What do I mean when I say that humans have the capacity to live in joy? When I think deeply about this phrase, I am reminded of an experience I had when I was a young girl. My dad, who at that time worked as the Commander of the Allied Student Battalion on Fort Bliss in El Paso, TX, had come home from work after a particularly hard day. My mom was furious (again) at my teenage sister, who in turn was, of course, furious at my mom, and they had slammed themselves into their separate bedrooms. I was in the living room, desperately waiting for dad to come home to resolve the situation. I could tell that he was dead tired, and now he had the whole mother-daughter situation to figure out and smooth over. Yet even in the midst of all of this, he still had a smile on his lips. My dad had been like this for as long as I could remember. He was happy no matter what he was doing or what happened to him. I finally asked him what made him smile. He simply said, “No one can destroy my happiness.” At the time, I thought that meant that he wasn’t going to the resolve the situation with my mom and sister because it might destroy his happiness. Indeed, I was wrong and the situation was resolved within fifteen minutes. It was only later in life that I finally realized that his answer was, in fact, his credo. “No one can destroy my happiness.”
When I rephrase this sentence, I am struck by another phrase I saw on a bookmark once. The phrase was in fact a paraphrase of the Buddha’s desired outcome of the Eightfold Path – happiness: “There is no way to happiness; Happiness is the Way.” I think both of these illustrations talk to the same issue. Happiness is a way of life – an attitude, not a goal or a priority. Although happiness has come to mean superficial joy in modern society – such as the joy you experience when you buy something at a store – I am using happiness as a way to say “living in joy”. In this essay, I will use the two somewhat interchangeably, even though I perceive the word “joy” in today’s world to denote something more deeply felt than happiness. Yet, getting back to the task at hand, what does the word “happiness” or the phrase “living in joy” truly mean?
In our modern materialistic society, happiness is often thought of as the emotion you feel once you’ve procured more material things, such as a new CD or more money. For some individuals, happiness is irreverently tied to material wealth. “The more money you have,” so the old adage goes, “the happier you are.” This is a superficial definition of happiness at best. Happiness is more than material wealth. Happiness can encompass many different aspects of the same idea. Happiness can result from exhilaration, entertainment, achievement of personal goals, joy of being with friends, or even a loving relationship with a significant other. Yet these ways of being happy do not describe the kind of happiness I mean. The happiness I am talking about comes only from within. It supplies itself. It is detached, independent, and self-sufficient. It can exist perfectly whether there are many people or no one around. It pervades each thought, feeling, and action to such a degree that everything you think, feel, say or do results from the happiness inside you. If practiced regularly, it can become Hindi infinite bliss, Buddhist enlightenment, or Christian perfection.
The happiness I’ve tried to define may very well be the most elusive pursuit of the human race. Many individuals have tried to attain happiness and have fallen short throughout history. The ironic thing about the seeming elusiveness of happiness is that it is already inside of us. This happiness was in abundant supply when we were babies and small children. To tap into this life-giving happiness we need to eliminate the obstacles within ourselves that are blocking our ability to be happy. This may sound easy on paper, but it really isn’t for most of us. The human psyche has an amazing way of making the simplest things difficult.
NOTE: While this definition may not include all of the aspects of happiness you believe there to be, remember that it is a WORKING definition. I invite you to modify, argue, converse, agree with the ideas in this essay…whatever will bring you into a conversation on living in joy. The point is to give you a beginning sketch of happiness to work from; it is up to you to rework the sketch so it better fits you.