The Pursuit of Happiness

My friend, the psychologist, Dr Phil Harker, has a formula for achieving psychological robustness. If we are to be well-adjusted, he teaches, first we should take steps to know ourselves, then we must learn to accept ourselves, and then finally, if we are to live lives of contentment, we must forget ourselves.

It has been truly said, that those who are most content, don’t think less of themselves, they, in fact, think of themselves less.

People who are depressed can’t let go of their problems and are obsessed with themselves. Try as they may their minds continually come back to their problems and they wrestle with them over and over. (Psychologists call this process rumination. It is a metaphor stolen from the digestive processes of ruminant animals who chew their food over and over to help digest cellulose. But unfortunately rumination in human beings does not help us digest our problems att all – it intensifies them!)

Very perceptively the Dalai Llama has said, “If you want others to be happy, be compassionate. If you want to be happy, be compassionate.” Obviously those that are compassionate are able to focus their minds on the suffering of others, rather than their own suffering. It is part of the formula forgetting ourselves.

Similarly, the research of the positive psychologist, Martin Seligman suggests that if we want to have a long- term sense of well-being we need to align to a purpose greater than ourselves. When we seek to promote our own happiness, paradoxically we revert to issues of our own self interest and this prevents us from forgetting ourselves and as a consequence deprives us of an opportunity to promote our own sense of well-being.

Even though the efforts of Martin Seligman and his colleagues have only been manifest in the last ten years or so, many of the sages in times past had learnt this lesson as well. Shantideva, an eighth century Buddhist scholar wrote:

Whatever joy there is in this world
All comes from desiring others to be happy.
And whatever suffering there is in the world,
All comes from desiring myself to be happy.

But what need is there to say much more?
The childish work for their own benefit,
The Buddhas work for the benefit of others.
Just look at the difference between them!

So contentment, well-being, enduring happiness – whatever we wish to call it – comes from not pursuing it for its own sake, but as an indirect process of subjugating the self. The pursuit of material possessions, attractive partners, status and fame and all such things that we form attachments to, in the end can’t help us in this pursuit because they are all self-serving. It is a marvellous enigma that what we all want most from life – contentment – can’t be achieved by directly pursuing it!

I have written a little parable to illustrate this point. You might care to read it – it is Chapter 12 in Augustus Finds Serenity.