We have to turn our backs on happiness if we are to find it. This is because much of what we define as happiness is just ego-validation, and egos are the source of our discontentment. As long as we pursue happiness, we will never find it.
WE ALL WANT TO BE HAPPY, which implies that we all think we know what happiness is, at least experientially. The Dalai Lama has even described happiness as a fundamental human right. But what exactly is happiness and why do we pursue it so doggedly, and why are we so afraid of not having it?
Most of us see happiness as a state of mind where we are satisfied with our lives. We feel that the pleasures in these "happy" moments outweigh any pain or concerns we may also have, and in these moments we cannot help but smile because everything on balance seems okay. We approve of life. Indeed, we so love feeling of "okayness" that we spend our lives seeking the happiness emotional Holy Grail, hoping that we can find some sort of eternal happiness… a happy fix that we will never come down from.
Most of us believe that happiness is fundamentally linked to the circumstances of our lives, including our possessions and our relationships. We believe this because we have been programmed by society to believe it. Indeed, society gives us a check-list for happiness… and when we tick enough items on this list… we give ourselves permission to feel happy.
Lists vary from person to person, but the following items tend to be high on most lists:
- Social acceptance
- Social status
- A loving and/or sexual relationship
- An attractive (lovable) body
- Children and/or pets
- A place to live
- Food on our table
- A car or other means to get around
- A career that brings in money and/or satisfaction
- Money in the bank
- Regular holidays
- Peace of mind
Whatever our happiness check-list looks like, when we are satisfied that we have enough of the items checked, we feel happy. But why? There are certainly many people who have a similar list to our own but who do not seem to be happy despite achieving most of the things on the list, but we tend to put them in the "aberration" category: "Well," we say to ourselves, "they obviously suffer from depression" or have some other problem or condition, which is why these things (which "obviously" would make anybody happy) do not make them happy. But do these things "obviously" make us happy?
When we pass our driving test, or get a job or job promotion, just about all of us feel momentarily happy. And when others love us, we also feel happy. What these "achievements" have in common is that they validate us as a person. They are used by the conceptual self or ego to bolster itself, and we get a buzz from this self-validation. The buzz is actually from a corresponding adrenalin rush in our bodies — the same kind of reward that an addict feels when he or she gets a fix. The truth is that ego-validation is an addiction, and we psychologically and physically interpret that buzz as happiness.
So happiness is a label that we give to anything that buzzes the ego and hypes the system, allowing us to feel our edges… in other words, our separation from the rest of All-That-Is. Of course, there are other experiences of happiness that are nothing to do with ego-validation, but even other sorts of happiness are quickly commandeered by the ego. So happiness in modern society is synonymous with an adrenaline rush. And we naturally become addicted to such rushes, just as we become addicted to painkillers if we have them too often.
When we are younger and our egos are forming and consolidating, it is normal to confuse happiness with adrenaline rushes. But as we get older, we start to naturally let go of body identification, and this changes our definition and experience of happiness. No longer are we looking for an adrenaline rush, but more a sense of peaceful contentment. This contentment is still used by the ego, but less so as the ego weakens with the years. As we age, we usually find that contentment getting more and more subtle, so that, towards the end of our lives, happiness becomes synonymous with peace. This process is vastly accelerated for those on authentic spiritual paths, so that attainment of peace takes precedence over ego-buzz even in those who are not old.
However, our media and our society are so youth-obsessed that we are constantly being bombarded with a definition of happiness that is entirely to do with ego-validation and body-identification. Society is stuck at the level of immature definitions of happiness. So as we become less interested in ego-validation and body-identification, the feeling of becoming less of a person is translated negatively, and this natural process, which can be wonderfully freeing, is resisted. This is why most people feel negatively about ageing. Old people in our society are ignored and feel isolated: they have become unsightly reminders, even in their own eyes, of the futility of seeking happiness associated with body-identification. Unsightly that is to those associated with bodies… but so beautiful to those who are not.
When we feel we are a "nobody", we can get depressed. We feel irrelevant because we mistakenly believe that only "somebodies" have relevance… only somebodies have a place in this world. And underneath that belief is another belief, that only relevant people deserve validation, and so our lives become a bargaining for validation. We euphemistically call validation "love" or "happiness" because that hides the fact that it is in service to the ego. In fact, love and happiness seen through the eyes of the ego is validation of itself, and so we build up this whole myth of the importance of giving and receiving love, and of being happy, when in fact love is the very nature of our being and cannot be given or received, and happiness is a label we use for the feelings associated with ego-security. Ego-validation is all that can actually be given or received.
So we are generally bargaining for validation, not love or happiness. And our primary bargaining chip for validation is being a somebody. So we spend our lives trying to be a somebody, trying to be worthy of validation. Some even become "nobody somebodies" or conceptual nobodies… those who identify with the concept of being a nobody and who use that to bargain for validation (usually from those who put the concept of being a nobody up on a pedestal — spiritual seekers).
The props of life, such as the way we look, the clothes we wear, the people we hang out with, the car we drive, the children we have, the house we live in, the certificates on our walls, and all the possession we have, all are recruited into the game of validation. And its a high-stakes game, one that, if we lose, will cost us our life. That is why we play it so seriously; that is why the game continues — too much is at stake to just stop playing. We are so hooked on ego-validation that we have allowed it to become defined as "happiness". So the more successes we have in ego-validation, the happier we proclaim ourselves to be. But of course it is all just a lie. We are not happy… we are only feeling the adrenalin buzz of being a somebody in a discrete package called a body.
This drive to be a somebody — to validate the self at all costs — is what is actually driving the ecological destruction of the planet. Once basic needs are met, the rest of our desires and appetites are largely fueled by ego-validation. And so it could be said that waking up from the ego's dream is the most important thing we can do for the planet. For the pursuit of happiness, in its present form, is ecologically destructive. Of course, what the ecology movement is doing its best to promote the eco-ego — the ego that validates by being ecological. But this is doomed to failure as long as the mainstream media promotes more traditional ego systems that require unecological validation like fast cars, massive homes, enormous dietary requirements and high bank balances. So as long as we are pursuing Hollywood's happiness, we will be doing enormous harm to the environment and to ourselves.
The term "happy" sounds innocent enough — who could begrudge someone seeking happiness — but the word is a very misleading. We should not be pursuing it, for the happiness that can be pursued is actually just the buzz of ego-validation. There are other feelings that can be labeled happiness that have nothing to do with ego-validation, but we only come across that type of happiness by luck. We cannot make it happen. Indeed, the word "happiness" itself is derived from Middle English from the word "hap" which means luck. And luck is not something we can control, by definition. So those moments when, for example, we were sitting by the sea and listening in rapture to the water lapping against the shore define perfect moments of happiness for us… moments when we were happy despite having unfulfilled "happy check-lists".
But we confuse different types of happiness by putting them all under the single banner of "happiness", and we live in a society which insists that happiness can be bought and sold, so that those of us without the means to trade happiness feel marginalized and excluded.
The spiritual urge is the urge to be free from ego-identification. It is innate in all of us. But because ego-identification is labelled as happiness, authentic spiritual practice often seems austere and depressing. We prefer the "happy approach" to spirituality which is just the validation of the spiritual ego. This is where most modern spiritual seekers are stuck: they are fixated on being happy. But real happiness actually comes from turning our backs on ego-validation, and means sacrificing what we define as happiness. We are not used to sacrificing in modern society… it seems very archaic… something from a bygone age. But the word sacrifice comes from the Latin sacrificium — sacer, sacred; facere, to make. When we sacrifice ego-validation in this world, when we reject "happiness" for something much greater, then we make our lives sacred.
The authentic spiritual path is not an easy one. It is nothing to do with manifesting what we want or invoking non-physical allies and deities to manifest what we want. It is about getting rid of the "me" that wants… the "me" that we are always validating. And that will mean that, at some point, we have to turn our backs on what we label as happiness. It is a difficult thing to do, but every authentic spiritual seeker has to come down from the ego-validation drug. Some go cold-turkey whereas others take a more gentle approach. But in the end, we have to turn our backs on happiness.
Paradoxically, this pursuit of ego-validation in the name of happiness has become so suffocating that the use of illegal substances such as alcohol and drugs has enormously escalated as people, old and young, take temporary relief in states of consciousness which blur the distinction between self and other. Unfortunately, these means of reducing ego-validation can be addictive and destructive to the body, and so do not provide a long-term solution. Far better to realize that the problem is the dream itself — as long as we pursue happiness, we will be unhappy.
So do not pursue happiness. If you must pursue something, pursue peace and authenticity. But the pursuit of happiness will only make you unhappy. Sacrifice happiness… let it burn in your naked awareness so that you have a chance to experience what happiness has always hidden you from, and that is who and what you actually are. And only when you know who and what you are (or more importantly who and what you are not) will you stumble upon real happiness… the kind that appears when you least expect it… the kind bestowed by grace.