We all just want to be happy, right?
There is a hitch.
If I’m asked, “Are you happy?,” I start rapidly running down a list of what’s been happening (things are going well for my children, or not, money is OK, or not…) and what looms ahead (the house is falling apart, the car is falling apart, hell, I am falling apart). That simple question transports me into evaluative head games about the past and the future, until finally I blurt something out.
“Yes, I’m OK, sort of.”
Happiness is a strangely elusive concept. It means too many things to be a trustworthy marker for what matters in life. You have to break it down. At a very simplistic level, happiness can refer to piece-of-cake happiness. I just ate a piece of chocolate cake. A satisfying sensory overload of pleasure courses through my brain and body. But it will pass, and honestly it will pass pretty quickly, in about as long as it takes to paste the happy face emoji on the picture of the empty plate. And soon, as the realization sets in that maybe the piece was 30% bigger than it ought to have been, the happiness will become something else, maybe indigestion or guilt, and another emoji will be called for.
Likewise, if happiness is supposed to be based on an overall assessment of life circumstances, how reliable is that? If you’re engaged in a struggle, such as trying to find a job, or you’re grieving the death of someone very close to you, how likely are you to respond well to happy, happy, smiley, smiley messages? Life is hard.
If happiness has real meaning as a goal in life, it needs to point to something deeper, broader, and more sustaining than pleasant sensations or pain-free success in life. And indeed, “happiness” researchers reach for words that point to deeper and bigger places in our mind. They talk about an overall sense of well-being, which points not to something going on in our head (Am I OK?), but to something we sense in our body and mind.
The deeper brand of happiness doesn’t depend on circumstances. (After all, who could construct the perfect set of circumstances, except people who write TV commercials?) It hits us when we’re awestruck. It hits us when we loosen our attitude toward what we have and what’s going on in our life, when we decide to be content. It doesn’t mean we give up trying to improve upon a bad situation. It simply means we discover a kind of resilience that doesn’t let a bad situation define who we are.
Mindfulness practice offers great opportunities to encounter well-being, to savor simplicity and awe, because in asking you to pay attention to the simplest things in life, to allow for gaps in your tape loop, it lets you—ever so briefly—still that voice that says something is fundamentally wrong with you. It leaves you a little bit of space to stop questioning whether you are happy or not.