Happiness by Margaret Ford

Happiness is big business nowadays. Everywhere we look we find books and articles about how to be happy; how to find happiness; what makes us happy and what doesn’t. There seems to be no end to the advice we are offered and many people say that Buddhist practice is about ‘being happy’. But what is happiness? Is it different for different people, or is it a common experience that we can all agree on?

One book about happiness I’ve found most interesting is The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin. Gretchen also has a very entertaining and helpful blog at http://www.happiness-project.com/ In her blog she interviews a number of people and asks them a set of questions about their experiences of happiness. As an experiment, I sent out some of the questions she asks to a few students in Ringu Tulku’s sangha and their answers can be found below.

With their permission, the names of the contributors can be found at the beginning of each set of questions and answers. With many thanks to them all.

But, what do you think? How would you have answered? If you would like to share your thoughts about happiness please comment below or send your answers to the questions to be included in our next issue of Many Roads. Email manyroads@bodhicharya.org

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Phil Whitfield

What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?

Cycling. It takes me “out” into the world at a good but steady pace. It’s a rhythmic calming exercise, like say Tai-chi and I often end up watching my breath (or lack of it!) as in meditation. It gets the body moving again and can cut through mental and physical sluggishness – a pleasant wake-up.

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

That my emotions don’t really mean anything – they’re empty and not indicators of some condition that needs to be acted upon. If I’m sad, it’s not that things in the world are worse and if I’m happy, things aren’t necessarily better. So, I’m much less worried now when I’m not happy; the low times pass much quicker, as shallow dips rather than deep holes.

Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?

Avoiding my practice by pretending I’m too busy!

Is there anything that you see people around you doing or saying that adds a lot to their happiness, or detracts a lot from their happiness?

Taking time for each other – to give the time that’s needed and to listen. I need to learn how to do this much better.

Have you always felt about the same level of happiness, or have you been through a period when you felt exceptionally happy or unhappy – if so, why? If you were unhappy, how did you become happier?

Much more steady now but very variable in the past. My happiest times have always been when I’ve been meeting new people and experiencing new things with openness – with an open and child-like heart – an eagerness to soak up new perspectives, places and ideas. My lowest times have been when clinging to something I thought to be very solid, turned out to be out of my control and transient – my world was not how I wanted it or thought it to be and my efforts all seemed futile. I recovered only by softening to conditions, with kindness towards myself and acceptance: lifting a weight of responsibility and feeling a new spaciousness in the way things really are.

Do you work on being happier? If so, how?

Through being more mindful of my own mind states and noticing my reactions to conditions more. And when I react to old triggers, I try to be more light hearted and forgiving of myself.

Have you ever been surprised that something you expected would make you very happy, didn’t – or vice versa?

Likely too many times to remember. I’m a slow learner!

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Vicki McKenna

What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?

Swimming. It teaches me to take life a stroke at a time –we need to just keep swimming, keep breathing, staying effortlessly afloat! Meditation does the same. With both activities I can align with the core energy of my being –the clear, open sensitive and surrendered True Self.

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

When I was eighteen I wanted to be fervently happy all the time. At 58 I am now more a fan of contented happiness ! To feel accepting of happy times and sad times brings peace of mind and a quiet happiness.

Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?

Pursuing happiness rather than accepting what is!

Is there anything that you see people around you doing or saying that adds a lot to their happiness, or detracts a lot from their happiness?

Desperately pursuing happiness seems to bring suffering rather than happiness!

Have you always felt about the same level of happiness, or have you been through a period when you felt exceptionally happy or unhappy – if so, why? If you were unhappy, how did you become happier?

When I feel down I try to recognise that its because I am attached to my desire/Pain Body and firstly accept my down mood—embrace it fully. I also align with my True Self –the open, clear, sensitive core of my being. This then allows a sloughing off of my illusionary desire/pain body and I feel calm and contented again.

 Do you work on being happier? If so, how?

Yes. Through awareness of the grip the Pain Body has on me and by becoming aware of this grip and aligning with the True Self. Also swimming, meditation, laughter –connecting with family and friends –all this helps to let go of the illusion of the Pain Body and align with the True Self.

Have you ever been surprised that something you expected would make you very happy, didn’t – or vice versa?

Yes it surprised me to find that getting what I wanted didn’t make me happy! But I think I am slowly getting the message!

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Margaret Richardson

What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?

Giving to, thinking and helping others.

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

It’s my decision whether I am happy or not, it’s my mind that can choose.

Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?

My ego, my attachments, my aversions and my ignorance.

Is there anything that you see people around you doing or saying that adds a lot to their happiness, or detracts a lot from their happiness?

Open hearted people are often happy.

Self centredness detracts from happiness.

Have you always felt about the same level of happiness, or have you been through a period when you felt exceptionally happy or unhappy – if so, why? If you were unhappy, how did you become happier?

In periods of exceptional unhappiness it was often that external circumstances were very challenging.

The realization that my state of mind was in my control and not entirely dependent on external circumstances

Do you work on being happier? If so, how?

Constantly – practise every day cherishing others as oneself as much as I can, remembering all the karmic veils that have accumulated over the aeons and need dissolving.

My practice is Chenrezig deepened by the Ngondro practice.

Have you ever been surprised that something you expected would make you very happy, didn’t – or vice versa?

Yes, when I had more expectations than I do now there were many more ups and downs in my happiness.

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Kim Miller

Simple activity that makes me happier:

Having a pleasant conversation with like minded people. Feeling comfortable with them and within myself. Also walking in a quiet area listening to birdsong and being aware. Both of these will always make me feel lighter in being and happier.

I now know that happiness comes from within myself and is about being present in the moment. It is not achieved by attaining qualifications or objects. Nor is it about what other people think of you. If you are comfortable with the nature of your own actions then it is about being and being happy by cultivting your own mind. One’s own mind is the only area over which we have any control, gaining that control is a lifetime task.

Getting in the way of my happiness;

Worrying about the future or what other people think of me. This can cause me to be anxious and impede my happiness.

Other people’s actions on their happiness;

Working with the dharma in practice and study helps a number of my friends.

Attachment and anger are common causes of other people to be unhappy or to reduce their happiness. A lot of people become fixated on having things which achieves nothing. Others try and gain control over things which are not within their control. This detracts from their happiness and well being. e.g. health and illness.

I have in the past been unhappy. This was due to feeling lonely and not having somebody to be with. I now appreciate that this is not the answer to my happiness as attachment to the relationship will cause grief eventually. However feeling positive about oneself allows one to work on the individual nature of happiness. Unhappiness can also be precipitated by feelings of failure especially with employment, happiness comes from having a job in which one can feel that one is positive and useful.

I have had two points in my life when I felt very happy. My wedding day which was full of hope but the greatest depth of internal happiness (simpy bursting with joy) came when I met (with my husband ) a very special person who seemed to engender feelings of overwheming happiness and compassion. These feelings can be revisited by thinking about this meeting.

I suppose my conclusion is that happiness is an internal process but some very special beings can influence others.

I work on my own happiness every day by study and practice of the dharma.

When younger I would often anticpate happiness from an event. This can lead to unhappiness. If one enters events without prior expectation then pleasant happiness can be the result. Just take it as it comes!

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Marita Faaberg

What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?

Communicating with others on a high-level of mutual inspiration. Those moments when you express your deepest insights and another human being understands exactly what you mean! The miracle of “WE” as it is termed.

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

Happiness is not to be searched for. In the searching there is unhappiness sooner or later. Happiness is a natural state in the unfolding of every now-moment without any interference from our side.

Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?

When one finds oneself off-centre, when presence is lost even for a second, everything that is NOT happiness crowds in one’s mind. Staying centered is the key. Not always easy but certainly vital.

Is there anything that you see people around you doing or saying that adds a lot to their happiness, or detracts a lot from their happiness?

Mindfulness in the present moment is happiness and peace. Anything we do mechanically out of the past detracts from the fresh flowing of what is. So I guess most of the unhappy experiences we go through arise from repeating the old patterns of behaviour, the accumulated baggage of our past playing constantly in our mind and through our actions in our world. It is very much the same in others and in ourselves.

Have you always felt about the same level of happiness, or have you been through a period when you felt exceptionally happy or unhappy – if so, why? If you were unhappy, how did you become happier?

Family and friend’s problems, illnesses and “outrageous fortune” often crop up; the whole gamut of samsaric life tends to make us unhappy. Understanding deeply that life unfolds in its own way, that it is not about me so much as the flow of the whole; that “this too shall pass” goes a long way to appreciate and be grateful for all that we have: our family, our friends. The exquisite beauty of the natural world; the moments of silence, of love, of joy. These always make me happier.

Do you work on being happier? If so, how?

No need for work, except maybe until you find your centre and are able to return to it whenever you lose it – this of course can take lots of meditation hours. There doesn’t seem to be any other way. – Be in the moment and flow with it. Joy and peace are inherent in that.

Have you ever been surprised that something you expected would make you very happy, didn’t – or vice versa?

Yes, many times. Looking for happiness has often brought unhappy results in my life, because it was a kind of blind search, a following of desire and an avoidance of anything I saw as undesirable. I didn’t know then that the more you reach for happiness the further from you it gets. Let life unfold as it is. Knowing that in this present moment, re-connects me to the peace, love and joy flowing freely from the Ground of Being.

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Terry Evans
What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?

My foolish heart….!!!!

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

That to strive or try to be happy at best only leads to a temporary experience and in turn suffering. I believe true well being is within, our natural state and indestructible. The natural consequence of love, compassion and lack of self cherishing. If only….!!!!

Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?

Mistaking the conventional and fickle concept of ‘happiness’ for ‘well being’ which can be our experience even in difficult times. Well that’s what I tell myself anyway!!

Is there anything that you see people around you doing or saying that adds a lot to their happiness, or detracts a lot from their happiness?

Love and compassion for others and a lack of self cherishing.

Do you work on being happier? If so, how?

I am not sure it is possible to strive for happiness, we all do of course but maybe that is the very thing that gets in the way.

Have you ever been surprised that something you expected would make you very happy, didn’t – or vice versa?

Oh yes!!!

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Eric Masterton

What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?

Cycling on a cycle track near my home in Spring and early Summer when the wild flowers and trees are in bloom, swallows in the air and if sunny even better to enjoy.

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

That you don’t always have to plan for it to happen and that it can appear very simply in unexpected ways.

 Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?

Trying to predetermine an occasion with others in mind instead of just taking it as I find it.

 Is there anything that you see people around you doing or saying that adds a lot to their happiness, or detracts a lot from their happiness?

Everybody approaches it differently, but I have noticed some people act and pretend that events were fantastic when in fact they were not sharing that with others and only concerned about their own happiness to almost the exclusion of others.

Have you always felt about the same level of happiness, or have you been through a period when you felt exceptionally happy or unhappy – if so, why? If you were unhappy, how did you become happier?

Not always felt the same level but can recall happy moments in childhood which have stayed with me. The middle part of my life was also good (now 65) then all that was put on hold by a near fatal accident car accident to my son and in a bad climbing accident to myself curtailing my love of high and wild places. My long term marriage partner leaving and my job I had been in many years also coming to an end with early retirement. And the house I also had lived in all those years having to be sold. Then my mother taking ill and having to be cared for. Then coming in contact with Buddhism for the first time which helped slow things down for me and provided that great healer time to recover slowly and get some bearings as to where I actually was without these things and how I might go forward in a positive way. A re-association with my art work and being creative again and taking time to look at things I enjoyed was good, and helping to pass this onto children less fortunate than myself and share their enjoyment in an art class I became involved in.

Do you work on being happier? If so, how?

Yes I suppose I do. I remember a Rinpoche who I was looking after and going for a walk with in a local park one very hot summer blue sky day and he said “One should always enjoy moments like this visually and mentally ;a good store for when things are not to your liking”.   So I do take these days when on offer.

Have you ever been surprised that something you expected would make you very happy, didn’t – or vice versa?

One has always got to watch that one doesn’t want happiness to just be repeated on demand, which can lead to built up expectations that may not be fulfilled. When dealing with other people there are so many unknown factors that can make or disappoint one if not considering others happiness and how they view that things are not always fantastic sometimes just ok, which is ok.

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Claire Trueman

What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?

Trying to help others (if they want it), no matter how small that is, even just listening to others can help, and indirectly makes me happy, because I feel I have helped someone in a little way –gives me a sense of purpose. I also love walking the dogs,that makes me happy.

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

Lasting happiness doesn’t come from external things, but comes from within.

Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?

Repeatedly going over problems in my head windes me up and makes me suffer, but I’m getting better at letting that go – not always easy though – hard to break a habit of a life-time.

Is there anything that you see people around you doing or saying that adds a lot to their happiness, or detracts a lot from their happiness?

Having a fixed mind, not being open to new situations often brings unhappiness and suffering, but by being open minded and embracing new situations can add to happiness.

Have you always felt about the same level of happiness, or have you been through a period when you felt exceptionally happy or unhappy – if so, why? If you were unhappy, how did you become happier?

For me, by acknowledging that everything changes and nothing is fixed helps, even if I’m down or have something that challenges me and makes me feel uneasy; if I acknowledge it will change I know I won’t feel like it is  forever, it’s a big help.

Do you work on being happier? If so, how?

Yes, I try and meditate regularly;  practice generosity ; patience. I try and go easy on myself and others too and not to have too high expectations of others.

Have you ever been surprised that something you expected would make you very happy, didn’t – or vice versa?

I often think I can’t do certain things, but actually if I just do it and don’t dwell on it too much I find I can do it – it always surprises me.

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Minna Stenroos

What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?

Trying to notice when I’m being carried away again by thoughts and emotions, and then stopping and coming back. Just stopping and coming back to this very moment. The awareness right here is happiness.

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

I’m not sure if the happiness I knew then was the same as the happiness I know now. But I didn’t understand then the power of my own mind. How it is my own thoughts that so much make my state of mind.

Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?

All the time. Nothing can come between me and happiness, except me. But there is a lot of that.

Is there anything that you see people around you doing or saying that adds a lot to their happiness, or detracts a lot from their happiness?

We all say and do things that are likely to result in an unhappy situation for ourselves or others. It is very good if one has the ability to let go after something like that has happened. We’ll do better next time.

Have you always felt about the same level of happiness, or have you been through a period when you felt exceptionally happy or unhappy; if so, why? If you were unhappy, how did you become happier?

It’s complicated. There are two kinds of things we mean by happiness. There is happiness that can be more or less – happiness which is dependent of circumstances: when there is pain, there is suffering because it hurts; and when the pain stops, there’s happiness because it’s such a relief. Until one gets used to being without pain and starts feeling unhappy because of boredom or something else. This will always go on.

And then there is a basic happiness and wellbeing that is always within our reach. The present awareness here and now without clinging to anything.

Do you work on being happier? If so, how?

Dharma study and practice. Not too tight and not too loose.

Have you ever been surprised that something you expected would make you very happy, didn’t; or vice versa?

Sometimes. Personally I’ve been brought up in a culture where it was not considered particularly surprising that one is not so happy. I used to expect the worst and if it did not happen today, then expect it to happen tomorrow. But of course I wanted to be happy, and to achieve happiness tried many things, not sure what would make me happy.

As said above, our feelings of pleasure that I think are connected with our usual judgement of whether we are happy or not, are relative. For instance, when you have been sunbathing for a long time, it is not a pleasure anymore, and you wish to dip into something fresh and cold to feel good again. To be able to do so affects your sense of overall happiness. But if you wake up early in the morning in a hotel room you have paid for, and soon find out there is no hot water and you have to take a cold shower, you are not going to be happy about that. Our expectations are always part of how the experience will be.

We don’t always recognize how happy we are – is it then happiness or not?

 

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Conrad Harvey

What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?

An honest answer would be meditation; ideally on an elevated plateau or hillside under an expanse of sky .

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

I was fortunate enough to come to the Dharma aged 17, so my perspective at 18 was very much influenced by Buddhist teachings and practice up to that point.17 years on, the major element that has made a difference to my practice, and therefore my happiness, is having a teacher who inspires devotion and compassion. Vajrayana genuinely doesn’t seem to work without sincere devotion to an authentic master and Bodhicitta.It is frequently said that study and practice are the two wings, necessary for the flight of the bird. But without heartfelt devotion there is no energy to power the wings or sense of direction once in the sky.

Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?

I still have lots of habitual tendencies: from the attachment of seeking repetition of (originally spontaneous) circumstances that produced ephemeral happiness; to emotionally reacting to my projections of the relative world without applying Nature of Mind practice. The usual suspects!

Is there anything that you see people around you doing or saying that adds a lot to their happiness, or detracts a lot from their happiness?

The temptations of procrastination and the latest distraction will always be there. Those people I’ve encountered who have actually seized the day, “grasped the thistle”, prioritised, and if they have the opportunity to practice, have actually taken it -seem to have subsequently ended up more consistently happier as a result. They have taken control consciously, rather than merely waited and reacted to events as they unfolded, hoping for a more favourable tomorrow -which seems to be a recipe for frustration and disillusionment.

Have you always felt about the same level of happiness, or have you been through a period when you felt exceptionally happy or unhappy – if so, why? If you were unhappy, how did you become happier?

Since starting to practise, I’ve always been pretty much on a level, but when I have found myself in two excessively challenging situations: one involving a relationship; the other involving a workplace; – the guidance of my teacher and the hagiographies of the lineage masters were both essential in achieving wise and ethical solutions.

Do you work on being happier? If so, how?

Applying the profound to the seemingly mundane circumstances of everyday life. Integrating Nature of Mind practice with “the boring things you would rather not be doing”.

Have you ever been surprised that something you expected would make you very happy, didn’t – or vice versa?

I try not to have expectations; or at least, if I do, I try to expect the worse: then if it turns out better it is a nice surprise; if it confirms my worse expectations then life seems all very safe and predictable…Sorted!

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Mary Heneghan

What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?

Paying close attention to nature living around me, the grass, flowers, beetles beetling around.

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know hen you were 18 years old?

That happiness is something I am already, something I can BE. Its not something I will get by DOING something. We put so much effortmoney, time and energy – into MAKING ourselves happy. Its irrelevant.

Sometimes it works; just as often it doesn’t. Mostly, I reckon I find myself happy when I give up trying to make myself happy and start noticing life instead. Then I notice I am happy. (But I put just as much effort as anyone else into making myself happy, even though I keep getting it prooved to me time and time again it doesn’t work!)

Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?

Wanting to go on more spiritual retreats and teachings than is practical for a mum of two young girls, with a husband who is not into retreats. Judging my husband and my life.

Is there anything that you see people around you doing or saying that adds a lot to their happiness, or detracts a lot from their happiness?

Adding to their happiness – being content with what they have, really enjoying the people they share their daily lives with, living simply.

Detracting from their happiness – judging themselves to be less than what they are, not to be capable. Not doing things they would like to do because they perceive themselves not to be the person who does those things, ‘other’ people do those things.

Have you always felt about the same level of happiness, or have you been through a period when you felt exceptionally happy or unhappy – if so, why? If you were unhappy, how did you become happier?

Very different levels through different phases of my life. Exceptionally happy when I left home, particularly when I travelled on a very positive trip I organised through Africa, doing research and meeting people in a ‘real’ way. The happy times seem to be something about taking charge of my life and doing something I would really like to do even though it is out of the ordinary and required a great leap of confidence in myself. And these things have also required a lot of facing my fear of doing something (fear of really living, it feels like sometimes). Somehow I face that fear and in the process feel more alive, transcend where I have been up to then and feel very happy and in touch with myself and who I would like to be. It has involved at least on one occasion lying in bed wondering just how nervous one can become before one spontaneously dies of nervousness!

Do you work on being happier? If so, how?

Yes I do. Really by reminding myself of all this: of moments of insight when I realised that happiness is not something I achieve through doing; its a gift I am free to take at any moment. Its more to do with feeling myself to be alive and life to be basically good. Of course there is loads in life that doesn’t work out, but over and above that it is basically a wonderful magical thing and I – we – are part of it. When I remember that I am happy. Even in the midst of conflict and difficult circumstances there can then be a thread of basic happiness, basic connection. I work on creating conditions that I am more likely to remember this in. These include regular meditation and practice groups, particularly practising with others, sharing practice. Also, giving myself enough time in life to go a little slowly, to meander through my chores. So I can float around my  kitchen a little and feel life living through me as I make packed lunches and dinner and tidy up. That’s the trick – to keep FEELING my livingness. And I make sure I regularly keep in touch with spiritual friends who also share this over-arching vision, however up and down our daily vision may be.

Have you ever been surprised that something you expected would make you very happy, didn’t – or vice versa?

Definitely. I have found that things that are very looked-forward-to precisely because they are likely to make me happy, actually then when they come it is very hard for them to make me feel happy at all. Because of this mind-set that is muddling the whole picture, the one that is expecting (however subtly) to be ‘made happy’ now. It seems to create some sort of double bind situation where I can’t feel happy because my mind is holding on to the idea of feeling happy. And that idea is an idea and is not actual happiness. Aaargh. Then sometimes letting go of something very precious to me actually makes me very happy, even though I was sure it would hurt a lot and be horrible. It actually makes me happy because I find I have the strength to let go of it. In a way the action of letting go of it shows me somewhere deep inside that nothing and noone ‘out there’ are needed to make me happy, I have it within. And when I let go of something that is supposed to be making me happy I am put in touch with the wellspring of happiness that was there all along. Of course I mean really letting go here, which is not an easy thing to do, and seems to take a lot of false starts and stops and ups and downs of life before that moment of insight / courage / resolution / grace comes and the holding on drops away and turns into letting go. I suppose it is a moment of renunciation, to use the technical term?

1 thought on “Happiness by Margaret Ford

  1. Claire

    I found this article fascinating. It’s so interesting to see how different people respond to the same questions with so very different answers. However I was struck that the majority respondants aknowledged that happiness is not always something that should be sought by looking for it rather that it is there within us.

    Reply

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