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Do You Want To Be Happy?

February 18, 2012

Do you want to be happy?

That question may seem like a no-brainer — of course you want to be happy, don’t you? But please take a moment to consider it. Upon reflection, you may realize that you believe that it’s better to give up your own happiness in order to make other people happy. Or you may believe that somehow you don’t deserve happiness.  Perhaps you believe that happiness is not possible. Perhaps you really don’t know what happiness is, so it’s hard to know whether you’d like to be happy or not.

Many books written about meditation begin with the assumption that all beings want to be happy. But we’re not talking about theoretical beings here, we’re talking about you — unique, idiosyncratic you, as you happen to be right now. And when you think about whether you want to be happy, you may realize that, in fact, you have conflicting beliefs and feelings.  Maybe you think “I’d like to be happy, but…” (you can fill in your own but here) It’s very natural to have conflicting feelings and beliefs. Everyone has some degree of confusion.  (We identify people without confusion as either enlightened or insane.) It’s very good to be aware of these conflicting beliefs and feelings.  Once you’re aware of the nature of your own confusion, you can find ways to work with that confusion.  If you are not aware of the nature of your own confusion, you will be victim of that confusion.

Give yourself some time to ponder whether you’d like to be happy or not.  Don’t try to come to an answer so much as to understand the territory that “happiness” inhabits for you. Get to know your own deeply held thoughts, beliefs, desires, and confusion. Then address the question provisionally – there’s no need to make a permanent answer here. We’ll even make the question a little less demanding: given the choice, right now, (you can change your mind later) would you rather be a little happier or a little less happy? If you’d prefer to be a little happier, read on.  If you’d prefer to be a little less happy, it might be more effective to close this blog and go to a news site instead.

If you’ve decided to opt for “a little more happy,” congratulations! That decision is an example of  loving-kindness. In Buddhism, loving-kindness is also called maitri or metta and is considered to be the fertile ground from which happiness grows. It is also considered very natural – not something you need to manufacture, but something that is always available. It’s good to apply loving-kindness to yourself and it’s also good to apply loving-kindness to other people.

Now there’s another question to ask yourself: “Since I’m interested in being a little more happy, am I willing to do something to increase my happiness?”  Again, let yourself ponder the question. Maybe you believe that happiness arrives at random, without any causes. Maybe you believe that happiness must be given to you.  Maybe you believe that someone else is destroying your happiness, and there’s nothing you can do about that. Perhaps you hope that happiness will arrive without you having to do anything.  Perhaps you just don’t want to do any more work.

Again, become familiar with the nature of your own thoughts, beliefs and feelings on this issue.  Don’t try to dispel your conflicting beliefs, just get to know them better.

Notice particularly if you feel a little clench of resistance around the idea of having to do something in order to be happier. Maybe it feels like there are just too many things you’re doing already, and this will be yet another burden. Notice if you feel that doing something to increase your own happiness is an obligation, something that you “should do.” The voice that says “should” often has an edge of aggression to it.  It may assert that you’re not good enough as you are and the only way to become better is to do what you “should” do.  This aggression runs counter to loving-kindness.

If you enter into an activity with that aggressive sense of “should” you will probably find that the “should” becomes a source of irritation that makes the activity painful.  It’s like buying a new pair of comfortable shoes and then placing a small pebble in one of the shoes. After a while you may think, “These shoes are really bad: they hurt my feet!” And then you might buy another pair of shoes, and transfer the pebble into the new shoes and find that the new shoes hurt, too! Whatever activity you take on, drop the “should” and try to take on the activity of your own free will. You may find that you are not entirely able to drop the “should” but at least try to be aware of it, and the pain that it causes you.  It may help to remind yourself that whatever activity you’re taking on is something you’re doing because you want to – you want to be happier and you want learn to do something to make yourself happier.  (If you can’t honestly say that about the activity, you may want to reconsider whether you want to continue to be involved with it.)

After you’ve pondered for a while answer this question provisionally, just for now: Am I willing to do something to make myself happier?

If the answer is “yes” welcome! This blog is a guide to meditation, a practice that will help you become happier! This is not just a theory: you can test it with experience. But the test is only valid if you actually practice and see the results for yourself. Meditation can’t be taught through books; it is learned through practice. Willingness to practice something that will lead to greater happiness is called “right effort” or “diligence” in Buddhism.  The combination of loving-kindness and right effort leads us to greater and greater happiness.

If the answer was “no, I don’t want to have to do anything to be happier,” why are you still reading this?

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Tharpa Thaye permalink
    February 18, 2012 5:17 am

    Dear Mr. Badlama la,
    I enjoyed your teaching very much. Your “pebble” allegory especially touches me. I have recently been experimenting with “leaving the ‘should’ pebble behind”. There seems to be more satisfaction when I do this, but there really is some sort of seemingly masochistic attraction to the “should” pebble… maybe some leftover from puritanical roots – something like, “If I let myself enjoy this situation then it’s probably bad for me, however if I bring shame to it then it must be making me a better person.” Or maybe the “should” pebble is some sort of fake crutch propping up a sense of an illusion of self?
    I look forward to continuing to read your work.
    Tharpa Thaye

    • February 20, 2012 12:37 am

      Hi Tharpa Thaye,

      Thanks for the comment. You’ve touched on some great topics that I hope to explore more fully. When you wrote “If I let myself enjoy this situation then it’s probably bad for me” you touched on confusion about what leads to happiness, and what not. If it feels good in the short term, is it bad in the long term? Sometimes yes, sometimes no (if you’re raised Catholic, as I was, anything that feels good is suspicious, and may lead to long-term misery in hell). Maybe we employ the notion of “should” when we’re not really convinced about what leads to happiness, or when short-term happiness seems in conflict with long-term happiness.

      You also wrote, “Or maybe the “should” pebble is some sort of fake crutch propping up a sense of an illusion of self.” This is also a great insight. Sometimes we create an unhappiness for ourselves because that way think we know who we are — for instance “I’m the shameful one.” This way, we get the benefit of a secure self-image. It’s painful, but at least we seem to know how things work. I hope to explore this in the next post.


  2. November 8, 2012 5:12 pm

    I definitely feel that happiness needs to be appropriately defined here. It’s a word that I’ve had to come to terms with in my life. I suppose it depends on the audience you are writing this to. Now I can definitely say that happiness is something I would like more of. However, a long time ago, my answer to the question, “What do you want most in life?” was simply, “Happiness.” As I evolved on my spiritual path, that soon became “contentment.” This is because I realized at some point that happiness was an impermanent condition. To me, the term evokes a sense of elation. Happiness is more of an emotion, I guess. I do understand that this refers to a deeper sense of happiness, the one I now relate to. It is beyond fleeting emotions, correct? Down the road, my answer to that question change from “contentment” to “peace.” I found that deep peace creates a prevailing sense of contentment. Still, I avoid the term “happiness” because I feel that I can still feel peace and contentment, that I can still exude loving-kindness without being “happy.” Yet, at the same time I can see that this sort of happiness refers to a pervasive joy. Is that correct? Since I’ve come to this dilemma in the past, I’m sure others have, too. I’d like to suggest that you perhaps dedicate a brief portion of your book to differentiate the two kinds of happiness I have brought up.

    Note: I started reading the entire blog from first post and up, so I didn’t notice the subsequent post “What is ‘Happiness’, Anyway?” which actually addresses a lot of these concerns.


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