Everyone wants happiness. There is no question that it is a paramount quest in life.
The Journal of Positive Psychology just published a new study by Paulina Pchelin and Ryan T. Howel, “The hidden cost of value-seeking: People do not accurately forecast the economic benefits of experiential purchases.” Long title, huh? The conclusion they reached is this: “In spite of the experiential advantage, people consume material items in the pursuit of happiness.”
In other words, although most people know that an afternoon spent in a park is a more enjoyable experience, they will still head for the mall. I don’t know how much money it costs to conduct studies like this, but any of us could have told them that for free. It seems they did not accurately forecast the economic downside of their experiential study.
Anyway, we all know the old adage “money can’t buy you happiness.” But there are plenty of folks who either ignore it or don’t believe it’s true. Perhaps the problem is that people are confused about what constitutes happiness and how to go about getting it.
In another recent study, Stanford researcher Jennifer Aaaker says, “Although the desire for personal happiness may be clear, the path to achieving it is indefinite. One reason for this hazy route to happiness is that although people often think they know what leads to happiness, their predictions about what will make them happy are often inaccurate.”
What’s more, she suggests that searching for happiness can lead to less happiness.
The Tao Te Ching says that “sages do not contend.” The word “contend,” in addition to the sense of contentiousness, means to “go after” or “push for.” So, a sage or a buddha does not go after happiness and they are happy, or maybe they don’t even look at life in terms of happiness, it is satisfying enough to just be.
Well, we all know this, right? And yet, we often find ourselves grasping after some sort of self-gratification or pleasure, and then feeling disappointed when it isn’t all we hoped for. Buddhism defines happiness as achieving a state that is free of suffering. Buddha said that suffering comes from wanting things. He said the greatest suffering comes from not getting what you want, and that the second greatest suffering comes when you get what you want.
The solution, then, seems rather simple: stop chasing after happiness. In The Book of Life, Jiddu Krishnamurti is quoted as saying,
The moment you are conscious that you are happy, it is not happiness, is it? So you cannot go after happiness. The moment you are conscious that you are humble, you are not humble. So happiness is not a thing to be pursued; it comes. But if you seek it, it will evade you.”
To stop chasing after happiness is easier said than done, for happiness takes on many forms, and many of the myriad ways in which we search for it are so subtle that we are not aware of what we are doing, or we can be so busy seeking whatever is happiness means to us, that we fail to see that it is all around.
This is one reason why meditation is such a valuable tool, because it helps us see the happiness present in the now. As Nagarjuna said in his Commentary of Bodhicitta,
A happy mind is tranquil. A tranquil mind is not confused. To be unperplexed is to understand the truth. By understanding truth, one obtains freedom from suffering.”