Beyond Happiness, Part 1: Above the Emotional Weather
Updated: Jul 20
There is one question that seems to bother people a lot. All kinds of people. And the people most troubled by it are those who think about it the most.
That question is: Am I happy?
If you are asking yourself this question, my suggested self-response – which comes from a place of deep kindness – is: Eh, don’t worry too much about it.
Before we go on, let’s nail down some semantics. “Happiness” is a feeling, an emotion. This isn’t the same as fulfillment, contentment, or even deep joy – these things are more durable and not always as visible. Happiness has an element of excitement to it. It also involves satisfaction and pleasure. It’s usually associated with both a cause (satisfying/pleasurable event or discovery, etc.) and an effect (smiling, laughing, crying, other emotional display) that’s outside of one’s inner self.
And there we have our problem. Anything outside the Self cannot last.
It’s not that experiencing happiness is bad. I think most of us would agree it’s fantastic when it comes. We should fully enjoy it – that’s real presence. But also, we should be aware that it will go. And again, later, it will come. And then too it will go. You see? You never know. Happiness involves external stuff, which is all change, all the time. And even that in itself is fine. The problem only comes when we try to grab it and hold it and force it to stay when it naturally wants to subside. That’s when we suffer.
A radical notion in this place and time is that we already have everything we need, including something even better than happiness: the capacity to develop a constant supply of deep joy and fulfillment. It may be radical, but you can have it. It’s not only possible; it's certain, if you commit.
You can be driving along the highway in traffic and maybe not even that externally happy – maybe you’re a little annoyed because it’s hot and nobody’s moving – but then you remember and are able to return to your deep joyful core. You draw on that, and your awareness comes in. You remember your Self, that you have a neutral vantage point of total peace if you choose it, and you can look at your situation that way. “Oh right, look how worked up I am. I’m sweating and even holding my breath in anger! But what’s the big deal, really? I am where I am. Not much I can do. So I’m going to sit here and breathe deeply and be glad I’m breathing,” or whatever thought comes. See how resilient that is? It seems small, but it’s a superpower. A consistent ability to return to Love, no matter what your situation.
That’s what you deserve. It’s better than happiness.
Happiness can be nice, but it’s not the point. In fact, making happiness the point is such a ridiculous expectation, it’s almost a form of insanity.
If your mission in life is to be happy, then the success or failure of your conscious existence depends on your ability to continuously experience one specific emotional state out of probably hundreds per day. When put in those terms, it’s easy to see how crazy an idea that is. It’s like saying you’ll live on earth only as long as the weather never deviates from seventy-five degrees and sunny.
Just like meteorological weather, emotional weather varies through seasons and patterns. Astonishing events seem to occur out of nowhere – sometimes beautiful, sometimes violent. Our physical realities are affected; our plans may change. Sometimes we soak up the sun; sometimes we get the heck outta there! Nothing is guaranteed. All in all, identifying wholly with your emotions just isn’t great for long-term wellbeing.
So what’s the alternative, you may be thinking? I can’t not have feelings!
And you’re right. We have feelings the way we sweat or burp or get inflamed; they’re bodily things. They’re part of being alive; they help us survive and can enhance our life experiences. But they can’t own us or take us. If they do, our whole experience of life will be dominated by our own reactive biochemistry.
In addition to the usual opposing options of “being emotional” and “being repressed,” there is a third, rarely noticed option: Have the feelings, but don’t be the feelings. Put some space between you and them. Once we realize our consciousness is bigger than our feelings, we can watch our own feelings more comfortably. In fact, because we’re no longer judging ourselves for having the feelings we do (which always happens if we’re feeling about feelings), we can allow ourselves to experience a greater range of emotion and feel it more fully! We’re really in each moment with each feeling, knowing that none of them make us who we really are.
An added bonus is that we stop collecting as much unfinished business when we do this. We can be present for more, maybe all, of our emotional response, right when it goes down. We also have more choice about how we do or do not behave in relation to those feelings. When we’re really in it with our whole awareness, we’re going to make much better choices.
From this perspective, a compulsive happiness quest is a case of mistaken identity. We don’t have to be happy to be joyful, content and fulfilled. Moreover, we don’t have to seek happiness to experience it. In fact, we have to seek beyond it. We fully experience happiness when – and here’s the paradox – we let each experience of it come and go, with its appropriate beginning and ending. The Buddha noted that even getting what you want is a form of suffering, because as soon as you have it, you start worrying about it going away. And our present-day obsession with being happy takes that to a new level. The very act of worrying over whether you’re happy or not, and then evaluating how happy you are or aren’t, and then worrying about losing it if you are adds up to a lot of stress! Like a good joke, happiness disappears the minute you apply anxiety-driven analysis to it.
If the pursuit of happiness isn't very effective, then why is the happiness obsession so common? There are some deep-seated reasons, but also a few simple explanations that have to do with our social environment and conditioning. In short: it’s definitely not just you. You can read more about that here in Beyond Happiness: Part 2.