I have chosen to make happiness the subject of my doctoral thesis for a number of reasons. Primarily, it is a practical matter because all beings seek to be happy! This makes the study thoroughly inclusive. Moreover I think the question of happiness is a very elusive and perplexing one for it easily escapes any concrete and definite qualifications being applied to it. Hence I think the allure of happiness lies in the fact that it is something everyone talks about with ease yet when pressed further, would probably find it quiet hard to say what exactly they mean when they refer to happiness.
I do not wish to delve into the question of what will make us happy nor discover a hidden elixir to happiness. This is not a foray into the rapidly expanding field of the ‘science of happiness’. Rather, I would like to undertake a critical and analytical examination into the meaning of happiness as can be deduced from the Buddhist context. Subsequently, I view Buddhism as a diagnosis – it prescribes the remedy to the problem. The problem is suffering (First Noble Truth) and the remedy is freedom from suffering (Third Noble Truth) achievable by partaking of the medicine (Fourth Noble Truth).
In light of such an understanding, I am curious to see if a coherent model of happiness can be articulated in accordance with the Buddhist point of view. Moreover, I would like to observe if this could further expand the frontiers of the dialogue on happiness and perhaps even offering a somewhat innovative reading of it.
Let us begin at the end: in an ultimate sense we can say that that which Buddhism articulates as ‘happiness’ is enshrined in its highest goal, nirvana. Briefly and simply, by nirvana is meant the cessation of the process that fuels the fire of rebirth and brings into continual becoming the five aggregates via the twin forces of craving (tanha) and ignorance (avijja). So happiness is just that: the cessation of this never-ending process of becoming and re-becomming in samsara. Such a formulation begs interesting questions: why is ‘non-existence’ (nirvana) preferable and ultimately more desirable than ‘life’? Is life itself not worth living? Of course it is. Then why make an effort, via the Noble Eightfold Path, to bring the forces that constitute the stream of life, to a stop? Because, as Buddhism states, samsara and thus life, is characterised by the three discomforting marks (tilakkhana) of suffering, impermanence and not-self. Thus no condition, good or bad, is permanent, for everything is in a constant state of flux. A bad day today may well be a good day tomorrow. It can thus be argued that the manner in which it is possible to work towards securing conditions of permanency in relation to happiness within the scheme of thsee three marks of existence is seek to do good, wholesome actions. For these bring to fruition good results – whether they reap their visibility in this lifetime or in future lifetimes to come. However ultimately I understand the state of secure happiness only beginning to settle in once the aspirant switches modes from a mere worldling and steps upon the path culminating in sainthood (arahant), by initially becoming a sotappana. It is this that signals the beginning in securing a firm foothold insafeguarding oneself against the multitude of violent forces that plague samsara. It is only this path that will eventually lead one towards realizing that highest happiness, nirvana, whereby the ensuing happiness is that one has untied the knot of the perpetual onslaught of dukkha.
As the postulate of the First Noble Truth states – everything is suffering. Now, what does that imply for happiness? That it too, in a subtle manner, is a form of suffering. Why? It is suffering when one is striving after it, causing distresses and anxiety as to whether the goal one sets for oneself that they define as resulting in happiness will be achieved or not. Additionally, once that happiness is reached, say emotional or material, it is an effort to maintain it and make sure that it does not slip away. This highlights the ever-changing nature of happiness, explaining why it falls under the generic rubric of dukkha, as outlined in the First Noble Truth.
Consequently, it appears that happiness is a number of things: a linguistic concept, a cultural construct and an ethical query. But it does not mean that a state that corresponds to what we imagine as happiness does not exist. This is not pessimism but realism. For we can say that what the Buddha taught was first and foremost a Path towards realizing everlasting happiness – nirvana. He discovered an antidote to the malady binding upon all, dedicating his lifetime to teaching the Dhamma. He even outlined a multiplicity of ‘happiness’s’ to his varied audiences – the mundane happiness for the householders and the supramundane one for the renunciants to cultivate.
Such a distinction leads to a pressing and curious issue: if nirvana can be deemed as the highest happiness, does it mean that all those who have not realized nirvana, are ultimately severed from any sense and possession of happiness? No, because happiness does not only reside in renunciation and stopping the process, but rather happiness can be derived in daily life from the deeds we undertake towards ourselves and others. Such as, working on ourselves to perhaps subdue and eventually try to root out defilements and perform wholesome deeds, like charity and benevolence in the face of unpleasant circumstances.
Of course this is all much easier said than done, but if the Buddha took a chance and decided to renounce the world to see if he can solve the problem of ‘suffering, sickness, old age and death’, we can take that as testament to the veracity of his Teaching. Even though we may be far removed from realizing nirvana, the possibility for happiness here and now is always present – in its multiple manifestations, both mundane and supramundane.
I therefore would like to conclude with the following intriguing meditation: for example, for ‘whom ‘ is happiness, if in ultimate terms there is no self? Moreover, is happiness a state encoded into the scheme of existence, just as the possibility of freedom and enlightenment is, or is it merely a human construction, based upon possibly erroneous views, albeit views based on universal human aspirations?