Happiness is an abstract concept that each person would define differently. The discrepancies in definition would stem from individual characteristics and preferences, goals and dreams, differences in upbringing, and general beliefs. However, the main themes remain constant throughout all definitions. Among these, we find physical and emotional health, meaningful relationships, a fulfilling career and accomplishments, and financial independence. Research findings have reported that levels of happiness can be broken down into three components: a genetically set happiness range, circumstances, and voluntary control.
Evidence shows that all people are born with a “set-point” of happiness determined by their genes, which they will more or less maintain throughout life, and return to in between life’s ups and downs. This genetic predisposition accounts for approximately 50% of our happiness. Although our lives are greatly affected and shaped by our circumstances, only about 8%-15% of our happiness is said to be attributed to our surroundings. For this reason, we see people who may live in poverty but are still happy with their lives, and wealthy people living in mansions and indulging in all of life’s thrills and still feeling empty inside. In fact, a study conducted by Ed Diener at the University of Illinois showed that wealthy individuals who earned more than $10 million annually reported levels of happiness that were barely higher than those of the people working for them. Then what is it that accounts for the rest of our happiness? The other 40 or so percent stems from our voluntary control. This is how we perceive and react to things that happen to us or people that we come across. This is how we view and remember our past, and what we hope for and expect from our future. This is how we experience our present. This 40% can be earned by living a meaningful life of positivity, generosity, kindness, compassion, and personal achievement. These traits can be learned and practiced, and with them, we can reach higher levels of happiness and fulfillment.
The teachings of Buddhism, to me, encompass these traits and promote their development. Although I would not call myself a Buddhist, I believe that everyone can benefit from these teachings on their path to self-discovery and meaning in life. A main tenet of Buddhism is that of impermanence. We are, as is everything around us, changing constantly. With new experiences, new knowledge, and the energy around us, we evolve and become a newer version of ourselves, every day, every hour. These changes may be imperceptible on a daily basis but enormous with the passing of time. A mother who sees her child every day knows that her child is growing, without necessarily noticing the daily changes. However, anyone who has not seen this child in months or years will undoubtedly exclaim that the child has gotten so much taller, smarter, older. Following this concept of impermanence, we should dedicate our lives to becoming better versions of ourselves by making simple changes and reaching new achievements (no matter how small) every day.
In regards to physical and emotional health, one of the main factors of happiness, Buddhism teaches that the mind and body are very connected and inter-related: “To keep the body in good health is a duty, otherwise we shall not be able to keep our mind strong and clear.” Acknowledging that illness, suffering, and death are unavoidable parts of life, Buddhism teaches that such negative events should be viewed as opportunities to cultivate healthy mental states such as patience, tolerance, and gratitude. Buddhism condemns any sort of self-harm, viewing the healthy body as necessary to reach full spiritual development. Meditation techniques exist which promote physical and mental health. For emotional health, we must train our minds to adopt a positive mindset. We must learn from and let go of painful memories from the past that may be hindering our current happiness, and instead focus on the pleasant memories that remain. We must not be anxious about what is going to happen in the future, but rather, focus on the present and absorb all that it has to offer. As Buddhism teaches, “We are shaped by our thoughts; we become what we think. When the mind is pure, joy follows like a shadow that never leaves.”
Meaningful relationships account for a large part of our happiness. In Buddhist teachings, it is important to associate with those people that also lead virtuous and charitable lives of honesty, wisdom, and faithfulness. We all know just how important our relationships are to us. Whether it is our significant other, our best friend, or a family member, those closest to us can greatly affect our happiness, both positively and negatively. Although we cannot choose our family members, we can choose whom we become friends with or with whom we begin a romantic relationship. Those people that we let into our lives should have similar values and aspirations as us, and should be able to lift us higher and encourage us to do better. As for problematic family members, we are in control of how we react to them and how much we let them affect our tranquility. For anyone who has ever caused us harm, it is important to not hold anger or hatred within—Buddhism teaches that “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.”
Although the Buddha renounced his family’s wealth and pursued a simpler lifestyle devoid of life’s cravings, he did not reject the accumulation of money in his teachings. In fact, he promoted it. When financial stability is achieved and wealth is distributed among many people, the suffering, crime, violence, and destruction that stems from poverty can be diminished. Buddha did not, however, promote materialism that so often comes with wealth. Instead, he encouraged the accumulation of wealth only for its usefulness—to support our physical needs, to promote causes that we truly believe in, and to make others in need happy by helping them. By using our money to help others and doing good in the world, we become happier. This gives us a cause greater than ourselves to work for, and encourages our achievement of education and career goals in order to reach a level of financial stability at which we can be useful and charitable to others. In Buddhist teachings, this falls in the category of right livelihood—making a living honestly, working tirelessly at that task, and not harming others in the pursuit of financial gains. Also called accomplishment in effort, the ability to earn an honest living is taught to be one of the requirements necessary to achieve happiness.
In summation, many factors can affect our lives and our happiness. According to the research that shows that 50% of our happiness is attributed to genetic factors, and 8%-15% to environmental factors, we are left with an approximate 40% that we can manipulate by living in accordance with morals and virtuous principles. Buddhism teaches certain values that can help us achieve such a life. For emotional health and happiness, we are taught not to dwell on the past or worry about the future, but rather to live in and enjoy the present moment. For happiness from meaningful relationships, we must choose wisely whom we let into our lives, associating with those people who also lead honest and virtuous lives and who can impact us in a positive and uplifting manner. We must let go of pain from previous relationships in order to grow, and focus on good memories only. We must also learn to control our minds and how we react to negative situations in order to retain our happiness and prevent anyone from diminishing it. As far as financial stability necessary for happiness, we must choose a fulfilling, honest profession which will allow us to grow and achieve goals that will make us feel accomplished, and we must spend that money on experiences rather than materialistic things; on charitable gifts rather than selfish indulgences; on causes that we believe in that will help bring more good into the world around us. After all, as the great Buddha teaches, “Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared.”
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