiates with joyous energy and we feel like embracing everyone and everything. In those precious moments, we are in touch with something more real than our ordinary self or the world that our ordinary self experiences. Our ego is temporarily suspended, and our consciousness and energy are stepped up. We simply feel overwhelming happiness and bliss, which has the quality of love. We can always remember, with our whole body, those occasions of extraordinary joy.
Whenever we are fully present as the whole body, whenever we center ourselves, we get in touch with the larger Reality in which we are immersed. And that larger Reality is neither depressed nor problematical. Then our energy starts to flow more freely, and we feel a deep sense of security. We intuit that our true identity is untouched by any conflict or pain.
To remember to be present as the body is a skill that can be learned. To be presently happy rather than to seek to become happy is an open option for all of us—in every single moment. We can either lose ourselves in fear, anger, sorrow, lust, jealousy, pride, self-complacency, and all the other egoic states, or we can feel through to the great pool of bliss that lies beyond them.
Happiness is our birthright. But we must claim it.
This article originally appeared in the February/March 2003 issue of Yoga International.
Georg Feuerstein, Ph.D. (1947-2012), authored over forty-five books, including The Deeper Dimension of Yoga and The Yoga Tradition, and created distance-learning courses on Yoga philosophy and history through Traditional Yoga Studies.