What Does Meditation Have to Do With Happiness?

09/08/2016 07:59 pm ET

Everyone wants to get a refreshing night's sleep, wake up feeling good, and then enjoy the day. We want to express our love and be loved. We want our children to thrive. We want to be free from worry about our livelihood, our health, and our community. There is not a person on the planet who does not want these things in their lives. We all want to be happy.

From the time we're small children, we're told how to accomplish that. Depending on where we live and the culture we grow up in, the methods vary. Some communities say that you should obey your parents, study hard, and make something of yourself—and then you'll be happy. Some families emphasize finding the perfect partner, the one who will love us and support us and always be there—and then we'll be happy. Some societies say that having a lot of money and beautiful possessions is the goal—and then we'll be happy.

So why doesn't it work? Why do we feel bad so much of the time, like something's missing? Why doesn't our success satisfy us? After we've achieved our goals—the loving spouse, the peaceful home, the resources to travel or make art, our dream job—we keep looking for the next thing that will make us happy. A faster car, less belly fat, a college degree, another hundred cable channels (even though there's never anything worth watching).

We can see the dissatisfaction all around us, even in the wealthiest countries. Nothing is ever good enough. Western society especially is constantly telling us that we need a brighter smile (so buy this toothpaste), different sneakers, or an Academy Award. Then, we are told, we will be happy.

Why Nothing Is Ever Good Enough

In the Himalayas, where I grew up, people are generally poor, without a lot of resources. But just like people in the West, they have aspirations, things they want to acquire, places they want to go. So the people come down out of the mountains, or they move to the next village, and they work hard at jobs that don't pay very well, until they can finally afford a tiny apartment, and they cut a picture of New York City out of a magazine and hang it on the wall. "Someday, I'm going to go to America and live in New York and have all the beautiful things I see in the magazines." They're living without electricity or running water in a tiny apartment and working really hard, but they believe that when they get to New York, then they'll be happy.

Meanwhile, in New York, there are people who have all of those things. They have good jobs, and designer clothes, and of course their beautiful apartment has electricity and running water and maybe a doorman and a view of Central Park. But when I was in the city, I would meet people who couldn't wait to get out of there; they hated where they lived. They would plan camping trips to a national park or out into the forest. They wanted to learn how to build a campfire to cook their food. They had to carry all their water because there are no faucets in the woods.

So it seems like happiness is anything that we don't have right now, which is why it's so mystifying. If you have an apartment, a nice bed, and running water, then happiness is not having that; happiness is camping in rugged mountains. But if you're in the rugged mountains, then happiness is in the city.

What it comes down to is that we're not happy with who we are, and so we're not happy where we are, or with the things we have. But once we notice and acknowledge that, then we can work on relaxing our mind and stop focusing on the circumstances outside. If we don't have some kind of influence over our mind, some control or mastery over our thoughts, then it's the same story everywhere we go, whether it's New York City or the Himalaya mountains.

Making Friends With Your Mind: Meditation

In the Buddhist tradition I was raised in, and in other contemplative traditions, the method for being happy relies on changing things inside ourselves, not relying on external circumstances for our contentment. It turns out that a shift in perspective can transform a moment of suffering into one of happiness no matter what is going on around you, no matter what your situation. And the best way to change your perspective is to first make friends with your mind by getting to know it really well.

That is basically the practice of meditation—and it's also a result of meditation. While there are many instructions out there for how to meditate, one simple thing you can do is sit quietly watching your thoughts and observing your mind's movements. Without feeding your whims and compulsions or making value judgments, just watch your thoughts pass through your mind, like clouds across a clear blue sky. Don't try to grab them or examine them, just observe the thoughts passing by. (Here are some brief instructions on how to meditate, with the opportunity to practice for a couple of minutes)

Over time, with practice, you’ll get more familiar with your own habits of mind, and when thoughts come up, they’ll appear like old friends. Some you will like and trust more than others. You know what they want and where they’ll lead if you follow after them—and you'll find that you don't always have to. You can choose your path at this point. You can become a guide instead of a follower; you can calm yourself instead of stirring things up. Your mind will listen to you because there’s a close relationship. You’re like friends that help and support each other.

The trick for changing our dissatisfaction into happiness is that we need to work with our mind at every opportunity. Don't wait for the big things. Instead, practice with the small things, like when the coffee shop runs out of your favorite muffin. If you can transform your disappointment in small things, then little by little you can transform your reactions to bigger things. It is absolutely manageable. If we can change our mind's experience instead of trying to change the external situation, then we can truly be happy.

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