Today I want to briefly examine happiness versus pleasure. Happiness is such a broad topic; I find it remarkably difficult to approach. In the past when I have discussed happiness I have received considerable criticism, mostly from people who disagreed with my perception of what it means to be happy.
Happiness is an individual endeavor; to say it is a personal choice seems to rub people the wrong way. Yet, I have to believe that it is just that. While pursuing happiness never seems to work, deciding to be happy regardless of the outer circumstances, is the way I live my life, and that certainly is a choice.
This decision is not the same as saying that I enjoy everything that happens. It merely says that I will not have the calm peace of my soul disrupted by the winds of change.
Consider these words from the Dhammapada:
As solid rock
is unshaken by the wind,
so are those with wisdom undisturbed,
whether by praise or blame.
On hearing true teachings
the hearts of those who are receptive
like a lake, deep, clear and still.
Virtuous beings are unattached.
They do not indulge in heedless speech
about sensual pleasures.
They experience both joy and sorrow
but are possessed by neither.
- Extracted from A Dhammapada for Contemplation by Ajahn Munindo
I feel like this idea expresses the type of happiness that I choose to experience.
This method of living is not swayed by the highs and lows typically associated with happiness or lack of happiness, it is more of an even keel, a middle way. While I do have some movement, moments were I am very joyous and moments where I feel anger, I move very quickly back to the middle, where happiness, for me, resides.
I think some of the resistance I have noticed when I have written of happiness in the past is because people confuse happiness with pleasure. Consider these words from Thomas Merton:
“Do not look for rest in any pleasure,
because you were not created for pleasure:
you were created for joy.
And if you do not know the difference between pleasure and joy
you have not yet begun to live.”
My life has taught me that the experience of pleasure is fleeting. Addiction to pleasure is one of the quickest ways to live a life filled with pain. One does not have to be particularly spiritual to understand that the pursuit of pleasure leads to a frequent experience of its opposite. Take for example the words of John D. Rockefeller:
“I can think of nothing less pleasurable than a life devoted to pleasure.”
Epictetus understood what I am talking about: “It is the nature of the wise to resist pleasures, but the foolish to be a slave to them.”
When we live life trying to find happiness in the desires of the flesh, whether that be physical pleasure or our ego-based needs, we are destined to live as though we were on a roller coaster, with extreme, though short-lived, highs and deep, painful lows. I have lived that life and found the agony of the lows too excruciating for the highs to ever be worthwhile.
It is sort of paradoxical that when I stopped pursuing pleasure,
as a means of happiness, life became pleasurable all the time.
There is a certain ecstasy, an inner joy, if you will, which
becomes available to the person who is neither seeking the
highs of physical pleasure nor moved by the lows that necessarily
accompany resistance to “what is.”
Consider these words from the poet Ranier Maria Rilke:
“Physical pleasure is a sensual experience no different from pure seeing or the pure sensation with which a fine fruit fills the tongue; it is a great unending experience, which is given us, a knowing of the world, the fullness and the glory of all-knowing. And not our acceptance of it is bad; the bad thing is that most people misuse and squander this experience and apply it as a stimulant at the tired spots of their lives and as distraction instead of a rallying toward exalted moments.”
Just as the bumper sticker suggests, Joy is an inside job, and in my humble opinion, happiness is as well. Dada Vaswani understands this:
“Happiness, true happiness, is an inner quality. It is a state of mind. If your mind is at peace, you are happy. If your mind is at peace, but you have nothing else, you can be happy. If you have everything the world can give – pleasure, possessions, power – but lack peace of mind, you can never be happy.”
I suspect that most of us will never enjoy pain, but we can minimize its effect on our peaceful state of mind by dropping all resistance to it. A healthy love of the minute to minute experience of being alive goes a long way to insuring we live each day with a happiness which cannot be obtained through effort, but can be our experience nonetheless.
I will leave you with these words as I feel they are worthy of thoughtful consideration:
The greatest pleasure of life is love. – Euripides
Loving life, just as it is, with whatever it brings, is the greatest secret to living in peace I can ever offer.