Hardwiring Happiness

In this edition of Natural Presence I’ll explore happiness — what it is, what it isn’t, and how mindfulness meditation can draw us nearer to an authentic relationship with and experience of it.


"Our deepest happiness is not born from accumulating new experiences. It is born from letting go of what is unnecessary and knowing ourselves to be always at home."

-Sharon Salzberg-


I. What is “Happiness” Anyway? 

“The word happiness is commonly used to designate something intricate and ambiguous, one of those ideas which humanity has intentionally left vague so that each individual might interpret it in their own way.”

-Henri Bergson-

“As it turns out, the notion that we should be able to manifest our own individual happiness is a relatively recent concept in human history, starting in the late 17th century and continuing to develop during the 18th (see under: Thomas Jefferson and John Locke). Before then, suffering was considered the norm and happiness was thought to be a matter of luck. In fact, hap is both the Old Norse and Old English root of happiness—and it means luck or chance.”

-Barbara Graham-

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What images or words come to mind when you read the word happiness?

So often our idea happiness is “secondhand". Billboards, ads, media, family, friends, cultural fads and frenzies — all of these (and more) to greater and lesser degrees, contribute to our idea of happiness. But we are rarely given the opportunity to consider deeply or solely for ourselves what truly makes us (yes, the particular you reading this very sentence) happy. But to recognize that "our" happiness is perhaps not entirely our own is critical.

The necessity of such an endeavor is without question. Each of us experiences a pull to recognize and connect with a lasting and sure sense of contentment or ease or comfort-in-being. However, we often overlook that our beliefs about happiness inform what we look for (our direct experience of its character), where we look for it (inner v outer), when we look for it (isn't it always just out of reach?) -- and even how experience it (fleeting? lasting? not even real?).

Regarding the feasibility of such an undertaking, something as bold yet necessary as recognizing and realizing happiness, I find this observation by Leo Tolstoy inspiring and instructional: “If it is true that there are as many minds as there are heads, then there are as many kinds of love as there are hearts.”

I believe that there must be as many ‘happinesses’ as there are minds and hearts to seek it. And simultaneously, that happiness is as personal and particular as your own pulse.

Your happiness is completely and uniquely your own. 

I find this often helps to overcome the first dread obstacle of seeking happiness: our belief that we are incapable of finding it, or that the we don't have what we need to even begin to look for it. Quite the contrary, you yourself define happiness -- your happiness is an expression of who you are most deeply.

To recognize this is the beginning of a new and profound freedom: namely freedom from comparing. After all, what keeps us in a perpetual state of dissatisfaction and seeking is our seeming-certainty that what we have or who we are is not enough. 

Please, though,do give me the benefit of the doubt: I am emphatically not restating that now popular trope "You are responsible for (creating and perpetuating) your happiness (at all costs)" — which carries with it the subtle message of "and if you ever get sad it’s your fault."

That’s a load of bunk.

However I do believe that you deserve to contemplate, learn, pursue and experience your unique happiness.

The second obstacle to finding happiness rests in our seemingly-persistent belief that happiness is far off. But as we will shortly see, that is simply not the case. 

What does mindfulness have to do with this endeavor? Everything, it turns out. Practicing mindfulness meditation we cultivate our ability to connect with the present moment in a way that is patient, open, and non-judgmental. Simultaneously, we train our attention to return to the present moment when it has wandered.

And this ability, as it turns out, is foundational to finding happiness.


II. Happiness & Attention

“The difference between misery and happiness depends on what we do with our attention.”

-Sharon Salzberg-

“What you practice grows stronger.”

-Shauna Shapiro-

“On average, about a third of a person’s strengths are innate, built into his or her own genetically based temperament, talents, mood, and personality. The other two-thirds are developed over time. You get them by growing them.”

-Rick Hanson-

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In 2010 Harvard University psychologists conducted a now infamous study exploring the relationship between happiness and attention. The researchers developed an app that allowed them to survey study participants throughout their day and to ask in real time: 

1) Are you happy right now? 

2) What are you doing? 

3) Do you feel your mind (i.e. attention) is wandering? 

Researchers found that respondent’s reported their attention was wandering (meaning people were doing one thing but thinking about another) almost 47% of the time. Much to their surprise, researchers found that what people were thinking about had twice as much influence on their happiness as what they were doing.

It was the conclusion of the researchers (and the title of their paper) that a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. 

Contemplating and recognizing what brings us happiness is only half the work. The other half is to cultivate our ability to sustain our attention with that experience, as opposed to becoming lost in thought. 

Yet the practice of meditation offers more! For in addition to being a practice for training our attention, mindfulness is a tool of insight (or you could say discernment, or clear seeing, or innate wisdom).

As Zen master Dogen once said: “Practicing meditation, we discern the essential from the inessential.” 

First, we connect with our experience, then we sustain that attention and notice: when in life do I feel at ease, relaxed, engaged, open to the world, when does my heart sing? — in other words: when am I happy?


III. The Not-Happiness We Mistake for Happiness

The fleeting experience of pleasure is dependent upon circumstance, on a specific location or moment in time. It is unstable by nature, and the sensation it evokes soon becomes neutral or even unpleasant."

-Matthieu Ricard-

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The first time I read these words, there was a long pause. Deep within, I felt a kind of heat, and then nausea, and then tears.

In my early twenties I graduated from nursing school, moved in with a friend, and began my first job working as a Registered Nurses on a Cardiac Intensive Care Unit. The work was rewarding but stressful. I would spend hours after finishing my shift mulling over all the things I thought I did wrong, or could have done better. And the days before I went into work, I would spend a lot of the time anxious about what might happen the following day. What situation would I be put in? Could I handle it? Was I ‘good enough’? Would I make a mistake that cost a patient their life and their health?

To counteract all these deep feelings of dis-ease, I would cram my days off with as many activities as I could that brought me pleasure. My time was planned nearly to the minute. I would race from one activity to another. The gym. The bookstore. The cafe. Home for Netflix. Call a friend. Facebook. Netflix. Read a book. Back to back to back, on and on. No gaps. No breaks. The moment I felt myself beginning to get bored, I would jump to the next activity. 

Contemplating Ricard’s words caused something inside me to break. To break open. To break open and recognize that I was not actually happy — and when I thought about it deeply, I realized, I wasn’t happy, I was actually irritable. Especially if I or my day got “off schedule” (like I wound up stuck in traffic, or if a store or cafe didn’t have a particular food I wanted, or if the tea I ordered didn’t taste quite right. Does any of this sound familiar?).

And the problem was that I was trying to stuff as much pleasure as possible into my life. I didn’t like to feel bored or uncomfortable or like I was wasting time. 

But by trying to push away discomfort and displeasure at all cost, I was shutting myself off from a part of my experience that was undeniable. There is no one who is only having a good time or has everything they want when they want it. Many images in marketing and media suggest that an unending congo line of happiness is not just possible, but necessary for a “good” life, but here I was, following that prescription. And all it made me was anxious and irritable.  

Pleasure is the not-happiness that we believe is happiness. But in practicing mindfulness meditation, be it formally or informally, we can actually begin to discern when we are chasing pleasure — chasing a good feeling, or even just trying to avoid a bad feeling — as opposed to experiencing happiness.  


IV. Toward Realizing True Happiness

"By happiness, I mean a deep sense of flourishing that arises from an exceptionally healthy mind. This is not a mere pleasurable feeling, a fleeting emotion, or a mood, but an optimal state of being that underlies and suffuses all emotional states -- that embraces all the joys and sorrows that come to us."

-Matthieu Ricard-

“The outward freedom that we shall attain will only be in exact proportion to the inner freedom to which we may have grown at a given moment.”

-Mahatma Gandhi-

“Happiness is a heart at rest.”

-Nancy McBride-

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We have become so accustomed to seeking the shortest, quickest, fastest way to get the best results possible. 

But as Mary Oliver pointed out: “Things take the time they take / Don’t worry / How many roads did St. Augustine walk before he became St. Augustine?

Still, it is a common belief among meditators and spiritual seekers that if only we heard the right teaching at the right moment from the right teacher, that like a key entering into a lock we would be opened and freed. We would finally know true and lasting happiness. But so often, we misunderstand the teacher’s true form:

This moment is the right moment, is the right teaching, and is, in fact, the teacher.

The present moment is the only one we’ve got. Still, while the potential for arriving with and accepting ourselves and our lives completely is ever-present, as Rick Hanson pointed out, our strengths are got through growth — and the path of meditation is indeed a path — a journey, a learning, and an unfolding. The radical opportunity that the practice of mindfulness offers is to cleary recognize not only what brings us happiness, but what deepens our connection with and understanding of that happiness. It also offers us a way to cultivate, in an on-going way, the strength, compassion, love, and lightness we need to see the journey through to its perfect end.

Brandon Everett