- Even the earliest humans sought the secrets to happiness.
- Ancient philosophical traditions, such as Stoicism and Buddhism, offer guidance on the true nature of happiness.
- Happiness comes from wisdom and acceptance, rather than the pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain.
- Contemplation on the darker sides of life, such as adversity and death, help clarify our values and priorities, resulting in a happier life.
The human brain is not designed to experience a steady state of contentment. Instead, it’s wired to help us survive. This necessarily means that we tend to focus on and remember negative experiences while moving on fairly quickly from positive ones.
This tendency is quite useful for survival but not so great for our moods. Is it any surprise, then, that so much of human life is spent chasing pleasure and avoiding pain? Indeed, some of the earliest recorded philosophies, religions, and traditions document the human desire to understand and pursue happiness. Remarkably, much of the ancient wisdom on happiness that emerged from China, Greece, and India around 2,500 years ago is consistent with what psychological science today teaches us about how we can increase our experiences of happiness and live our best lives.
The pursuit of happiness
Stoicism, an ancient Greek school of philosophy from the 3rd century BC, is making a major comeback. Stoicism is worthy of far more detailed exploration than I can offer in this article, but I would like to highlight some of the similarities between Buddhism and Stoicism in their approach to helping us achieve our greatest potential and manage the struggles of life with grace and wisdom.
Below, I offer three lessons on happiness shared by Stoicism and Buddhism. The similarities in these teachings are extraordinary, though they emerged independently in very different parts of the world and several hundred years apart. These lessons have stood the test of time and are the bases of many of the philosophical foundations of cognitive-behavioral therapy approaches.
1. Wanting to be happy all the time makes us unhappy.
In Buddhism, it’s called craving or attachment: that nagging desire for more or for something different than what is. When we strive for constant happiness or pleasure, we attach ourselves to a feeling that is, like all things, impermanent. This leads to disappointment and craving when our positive feelings wane, or desired circumstances change. Buddhism teaches that such suffering comes from our mindset and attachments, not the actual events or circumstances, which are simply behaving within the predictable laws of nature.
The Stoic philosophers also taught that wanting more, and wanting what we don’t have, is a sure path to unhappiness. Stoicism proposes that happiness comes from learning to want what we have rather than have what we want. The Stoic philosopher Epictetus said, “Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.” This concept is remarkably simple but also pretty revolutionary for those of us raised in a consumerist, capitalist society that implicitly and explicitly takes for granted that more is better and what we have is never enough. The concept isn’t limited to material possessions, however; it works just like our sense of dissatisfaction with personal attributes, life experiences, and even minor annoyances (e.g., traffic.)
Learning to want what we already have is at the heart of Buddhist gratitude meditation. We can easily cultivate this mindset with a brief daily gratitude practice. Listing three or five things we are grateful for (before bed, upon waking, or while brushing teeth can help make this habit stick) is all it takes.
We can also use contemplation or journaling to experience the Stoic practice of amor fati. This is a mental exercise of learning to not only accept but love whatever life gives us, including adversity. To give it a try, spend 5-10 minutes reflecting with a journal on the landscape of your life and appreciating the way it’s shaped you, taught you, and helped you become resilient.
2. Wisdom and acceptance lead to happiness.
Both Buddhism and Stoicism teach that happiness comes from focusing on what we can control and accepting what we cannot. And, as stated so eloquently in the serenity prayer, having the wisdom to know the difference.
To cultivate wisdom, both Buddhists and Stoics advocate rational, objective observation of the world and our experiences. This can be done with mindfulness, meditation, or any contemplative practice that allows us to sort through and discard the buildup of mental junk, distortions, and stories that accumulate each day. Beneath all of this mental clutter is a wise mind that can discern which facets of life are worth our attention (those we can change) and which we must simply accept (those circumstances out of our control).
Once our minds are clear and we know what is within our control, we focus our energies on that. This is both practical (e.g., we choose how we spend our time, what we eat, how we treat others, etc.) and psychological (e.g., we choose what to pay attention to, how to make sense of things that happen to us, etc.). The most profound and impactful of all the choices within our control is our reaction to life. Life is full of frustration, difficulties, unfairness, and grief. We have no ability to prevent these things. Our control lies in our attitudes as we face misfortune. As Viktor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning, said, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
3. Learn to embrace death.
Buddhism teaches that all things are impermanent and that death is inevitably bound up in life; it’s not something to be feared or avoided. In fact, meditations on the inevitability of death are a common practice in nearly all Buddhist traditions and in many secular meditation practices. Contemplation on death and acceptance of death as an intrinsic feature of life is thought to reduce anxiety about death and creates a sense of samvega, or spiritual urgency, which helps us to prioritize and make the most of the brief time we have on Earth.
Memento mori is the term used by the Stoic philosophers to remind us that death is inevitable and that our ability to hold that truth in mind helps us to live better and more fully. Ryan, from the Daily Stoic, puts it beautifully in his blog: “Time is the one thing you can never get back. Therefore, you have to spend your time wisely. So, meditate on death. Let it clarify who you want to be. Then let it drive you to take the right actions, using every single moment to become the person you want to be.”
While it can initially seem depressing to think about death, I recommend giving it a try. Close your eyes or grab your journal and try the following exercise:
Imagine how you would spend today if you had just one year left to live. What about if you had only one month? One day? One hour? Really think about would you do, what would you say and to whom, and what you wouldn’t bother worrying about. In light of this, explore:
- What is most important in your life? Who is most important to you?
- What are you not doing or saying that you wouldn’t want to die without the chance to do or say? What’s stopping you?
- What legacy do you hope to leave? How do you want to be remembered? Are you living in a way to accomplish that?
- What would you miss about your life and this world if you were gone?
- What are you wasting time on or worrying about that isn’t really important?
- How can you make adjustments in your life to live aligned with your priorities?
Write down any thoughts, ideas, and inspirations that arise during this exercise. Then take action! And remember to return to this exercise often to help you stay aligned and grow in the right direction.
Happiness is in your hands.
These three happiness practices are easy to understand but require consistency in implementation in order to really change our mindsets and increase our contentment. Often this path is most fruitful when we are accompanied by a mental health professional who can provide perspective, feedback, and compassion. Other times, we can make considerable progress on our own, such as with the use of daily journaling or meditation practices.
I wish you good health, wisdom, and joy on your journey!