Reflections on Happiness

This Sunday, Zac led a discussion by exploring the concept of Happiness as it is understood in Buddhist philosophy and practice.

Some questions which were explored: What does happiness mean in the Buddhist context? What are various ways it is understood in the teachings? What is the “highest happiness”? Why is there so much emphasis on this concept in the teachings?

One great question underlies our experience, whether we think about it consciously or not: What is the purpose of life?  I have considered this question and would like to share my thoughts in the hope that they may be of direct, practical benefit to those who read them.

I believe that the purpose of life is to be happy.  From the moment of birth, every human being wants happiness and does not want suffering.  Neither social conditioning nor education nor ideology affect this.  From the very core of our being, we simply desire contentment.  I don’t know whether the universe, with its countless galaxies, stars and planets, has a deeper meaning or not, but at the very least, it is clear that we humans who live on this earth face the task of making a happy life for ourselves.  Therefore, it is important to discover what will bring about the greatest degree of happiness.

– Dalai Lama

In Sanskrit, the word for happiness is Sukha.

Sukha: etymology of sukha is “said to be su [‘good’] + kha [‘aperture’] and to mean originally ‘having a good axle-hole’….” Sukha is juxtaposed with duḥkha (Sanskrit; Pali: dukkha; often translated as “suffering”), This theme of the centrality of dukkha was developed in later years in both Vedic and the offshoot Buddhist traditions. The elimination of dukkha is the raison d’être of early Buddhism. (

So how does this happiness compare to the Western word?

“Happy” is derived from the Icelandic word happ, meaning luck or chance. Most of us, it seems, share this view of the mysterious nature of happiness.

A Buddhist term for such happiness is sukha, which may be defined in this context as a state of flourishing that arises from mental balance and insight into the nature of reality. Rather than a fleeting emotion or mood aroused by sensory and conceptual stimuli, sukha is an enduring trait that arises from a mind in a state of equilibrium and entails a conceptually unstructured and unfiltered awareness of the true nature of reality. (Ekman et al., 2005)

Pleasure and happiness

It is very common to confuse pleasure with happiness. Buddhism argues that there is no direct relationship between pleasure and happiness. The fleeting experience of pleasure is mostly dependent upon outer circumstances, on a specific location or moment in time. It is unstable by nature and the sensation it evokes soon becomes neutral or even unpleasant. It leads to ‘hedonic adaptation’ and when repeated it may grow insipid or even lead to disgust; savoring a delicious meal is a source of genuine pleasure, but we are indifferent to it once we’ve had our fill and would even sicken of it if we were to continue eating. (Ricard, 2011)

When he takes up meditation seriously and overcomes greed, he is happy like a man who has paid his debt; free from ill-will, he is happy like a man who is free from sickness. Free from sleepiness and drowsiness, he is happy like one free from imprisonment. Free from restlessness and worry he is happy like one free from slavery and free from doubts he is happy like one who safely crosses a desert. (Gunaratana, 2002)

WHAT LEADS TO HAPPINESS? How is sukha to be realized?

Virtue – ethics as a path of happiness

Guarding the sense doors – bringing mindfulness to the sense doors so that sense contact doesn’t trigger kleshas. Mindfulness allows us to be with what is, to know what’s happening now. Allows us to respond without habitual conditioned reactions… be with sensory experience with presence and wisdom

The bliss of samadhi – when the attention is so absorbed in the mediation object, we can experience a deep equanimity, bliss that can permeate the mind

Brahma viharas: “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”  ― Dalai Lama XIV, The Art of Happiness

Awakening – highest happiness – radical transformation of consciousness necessary to realize sukha can occur by sustained training in attention, emotional balance, and mindfulness, so that one can learn to distinguish between the way things are as they appear to the senses and the conceptual superimpositions one projects upon them.

So, with awakening is the highest happiness, Buddhism can be framed as a path of happiness