“Our idea of happiness can prevent us from actually being happy. We fail to see the opportunity for joy that is right in front of us when we are caught in a belief that happiness should take a particular form.” -Thich Nhat Hanh
The distinction between happiness and joy is an important one. Joy is much bigger than happiness. “Happiness” is dependent on external circumstances while “Joy” is not. Joy is tied to spirit and gratitude. The Greek word for happiness is “Makarios” which was used to describe the freedom of the rich from normal cares and worries, or to describe someone who received good fortune. The Greek word for Joy is “Chairo” which was used by the ancient greeks as the “culmination of being” and the “good mood of the soul”. As we well know, one can’t always experience material wealth and good fortune, but we can cultivate a “good mood of the soul.”
We may be hesitant to open ourselves up to joy. It can be a vulnerable experience because we fear it won’t last, that we are inviting disaster and are waiting for the other shoe to drop. Brene Brown coined the term “foreboding joy.” She describes it as the feeling that you get almost automatically when something good happens-- you dread it’s inevitable loss. Becoming aware of this, we can begin to set it aside and allow ourselves to experience the joy of the moment fully, knowing that although everything is impermanent, we might as well not deprive ourselves of the one sure thing-- the moment we are in. “These are anxious and fearful times, both of which breed scarcity. We’re afraid to lose what we love the most and we hate that there are no guarantees. We think not being grateful and not feeling joy will make it hurt less. We think if we can beat vulnerability to the punch by imagining loss, we’ll suffer less. We’re wrong. There is one guarantee: If we’re not practicing gratitude and allowing ourselves to know joy, we are missing out on the two things that will actually sustain us during the inevitable hard times.” (Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection)
You may have heard of the scientific research that suggests that lottery winners are not significantly happier than those who had been paralyzed in a car accident. (1978 study by psychologists Brickman, Coates and Janoff-Bulman) Although some of our happiness is determined by genetics, temperament, or our “set point,” a happiness equilibrium we each have and seem to gravitate to, there are some key factors that can influence our level of joy: Our ability to reframe an experience more positively, our ability to experience gratitude, and our ability to be kind and generous. (Findings by Psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky). Richard Davidson, neuroscientist, does neuroimaging research into a unified theory of the happy brain. He found four independent brain circuits that influence our lasting well-being: our ability to maintain positive states, our ability to recover from negative states (resilience) our ability to focus and avoid mind-wandering (meditation) and our ability to be generous (whether we are the one helping, being helped or simply witnessing an act of helping.)
The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World, features advice from the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu, a couple of real experts on Joy! One simply has to look into the faces of these two great men to see the “shining contentment” and “spiritual radiance” of Joy. In their book, they set forth the 8 Pillars of Joy. The 8 Pillars are divided into 4 qualities of the mind and 4 qualities of the heart - compassion and generosity are the most pivotal to happiness, but first we must develop some other qualities that help us turn more easily and frequently to compassion and generosity.
Perspective influences our ability to reframe our situation more positively. When we step back from our immediate situation and take a wider perspective, which spans a long period of time and multiple viewpoints, we realize that the reality we initially see is often only a part of the picture. Auschwitz survivor Viktor Frankl, says that our perspective toward life is our final and ultimate freedom. We may not be able to control our circumstances, but we can control the attitude we take.
Humility is the second pillar. “Humility” comes from Latin word “humus” which means earth or soil. Humility literally brings us back down to earth. If you remain humble, then there is a possibility to keep learning. There is a Tibetan saying that “wisdom is like rainwater - both gather in low places,” and another saying, “when the spring bloom comes, it starts in the valley, not on the hilltops.” Thinking we are special leads to loneliness and isolation. Arrogance comes from insecurity, needing to feel bigger than others because of a nagging fear that we are smaller. It stems from a confusion between our temporary roles and our fundamental identity. We are all divine beings, seeking joy and connection. When the Dalai Lama feels this danger he looks at a bug and reminds himself that, in some ways, the creature is better than he is because it is innocent and free of malice. “Sometimes we confuse humility with timidity. This gives little glory to the one who has given us our gifts. Humility is the recognition that your gifts are from God, and this lets you sit relatively loosely to those gifts. Humility allows us to celebrate the gifts of others, but it does not mean you have to deny your own gifts or shrink from using them. God uses each of us in our own way, and even if you are not the best one, you may be the one who is needed or the one who is there.” - Archbishop Desmond Tutu
Humor is another key ingredient to Joy. Douglas Abrams, co-author of “The Book of Joy” has worked with many spiritual leaders, and says that laughter and a sense of humor seem to be the universal index of spiritual development. ”Humor”, like “humility” comes from the same root word for humanity: “humus” We must have a sense of humility to laugh at ourselves, and to laugh at ourselves reminds us of our shared humanity. It’s not about belittling humor that puts others down and builds yourself up. It’s about bringing people to common ground. Jokes are funny because they break our expectations and help us to accept the unexpected. The Dalai Lama was described thusly “The Dalai Lama seems amused by everything that is going on around him, taking pleasure in whatever is going on, but not taking anything too personally, and not worrying or taking offense at anything that is happening.” So look for the humor in life, and you will find it. And you will stop asking “Why me?” And start recognizing the fact that life happens to all of us.
Acceptance is key. This is different from resignation. The Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu are two of the most tireless activists for creating a better world for all of its inhabitants, but their activism comes from a deep acceptance of what is. The Archbishop did not accept the inevitability of apartheid, but he did accept its reality. When we accept our life as it is, including all its joys and hardships, we can cease resisting what is and turn towards what might happen next. When we see clearly, we make better decisions, and can turn a challenging situation into something positive. The practice of meditation brings us into the moment so we can perceive reality without all our expectations and projections, and then accept the vulnerability, discomfort and anxiety of everyday life. It is in the moment, not the past or the future, that we find acceptance. Eckhart Tolle encourages us to learn from our past but not dwell there. We can get lost if we spend too much time delving into our past, and whatever you need to know about the unconscious past in you, the challenges of the present will bring it out. (The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle) “You may think that you need more time to understand the past or become free of it, in other words, that the future will eventually free you of the past. This is a delusion. Only the present can free you of the past.” Perhaps we think our joy lies in the future, but waiting to be happy when we achieve a certain goal is another trap. Goal-setting and vision work is important for inspiration and growth. However, your commitment to the goal should not be contingent on your ability to attain it. Things are beyond our control. If we pursue the goal diligently, but do not be fixated on a preconceived notion of result, there might be unexpected outcomes that are even better than what we originally had in mind Acceptance is the final Pillar of the Mind, and it leads to the first Pillar of the Heart: forgiveness. When we accept the present, we can forgive and release the desire for a different past.
Forgiveness. No one is incapable of forgiving and no one is unforgivable. The Book of Joy is full of stories of extreme forgiveness: Mothers who forgave the men who murdered their children, victims of terrorism, and people who were permanently disabled or falsely imprisoned. The Dalai Lama speaks of the perpetrators as people who may not be experiencing acute pain and suffering right now, but who are creating conditions for their own future suffering by committing such negative actions. If you develop compassion for them and the suffering they will endure, and cultivate a sense of concern for their well-being, then there is no place for anger and hatred to grow. What forgiveness does not mean: You don’t have to forget, you remember the thing and keep choosing forgiveness. You still seek justice. You don’t lose sight of the humanity of the person, while responding to the wrong with clarity and firmness. Without forgiveness, we remain tethered to the person who harmed us. When we forgive, we take back control of our own fate and our feelings. We become our own liberator.
Gratitude moves us from focusing on lack to abundance. “Joy is a grateful response to what life offers you in this moment.” -Brother David Steindl-Rast. The gift in every moment is the opportunity it offers us. Sometimes it is the opportunity to enjoy the moment, and other times it is the opportunity to rise to the challenge. So whatever life gives you, you can respond with joy. Joy is the happiness that does not depend on what happens. There is no guarantee that you will have another moment, so each is precious. Anthony Ray Hinton, who was wrongfully imprisoned on death row for 30 years does not hold resentment and bitterness. He says “I get up in the morning, and I don’t need anyone to make me laugh. I’m going to laugh on my own, because I have been blessed to see another day, and when you are blessed to see another day that should automatically give you joy.” Scientists have long known that our brains have evolved with a negative bias. It was advantageous for our survival to focus on what was wrong or dangerous. Gratitude cuts across this default mode of the mind. Gratitude is motivating, not de-motivating. UC Davis professors Emmons and McCullough found that those who focus on gratitude are more likely to have made progress toward their important personal goals. Grateful people also report more positive emotions, more vitality and optimism, and greater life satisfaction, as well as lower levels of stress and depression.
Compassion. Too much self-centered thinking is the source of suffering. Buddha said “What is the one thing, which when you possess, you have all other virtues? It is compassion.” A compassionate concern for others’ well-being is the source of happiness. When we think of alleviating other people’s suffering, our own suffering is reduced. We all understand physical pleasure - how a good meal or a good song makes us feel. But a more profound and longer-lasting joy comes from a sense of love and affection. “If you develop a strong sense of concern for the well-being of all sentient beings and in particular all human beings, this will make you happy in the morning, even before coffee.” - Dalai Lama. The Dalai lama says this is a hard thing to convey just speaking about it theoretically. It is something you have to work out in actual life. Try out being kind when you are walking down the street… say good morning or smile at people you encounter, even when you are not feeling like it and not expecting a particular response. Self-compassion is important too, so extend this understanding and well-wishing to ourselves.
Generosity is a natural outgrowth of compassion. We don’t have to wait until the feelings of compassion arise before we choose to be generous. We learn to enjoy generosity by doing it. Charity is prescribed by almost every religious tradition. One of the 5 pillars of islam. In Judaism it is called “tzedakah,” which literally means justice. In Hinduism and Buddhism it is called “dana.” And in Christianity it is “charity.” There is a physical basis for this spiritual practice. The reward centers in our brain light up as strongly when we give as when we receive, sometimes even more so. Generosity is associated with better health and longer life expectancy. Generosity is catching - generous people are attractive because they are filled with joy, so others see generosity not as a burden but as a joy. Archbishop Tutu calls this “being an oasis of peace, a pool of serenity that ripples out to all of those around us.” When we are caring for others and not burdened by our own self-agenda, we do not need to be seen in a particular way. This makes us less pretentious, more open and honest. This brings ease to those around us.
Lest you be daunted by the 8 Pillars of Joy, remember that they are not skills to be mastered, but our natural state. Instituting small daily practices to help us stay in touch with these joyful qualities can be fun and rewarding. Our normal daily lives give us plenty of opportunities for practice, and joy is contagious! It wants to grow and spread! You may not always be happy, but if you seek joy, you will find it.
** For further reading check out these insightful works. Much of the content of this article was inspired by them: Book of Joy by the 14th Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu and Douglas Abrams, The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown, The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle, TedTalk by Brother David Steindl-Rast “Want to be Happy? Be Grateful”)