A Unified Theory of Happiness

An East meets West approach.

The "How" of Honest Happiness

Stop unnecessary suffering, rigidity, fantasy, and start living now

I wrote about happiness because I found myself debating every thought on the matter I ever encountered. The stakes of my intra-personal debates were high because we humans suffer above and beyond all other animals. All beings want to survive, utilizing various strategies. Death, disease, decay cause all species to suffer, but only human beings add misery whenever we can.

We hang onto thoughts and feelings, making them a painful, but safe harbor to which we return compulsively, regardless of changing conditions. The rain’s gone, the sun’s come out, but we keep seeing clouds. Plagued with worries and regrets, hopes and expectations, our minds are muddled. We are intelligent, but rarely clear. Riddled with anxiety, we hasten from moment to moment without noticing much at all. Life feels short as the good flies by unnoticed. The only times we look up and pause is when we see an advantage or something bad happening.

We are in this predicament even though we actually have more potential to reduce suffering than any other creature. Unlike others, we can decide not to compete and instead widen the narrow circle of kinship, pouring compassion over strangers, enemies, even other species. Instead of aiming at power, we can aim at love and “follow our bliss” (as Joseph Campbell suggested). We can climb the mountain top of awareness and direct our lives from that vantage point, instead of from desire.

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I have always found that survival at the expense of others is sad and a disgrace to our creative, human potential. Each and every single one of us deserves to fulfill this potential with which we are all born. Happiness is the antidote to unnecessary suffering that we inflict by either trying to be better or preventing others from being better. Happiness is the experience of our aliveness, not just the experience of staying alive.

Because of all that and more, happiness is not and ought not to be treated like a superficial state of mind or light matter. Yet, what do we usually hear in the media? Promises. Fantasy. Single-pointed approaches, suggesting, “Just do this,” “Just think that,” or, “Just be happy.” I passionately believe that to be happy, we must work on a variety of skills, train our mind in a variety of ways, and look at life within and around us from a variety of vantage points. No single approach or aspect will do. Life is too grand to have but one good response to it. What we need is a grand, multifaceted response to the whole of life. What we need is honest happiness.

Taking into account science, direct experience, many schools of thoughts, modern and ancient, western and eastern, I think that honest happiness must entail,

• Occasional bad feelings (“Smiles come best from those who weep”--Rumi)

• Occasional bad thoughts (Don’t trust the alligator)

• Bad events (Death and taxes really do happen; Life happens…)

• The human condition of imperfection (I am, therefore I err)

• De-identification with the perfect “other” (“Be a light onto yourself”--Buddha).

Allowing the occasional “negative” to play a part in happiness helps create the necessary space for a grand response to life. Also, the very aspects of life we shun, come back to haunt us eventually. Unable to live up to our ideal self, we end up with self-punishing and self-loathing. In the long run, inflexible positive rules cause inflexible negative responses. Honest happiness cannot come about when we try to be joyous always; look at the bright side compulsively; deny pain; hope to become super-human; or feel compelled to emulate some super-human “other,” be it an idealized person or superior set of thoughts. All this is designed to avoid real life.

Seeing the dark side in us and even experiencing it occasionally is not the problem. However, seeing only the dark side and experiencing it without good reason is the problem. We must be able to see whatever is. Any rigid idea about our inner or outer reality makes us attach to negative experiences. It is difficult to open our eyes to our ever-changing reality with all its greatness, beauty, strength, and opportunities when our mind has formed fixed, particular opinions about reality. Fixations keep our eyes closed. Therefore, honest happiness rests upon mindfulness that is awareness, which is what Buddhists have known for ages.

The best thing we can do for ourselves is to slow down our mind, observe, and focus. This will sharpen our sense of existence which we need to see opportunity in difficulty, the “good” in the “bad,” the little flower on which we almost stepped, the clear sky beyond the clouds. As we so begin to live with awareness of the whole of life, fixations dissolve and give way to the fluency of life. It is this fluency of life to which we can learn to respond in flexible ways. Many skills must be learned, applied, and practiced. In my opinion, honest happiness is the result of a skillful, flexible consciousness that corresponds to the grand flow of life.

While inviting honest happiness into our lives takes devotion and time, we can immediately stop ourselves from dreaming about the one-size fits-all approach to happiness, the simple solution, or the one thing missing. Instead we can begin to pay attention to the whole of our life with the utmost kindness. We can whisper “yes” to life the way it is, until, one day, we can shout out with confidence that having a sharp sense of life is better than fantasy and better than the best of all dreams.

Andrea F. Polard, Psy.D., is the author of A Unified Theory of Happiness.

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