In our competitive culture, we usually think “more is better”. Being Number One, winning at all costs, and “having the most” is deeply ingrained in our psyche as real success. This model of going for the max is often erroneously applied to our own understanding of happiness. People mistakenly think intense delight is a sign that their attempt at true well-being is really successful.
However, when we look for bells and whistles as indications of true happiness, we’re misunderstanding a very important principle: Setting a high bar of intense happiness works against true well-being. Although it’s fine to enjoy peak experiences when they arise, measuring that ideal against a moderate level of “okayness” can easily render this moment as “not good enough”.
One of my favorite Calvin and Hobbes cartoons starts off with a smiling Calvin saying, “Here I am happy and content.” In the next frame, he further reflects: “But not euphoric.” Third frame: “So I’m no longer content. My day is completely ruined.” Last frame: “I should have stopped thinking while I was ahead.”
When people do my online Awakening Joy course, they often come with ideas of what joy is supposed to look like. A complaint I sometimes hear is, “I’m trying really hard to be joyful and it’s not working.” That kind of efforting to be joyful only leads to frustration! Instead, I recommend that one simply begin noticing moments of feeling “okay.” If you tend to have a life filled with intense drama, I often suggest being aware of moments when you’re not miserable. That’s a good start.
We find what we look for. Neuroscience calls this phenomenon the brain’s “confirmation bias.” Your brain tends to see what it believes to be true and misses whatever doesn’t confirm its hypothesis. If you don’t think you experience much true happiness because you’re holding an image that it should be a peak experience of ecstasy, you probably will keep confirming that belief.
However, if you see moments of “okayness” – moments where you’re not suffering – as moments worthy of appreciation, you open the channel to true well-being. And the more you notice and take them in, the stronger that flow of true well-being naturally becomes – not through force but through wise attention. As neuroscience expert Rick Hanson says: “The brain is like Teflon for positive experiences and Velcro for negative ones.”
When you let go of looking for ecstatic states, you can find joy in the most commonplace moments. Edith, a student in Germany, had somehow equated joy with intense positive experiences. But when she stopped looking for those and just opened up to a simple feeling of well-being she started to experience things very differently. She put it this way:
“I noticed how much joy there already is and how I had somehow looked for a kind of super-mundane, “spiritual” joy, more profound and lasting than our ordinary joy, that I would only reach if I practiced hard and in the right way. By having this concept, and by looking for this other kind of joy, I had missed out on a lot of “ordinary joy” moments. As I focused on them, appreciated them and felt them more fully, I was so happy and sometimes almost overwhelmed at all the joy and blessings in my life.”
I remember many years ago hearing a wise teacher give instructions on the Buddhist heart practice called “loving-kindness” or metta meditation. He said that sometimes the word “loving-kindness” can seem so lofty and noble that we imagine it’s beyond our reach. He suggested connecting with the simple feeling of “kindness” or “friendliness” towards oneself or others. That’s so much more accessible and it will start the gentle flow of good-heartedness we’re looking for.
In the Buddhist model of happiness, refined states of well-being are ultimately more sustainable and more satisfying. As wonderful as it is, rapture is considered a coarser level of happiness that, after a while, becomes jarringjangling to the system. Gladness, then happiness, followed by contentment are considered states that are much more developed and fulfilling. Ultimately, deep peace is the most satisfying state of all, and is said to be the precursor to true enlightenment.
So, if you’re trying to cultivate genuine happiness within yourself, you might consider letting go of attempting to experience a geysergusher of intensity. Awakening joy comes naturally from truly appreciating the simple moments of well-being in our lives.
James Baraz is a co-founding teacher of Spirit Rock Meditation Center, co-author of Awakening Joy and has led his popular Awakening Joy online course since 2003. This year he will be offering a new 5-month Awakening Joy 2.0 curriculum starting in February focusing on loving-kindness and compassion with an outstanding line-up of guest speakers including IONS President Cassandra Vieten. For more information on the course go to their website.