Happiness is a term often bandied about, commandeered by marketing agencies for campaigns that purport to hold the elixir for true and continuous contentment. Buy this drink, wear this make up, use this toothpaste, chew this gum, and all of life’s little inadequacies will fade into the ether. Happiness is the destination, product the vehicle, and money the key. But is there happiness that isn’t bound and controlled by external material and commercial forces? This search for real and everlasting happiness is a quest for truth and substance within an environment which is intrinsically deceptive and impermanent; It is a hunt for the strong of heart and sharp of mind.
The Law of Diminishing Returns
Most people seek happiness. If you ask a random selection of people what they want for their lives or for their children’s, friends’, and relatives’ they would most likely want for them to be happy. But do we actually know what happiness is? So often it is defined as something that can be purchased, something material that can be exclusively owned, and implicit within this definition is an implied acceptance of temporariness; what is owned will be taken, what is bought will eventually break down, and the cycle of happiness, dissatisfaction, endeavour, purchase, happiness, diminution of return and then again dissatisfaction continues unabated. The law of diminishing returns states that, once attained, an object will satisfy you for some time, but then eventually the return (or satisfaction) will diminish as you eventually tire of the object. After this, you will need to obtain something else to bring back the buzz, the excitement in life.
Human beings are social by nature and therefore a common place we look for happiness is in a relationship. The law of diminishing returns can also be seen in how we treat our interpersonal relationships like consumer items. We seek a relationship with another being to fulfill our need for deep and meaningful connections. Relationships start out new and fresh, and we feel that other person is the missing part that makes our life complete. Eventually, though, the glow fades; what was new becomes old and stale, and we move on to the new exciting model. What we are seeking is that relationship which connects on the level of the true self, but this can’t happen with relationships that don’t go beyond the connection one material body has with another.
Material Happiness, the Mirage in the Desert
Instead of turning inward for happiness, we tend to look outward at a bottle of Coke, a can of Lynx, a relationship, a house, or a job…the list goes on. We have an eternal candle lit in the window of these material items hoping they will draw happiness towards them. The ancient Vedic text of India, the Srimad-Bhagavatam states, “Just as a deer, because of ignorance, cannot see the water within a well covered by grass, but runs after water elsewhere, the living entity, covered by the material body, does not see the happiness within himself, but runs after happiness in the material world” (7.13.29). These yoga texts describe that the true form of all living entities (that’s you and me) is not the material tangible body, nor the intangible mind, which are merely coverings for the real self, but the spirit soul, known as atma in Sanskrit. Because of these coverings, we seek outside ourselves for happiness, not realising where true bliss is situated, just like the person who ventures into the desert to find water does not see that it is simply a mirage, and the real water, the real satisfaction, is elsewhere.
The yoga texts of India make a distinction between material and spiritual happiness. Material happiness is temporary and ultimately unsatisfactory, and requires a great amount of endeavour and sacrifice. The Srimad- Bhagavatam describes it as chewing what has already been chewed (like receiving a premasticated piece of gum. No matter how much you chew, it won’t regain any flavour). When taken down to the bare bones like this, the outlook for happiness on the material platform seems bleak and tasteless, but on the flip side, the happiness found on the spiritual platform (also described using the Sanskrit word ananda, which can be translated to bliss) eternally satisfies the self at its deepest and truest level; it’s the buzz that keeps on buzzing.
We try to find happiness using our mind and five senses. We taste good food, hear beautiful music, look at art, and it feels like we are making ourselves happy, but actually we are merely surrendering to the demands of our senses. In the Bhagavad-gita the mind is described as more difficult to control than the wind. A person’s mind and senses are constantly demanding satisfaction, and the conditioned living entity is in involved in an everlasting struggle to please them, but like a dog chasing its tail, once caught, it will only end in pain and disappointment.
Detachment, Harmony, and Bliss
On this journey we are seeking the ultimate happiness. That cannot be found when we are looking for gratification on the material platform. We need a joy that cuts through the thick material coverings and comes in contact with the actual self. The yoga texts describe how this can be achieved through detachment from the material mind and its mental undulations and tribulations. The mind is by nature always changing, so therefore it is not a solid footing to rely on. When we are attached to it, our life is under the control of something which is in constant flux. This detachment is not any kind of artificial renunciation, like moving to the forest and meditating while subsisting on dry leaves and bark. Detachment by itself does nothing but create boredom and further agitation for the mind. The mind is characteristically active; it would be impossible to sit and think of nothing for any decent amount of time. It can be compared to a toddler; anyone who has spent any time around one knows what can happen if you sit one in a corner with nothing to do. The best remedy for a misbehaving child is engagement in some activity that is both enjoyable and beneficial. So the question is, what is the alternative to the struggle for temporary happiness? The Vedic literature teaches that the living entities are not separate units, which function in a vacuum apart from any connection. Instead, we are parts of the greater Supreme Whole. This supreme isn’t some kind of fuzzy notion, light in the sky, or flutter in the heart but a personality named Krishna. The name Krishna means the most attractive, and He is known as the supreme enjoyer. An analogy from the bhakti-yoga texts explains our relationship to Krishna: when a tree is watered at the root, the entire plant is satisfied, but if each individual leaf is watered separate from the tree, the leaves will eventually wither. Similarly, when we act in harmonious cohesion with the whole, each individual living entity will experience happiness. In this way, detachment from the mind occurs when activities are performed in union with the whole. These actions, instead of exacerbating the mental wanderings of the mind, give the mind a place it can rest, a place where it can be peaceful. This is its natural state. It’s bliss without come down, happiness without the hangover, the glow that keeps on glowing.