What constitutes happiness? It often turns out that due to our materialistic way of life, happiness is located outside of the self. We claim that we have been dealt bad cards, but if certain circumstances were to change, we would find true happiness. If only we could meet that perfect mate, we would be happy for all time. If only we had a better-paying and more satisfying job, we would ask for nothing else in this life. If only we were rich and famous, all our problems would fade away.
Happiness may be visible, but it happens to be just out of reach. It is the tip of the iceberg on a wide open sea. It is the apple dangling in front of the eyes of the donkey, and whenever the donkey moves, so does the apple. In fact, most of us have a similar outlook regarding our religious and spiritual life, a kind of glass-ceiling effect where God is located outside, out there, up there, in the canvass of open skies.
Others claim to have had a vision of being “touched” by God or a spiritual entity. Love may be another manner of experiencing this poignant force; others even attempt to find this spiritual bond and connection through the use of another “material”: by using drugs to fill the spiritual gap between oneself and the outside world.
One of the trademarks of those examples is that they may fill us up for a while, like a rich and delicious meal, but the hunger will always come back, and we are back at square one. In the religious realm, there is often relief and a trust on God as an outside protecting and loving force, but the real connection may be experienced only once in a while, whether in the act of prayer, a congregation, or a mystical experience.
However, the Eastern religions have another approach to life. In Buddhism, for example, one seeks and tries to find spirituality within. There seem to be trust and reliance not so much on an outside deity, but on a spiritual entity that is “awakened” or “switched on” within oneself. This Self ought not be confused with the self, that rambling voice of the narrow-minded, arrogant ego we experience on a daily basis.
What such Eastern traditions seem to imply is that happiness is actually not located outside of us but that it is based on our outlook, on our individual perception. By changing some of our concepts, we can actually find happiness despite of current unfavorable circumstances because nothing and nobody can make us happy, while happiness lies in our own hands.
In the Western tradition, the concept of faith has been the closest inner contact we have had towards reaching happiness within. But in a scientific and rationalistic world, faith has been often discredited either as childish, superstitious or impossible to prove. All this often causes a schism in each individual, where they are torn between intuition versus logic, feeling versus mind, and they manage to become only fragments of themselves. Then material happiness steps in and becomes a sought-after addition to something we seem to lack within.
Yet it has not always been so. The Western tradition has had various philosophical currents that have stressed the cultivation of inner aspects as well. Socrates who claims that one only needs to look within for truth and happiness; Diogenes, the “dog”, who shunned all material properties and was happy lying in the sun and eating scraps of food (as they say “if you got nothing, you got nothing to lose”); and of course, stoicism, where one ought to learn to face suffering with serenity and fully embrace one's fate.
When we are content with who we are and value what we already possess within, there may be no need to look for happiness outside. What may be a cause of distress to one, like losing one's job, is a source of minor inconvenience for those who do not see their worth bound to material things.
Happiness may be around the corner for us, but there is a danger we must all heed. When we strive for certain goals and finally reach them, often enough we feel that we have been deluded or betrayed in a certain way. It has been a temporary addition to our self worth, we have been fooled by the voice of our tiny egos … and we are neither satisfied nor happy. And as a result, we will set our sight on the next goal and so on, ad infinitum … well at least until death parts us from life.
Of course, I am not saying that striving for happiness or success is inherently evil or harmful. Quite to the contrary. Looking for success is a healthy activity for us. Yet I think we should take all with a grain of salt; everything should come with a warning sign attached to it. Be happy with who you are and what you have and enjoy the process of looking for happiness because you never know, in the end, when you cross the corner and reach your goal, it may not be what it seemed in the first place.