The Pursuit of Happiness

1 of 6

I believe that the very purpose of life is to be happy. From the moment of birth, every human being wants happiness and does not want suffering. Neither social conditioning nor education nor ideology affect this. From the very core of our being, we simply desire contentment. Therefore, it is important to discover what will bring about the greatest degree of happiness. Hence we should devote our most serious efforts to bring about mental peace.

If we are going to follow the Dalai Lama's counsel that the pursuit of happiness is at the core of an ethical life, then we need to understand what happiness is and what kinds of happiness are genuine and contribute to compassion.

While we probably can agree that everyone seeks happiness, how does this relate to ethical living? In this lesson you will consider the nature of happiness.

Relating to Happiness

What does "happiness" mean to you? Do you think others would answer similarly? When you think about what makes or would make you happy, which aspects do you think are shared by others? Which do you think are "universal"? When you think about what makes or would make you unhappy, which do you think are shared by others and which do you think are universal?

In our everyday lives there are certain things most of us consider fundamental to joy and happiness — for example, good health, material wealth and companionship. While all of these factors are, in fact, sources of happiness, you will see what the Dalai Lama considers an essential truth:

In order for an individual to be able to fully utilize them towards the goal of enjoying a happy and fulfilled life, your state of mind is key.

Are you happy? Unhappy? When you ponder these questions, what do you use to evaluate them? What do you measure against?

Often we evaluate our happiness by comparing ourselves with others. We compare our income and possessions; we evaluate whether others are more successful, more beautiful, more clever...

Is your happiness connected to a comparison of yourself with others? Which criteria do you use?

We also may compare ourselves to "ideals" of what we think we should be or have, and our happiness becomes connected to images of happiness presented to us by our culture, our media, our education system.

In the United States there is a popular phrase, "keeping up with the Joneses," which describes comparing yourself with your neighbors. Is your happiness related to what others have — a bigger TV, a newer and bigger car? Do you have images of what would make you happy? If so, reflect on where these images come from.

As you will see in this course:

Constant comparison with those who are smarter, more beautiful, or more successful than ourselves also tends to breed envy, frustration, and unhappiness.

How might comparing yourself with others become a positive force, something that enhances your contentment?

If we want to compare ourselves to others, rather than focusing on those who have more we can look at those who are less fortunate than us and reflect on the benefits we do have.

Happiness is relative

We can't say that any one thing makes us or others happy. Different circumstances, different people can cause happiness one moment, suffering another. What brings one person happiness may have the opposite effect on someone else.

Can you imagine a situation that would be happiness for one person and misery for another? The Dalai Lama offers an extreme example:

Most of us would be extremely sorry to be sent to prison for life. Yet a criminal under threat of the death penalty would likely be very happy to be reprieved with a sentence of life imprisonment.

Have you ever been unhappy because you felt you didn't have enough money? Can you imagine that someone else in your shoes could feel extremely blessed to have what you had?

In New Orleans, people lived with all their possessions — their clothes , their TVs, their washing machines... When they lost their homes and could only take a few things with them, do you think their sense of what they needed to be happy changed?

Expand this insight to the societal level. Are notions of democracy and economic success relative? Might, for example, what we see as constraints on our freedom be seen differently in another society?


Think of something you now think would make you happy. Think back a year or so; would it be the same thing(s)?