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How Do You Find True Happiness?

Leonard Kelley holds a bachelor's in physics with a minor in mathematics. He loves the academic world and strives to constantly explore it.

Buddhist principles and practice can help you on your journey toward happiness.

Buddhist principles and practice can help you on your journey toward happiness.

An Elusive Goal

Happiness is that elusive goal for so many people, but what a goal to strive for. It certainly helps to know as much about the science and methods that are most tried and true, one of which is Buddhist in principle and practice.

While you read this article, reflect on how both hard facts as well as philosophy are useful tools to help you, but that in the end, it is you with the greatest control. Through this article, I hope you can gain some control over that and maybe come away a little happier too.

Illusions

One of the central tenets of Buddhism is developing recognition and acceptance of the inherent emptiness of life, which then allows us to achieve enlightenment. It is very easy to first view this statement in a negative light. How can one mean life is empty? Don’t think of it as a lack of meaning; rather, we are lifting a veil, making ourselves “even more conducive to happiness.” But emptiness has inherently different meanings depending on what sect of Buddhism you subscribe to (Wright 142-5).

From a secular viewpoint, we should use the lesson most emptiness models teach: That our reality is what we build it to be, and so we can perceive falsehoods if we are not careful. By emptying ourselves, we are encouraging more objective thinking. Most Buddhist teachings prescribe meditation as the best method for stripping away the layers our senses cloud us with, and by focusing on the breath, we provide clarity to our thoughts (Ibid).

Another key part of the process is accepting all thoughts by processing them. It is easy to want to ignore things, but instead, one needs to examine them and then put them aside as it is accepted as existing. We gain control as we do this, and we can make daunting things rather pleasant as we reveal their true worth. We are the ones in control over what we like and don’t care for, for “what we see is a matter of interpretation,” which we humans assign to all things. This is at the core of the emptiness theory. The doctrine of emptiness is “not the absence of everything but the absence of essences” that prevents us from seeing the truth (146-9).

Many different Buddhist philosophies, therefore, have us not give feelings more than their present due. But there is a value complaint to be had, for are we tuning ourselves off to a piece of the world by being overattentive? Feelings offer “real-world feedback” and are meant to respond to things. They do inform us of our environment and were an evolutionary trait to help us feel what we needed. That is, feelings “convey to the organism what’s good for it and what’s bad for it.” True feelings are informative, but what makes a feeling true versus false? (27-35, 154-5).

Well, our feelings can be wrong because we have moved beyond an evolutionary environment that natural selection, which “designed your mind to have perceptions and beliefs” that ensure your survival, was accommodated for. It hasn’t updated to our new world, and so our feelings now respond to unnatural situations. Mistakes can and do occur because of this; therefore, many feelings are not conducive from an evolutionary standpoint. Modern life has provided us with false positives that make “little sense except in light of the environment in which our species evolved" (Ibid).

And so, through enlightenment, we can “lose your delusions,” and that means both visually and emotionally. After all, social cues rely on what we see and how we react to things. And how we feel, in turn, also impacts what we are perceptive to, so feelings undermine it all. When we become enlightened, we can learn to see things in a new light because of the slipping—no, stripping—of emotions (Ibid).

Emotions

This is critical for our ability to weigh moral consequences and for the sustainability of our social interactions. All have some essence to them that our emotions can cloud us to. One of my favorite examples of something we gain though letting go is something a majority of us do, and that is the fundamental attribution error. Simply put, it’s the first impression we make of someone that dictates how we view them from there on out. This is evolutionary in nature because we had to make snap judgments if we were to survive and thus depended on “dispositional factors” (or what the thing is) and “situational factors” (or what’s happening at the moment) to give something an essence evaluation (71-3, 173-9).

As many of us have experienced, our initial perceptions are not always right, especially when we incorporate moral judgments into the equation. What we often fail to consider is the hidden factors we are not privy to, especially the workings of someone else’s mind. Disposition and situation are not enough to gain any evaluation of anything, but rather through long-term interaction with someone that evolves and grows. I like going over this because it’s an easy stepping stone onto some more Buddhist ideals because we have all committed the fundamental attribution error and so can benefit from an essence-reduction approach in an effort to get to the true content of a person. Yes, emotions are important for our interactions with people, but don’t you want to interact with what someone truly is? (Ibid)

Instead, we seek to reverse that stance and let ourselves be the final say in what we feel. Instead, most of us lose control over them and let them take over. By stopping the viewpoint of feelings controlling us, we are released, the “lack of control” over them revealed to be false. Yet, somehow, we are to remove ourselves from the whole process as well. Maybe the idea of self is a useful crutch in these ideas, and eventually, we will be able to move beyond it. Or perhaps the Buddha was being metaphysical in order to get you on the path of rethinking oneself. After all, the Buddha stated that the not-self isn’t under control, which isn’t the same as in control. He could have been implying the removal of objects that cause suffering, for often, we can identify with them. You have to let that idealism go, oftentimes without thinking about it, because that just presents the idea back to you all over again (Ibid).

Instead, be at the helm of what your emotions are telling you and avoid mistaking their data for something else. Your emotions contain truth to them, but sometimes we can overanalyze and appropriate them to false causes. We need to establish within ourselves an emotional history that reflects what causes us to feel things and if that feeling is appropriate. By acknowledging this, we are further reducing our suffering by not disregarding emotions but following their worth, just like our rationality is valued. Emotions often run at a subconscious level, helping us make snap judgments, so view them as a compliment to your rational thinking rather than a total replacement or something to ignore (Sotala).

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Oftentimes I myself can fail at this, so just stay cognizant and don’t let your emotions take control of you. Interpret them based on your past interactions and behavior, and you will be in so much better shape. Viewing your emotional output from an outside perspective also helps, for it informs you how others will react to what you feel and how they may react or assign a reason for your feelings. And don’t forget that emotions do have a true value to them, so if it’s appropriate, then feel what they are making you and don’t question it as long as no harm comes to anyone. By trying to react differently, then you are suffering from an illusion of your own making (Ibid).

Finding the Inner Calm

What exactly is going on in the brain when we experience happiness? Well, it has a lot to do with neurotransmitters or chemicals that are transmitted between neurons and facilitate certain reactions. Several neurotransmitters are responsible for generally accepted happy feelings. One is dopamine, or the pleasure neurotransmitter, which fires off whenever we do something that the brain approves of (or decreases in supply when we don’t get an expected outcome). Endorphins are another neurotransmitter associated with happy feelings, but more so in that they are a “response to serious pain and stress.” Without it, we could literally experience life-ending pain (Burnett 12-5).

So, neurotransmitters offer us a lesson: Perhaps happy feelings are really instead just the absence of painful ones. It’s a vantage point argument, for sure, hinting that one’s approach to gaining happy moments is about focus (Ibid).

And dopamine and endorphins are known as pleasure neurotransmitters. Is pleasure the same as happiness? It would seem that other chemicals can lead to pleasure, but they are other happy aspects of life. Oxytocin, for example, is known as the love hormone, and its presence increases our ability to connect with people. And social interactions are a critical component of contentment for many people. Serotonin is one that is a main target for antidepressants, specifically selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or SSRIs. While maintaining a presence in the brain does decrease depression and anxiety, it remains a mystery as to what it is actually doing (15-8).

In a 2001 study led by Marcus Raichle, a neuroscientist at Washington University in St. Louis, an attempt was made to map different mental activities to neural areas. He found that with “highly demanding cognitive tasks,” some regions of the brain went offline in a definable pattern. So, is the nothingness that Buddhism advocates for really true? Well, the regions that went offline were the midline of the prefrontal cortex and the post-cingulate cortex. These two things make up the default mode network for us, or our autopilot as it were (Goleman 149).

When those places in the brain are turned off, resources are instead reallocated to other portions of the brain. When we do “nothing,” we are really focusing back on ourselves. The default mode is us relaxing to see what problems we have, and yet we enjoy distracting ourselves because we want to focus on the self. Happier people, however, “focus on the given moment, less on the self.” Via meditation, we can get to our default mode, and it is through this that we can gain control of ourselves until we get to a baseline, gathering the attention of the environment more readily. Mentally speaking, meditation increases the connections between the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the default mode, arising as a result of the default regulating the prefrontal (150-2).

The Source of Unhappiness

Why are people in modern society so unhappy? They have so many resources at their disposal and many opportunities to get their goals accomplished. Our needs are provided for, so shouldn’t we be more content than we are? Let’s phrase it another way: 450 million people have a mental disorder. I cannot say where the standard needs to be to say that’s excessive, but it clearly is. Something more fundamental than material needs is driving people to unpleasant places. As James Kingsland puts it, “the human psyche is inherently flawed, preventing lasting satisfaction even when circumstances seem ideal.” This makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint. If you were pleased all the time, then where would the drive to better oneself stem from? (Kingsland 20-26)

Natural selection has ensured that beings with constant needs end up surviving, so clearly, it has benefits. But humans have seemingly left the evolutionary game in the dust as we gain more and more understanding of the world. We have pushed beyond what our biological systems were designed for, and thus we have some software issues that inhibit our modern lives. We simply have more time now to do non-survival activities. And an unoccupied mind can wander to bad places. Is this a potential source of unhappiness? (Ibid)

A Killingsworth study in 2010 decided to investigate. An app was developed to track thoughts at certain points in the day and so was given the original name Track Your Happiness. Around 2,250 adults participated in the first phase, and data was collected and compiled. Around 47% of the time, a person’s mind will wander from a specific task, no matter what type it is. And most people’s self-reported happiness was lowest when the mind was wandering and was specific in that it was the wandering that caused the unhappiness (27-8).

This shouldn’t really be surprising to anyone. People have had inklings of this for a long time. Just look at Siddhartha’s Dhammapada, or The Path of Truth. It's ancient and yet recognized the mind’s ability over life itself. Though there can be a delay, it postulated that “suffering follows an evil thought” and that joy arises from a “pure thought.” To find the best route for you, try different approaches until you find one that works for you. In fact, ‘skepticism is encouraged,” for it can lead you to challenge your world views. All of this is rather scientific in nature, and yet Siddhartha figured this out through self-observation (28-9).

This is, to me, the essential point I want you to take away from this. Use introspection to help you through the processes and ideas in this article, but also keep a good sense of skepticism. Challenge these ideas, and you may find yourself in that rare state we call enlightenment. It's not so far as you may think it is, for it lies within all of us.

Works Cited

Burnett, Dean. Happy Brain. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. New York, NY. 2018. Print. 12-8.

Goleman, Daniel and Richard J. Davidson. Altered Traits. Penguin Random House, New York. 2017. Print. 149-52.

Kingsland, James. Siddhartha’s Brain. Harper Collins, New York. 2016. Print. 20-9.

Sotala, Kaj. “Avoid misinterpreting your emotions.” Lesswrong.org. Less Wrong, 14 Feb. 2012. Web. 27 Jan. 2021.

Wright, Robert. Why Buddhism is True. Simon & Schuster, New York. 2017. Print. 27-35, 71-3, 142-9, 154-5, 173-9.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Leonard Kelley

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