Before you continue reading I invite you to reflect on the following question and try to answer it. The question is "What makes you really happy?". Think about it and when you have come up with your answer keep it there, to be pulled from the depths later.
Sometimes in life you have moments of real revelation. Wake-up calls, inner mental fireworks explode and planets collide as a truth suddenly makes it's way from the "universe" (a book in this case) to you and your understanding. This happened to me when reading "Happiness" by Matthieu Ricard (a genetic scientist and buddhist monk). The revelation for me can be summed up in three words;
Happiness isn't pleasure.
At least not long term “real” happiness.
So when I answered the above question "what makes you really happy?" and the answer I came up with was "sitting on the sofa by the window, feeling the warmth of the sun on my skin whilst reading a book, or sipping a cup of tea" I suddenly realized that for all these years I had mistaken pleasure with happiness. And that my constant pursuit of what I THOUGHT was happiness was destined to failure a) because the object of happiness cannot come from outside of you, it's not due to circumstance or anything material, and b) because all "pleasures" are destined to end. I'd spent the first thirty or so years of my life wanting, yearning happiness and I was looking for it in completely the wrong places – like at the bottom of my favorite mug. What was worse was that all the moments between the "pleasures" (the latter being cinema, eating, aperitivi, reading, etc. etc.) I lived as a "break" from living, an annoying "pause" between one pleasure and another. Considering that "neutral" moments (like when you are walking to work or going around the supermarket) make up perhaps 70% of our lives and "pleasurable" moments perhaps 10%, I was underestimating, giving little importance to the biggest slice of my life.
How can you differentiate between something considered "pleasure" and something considered "happiness"? Happiness leaves an echo behind that can be "plugged into" and felt long after the "event" itself. Pleasure does not - on the contrary bringing to mind a past moment of pleasure may bring a sensation of longing, desire, need and therefore even at worst, pain.
Second question; think of a time when you did something completely selflessely, and act of pure generosity towards another human being. Who was it? Where were you? What did you feel? Think about it for a moment. How does that "episode" make you feel NOW? Can you still feel the echo of the "joy"?
My guess is YES. This is one example of real happiness. Opening up towards another person, giving of yourself, be it your attention, time or giving something material to another - these are examples of what "real" happiness can stem from.
Talking of being open towards others Martin Seligman - a founder of "positive psychology" a field of psychology that works to go beyond getting mentally ill, or depressed people to being mentally healthy and feeling less depressed but to get "normal" (note the inverted commas!) people to feel happy, has over a period of six years tried to find what differentiates really happy people from the rest of us. It turns out that they all have ONE thing in common - it's not that they are all tall, slim beautiful, have fast cars, gorgeous partners, (nor that they can all do the lotus pose without wincing ;-) but what they DO have in common is that they are extremely social. They all have a "rich repetoire of friends". This means that they are open towards others. What a wonderful ingredient to happiness this is - and relatively easy to implement.
Happiness in action
Martin Seligman has come up with a set of tasks which have proved to render people happier. He calls them “positive interventions”.
And here is my favorite;
Think for a moment of someone (who is still alive) who has really made a positive difference in your life; if it hadn't been for him or her your life would have taken a completely different direction. Now you have that person in mind and what that he or she did for you, sit down and write a letter of gratitude. Then call the person up and say you are coming over for a visit. Once there read the letter out and enjoy....the tears hugs,smiles and joy. (Seligman has reported that this “gratitude visit" renders depressed people far less so even a long time after the event itself. And the simple memory of this self-less act makes happy people feel happier.)
I'd like to end by saying that I am not against pleasure! I happen to like pleasure very much thank you! According to Buddhist philosophy (I am NOT a buddist by the way!)there are four basic types of happiness and “the happiness of sense contacts” is one of them . Buddha was quick to point out that this is the most shallow superficial of the four and can be a danger as sense pleasures can make us “lose direction” as we try desperately to hang on to them and render them permanent (impossible, futile ,disappointing). Seligman above mentioned, also views pleasure as a (lesser form of) happiness and one of his “postive interventions” is to plan yourself a “beautiful day” where you spend perhaps an entire saturday on sense pleasures – walk in the country, massage, sauna, meal in a great restaurant, making love...you name it – the choice and the day is yours.
However I would like to launch the former “positive intervention” (the "gratitude visit”) as this weeks yogic invitation/homework. Sorry. But I promise you the echo of happiness will remain for years to come. Unlike a cup of tea.