Who doesn’t want to be happier? That, and wanting to be free from suffering, are the two basic wishes of all living beings, from world leaders to the smallest gnat. Generally, however, as Shantideva says:
Although living beings wish to be free from suffering,
They run straight towards the causes of suffering;
And although they wish for happiness,
Out of ignorance they destroy it like a foe. ~ Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life
Someone at work posted an article called Ten Simple Science-Based Ways to be Happier Today, perhaps not surprisingly one of the most read leadership articles of 2013, and it inspired me to give a Buddhist version.
1. Exercise more
As it explains in the article, exercise helps prevent depression, helps us relax, increases our brain power, is good for our physical health and weight, etc, etc. This we all know, really.
My teacher Geshe Kelsang encourages people to stay healthy through exercise and good diet. Although our mind goes on forever and so we need to put most of our effort into keeping our mind healthy and increasingly strong, we also have to look after this meaty body despite its limited shelf life. At the moment we have a precious human life with which to help ourselves and everyone else, so we need to take care of this body as our vehicle, rather as an ambulance driver takes good care of her ambulance so she can drive around helping people. Those with a Tantric empowerment even have a commitment to take care of their body, not needlessly weaken it, let alone destroy it.
Prostrations are recommended if we want to combine our exercise directly with a spiritual practice. I think with a little mindfulness it is also possible to transform any exercise into the spiritual path – for example, when I get a chance to swim laps, I enjoy thinking Dharma thoughts, and bathing in water-like blessings and/or prostrating to an ocean of compassion, etc. Maybe some of you do some creative things, care to share?
See # 5 below too.
2. Sleep more
“Sleep-deprived people fail to recall pleasant memories, yet recall gloomy memories just fine.”
For those who have not gained control over their deeper levels of consciousness, sleep may come from dullness and its imprints — but we still need it!!
For ordinary beings sleep helps to restore the energy of the body and to bring the elements of the body into harmony, thereby making the body comfortable and prolonging life. ~ How to Understand the Mind page 166
The book also says:
Sleep is also the basis of the development of all the things we experience in dreams.
I think this refers to the fact that the appearances in dreams actually arise from the dreaming mind, are perceptions of the dreaming mind. This is no different to when we are awake — our mind is the basis for the perceptions of our waking world too. There is nothing outside the mind. So dreaming can really help us to understand this, to increase our wisdom.
Also the yoga of sleeping taught in Tantra is incredibly helpful and time-saving – better than spending almost a third of this precious, hard-to-attain human life zonked out. Sleep doesn’t have to be a waste of time. We can actually learn to use our sleeping mind to meditate if we train in the six stages of Mahamudra Tantra.
At least it is a good idea last thing each night to let go of and purify the bad parts of the day, not entering our dream world with a deluded, upset, anxious mind. There is nothing to stop us turning our mind in a positive direction as we lay down, and we can ask the Buddhas and the Dakinis to bless our minds while we sleep. They will.
Trijang Rinpoche, Geshe Kelsang’s own root Spiritual Guide, even recommends a nap if we are feeling negative or anxious during the day. You can find out more about the yoga of sleeping in your free ebook Modern Buddhism.
3. Move closer to work
‘Or as Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert put it, “Driving in traffic is a different kind of hell every day.”’
Although I do travel quite a lot, I’m lucky in that my daily commute at the moment is a rather delightful bike ride through the streets of Denver. But if we have no choice, we can remember that everything is transformable. Actually being stuck in traffic can give us the opportunity to listen to teachings, develop a happy mind, practice patience, remember the kindness of the people in the cars around (for without them, there would be no road), and so on. We don’t actually have to be “stuck”. Those moments of pause throughout our day — eg, at red lights, when our computer spends an age booting up, waiting for an appointment at the doctor’s office, last in the long line at Starbucks — are a perfect chance to check in with our mind to see if it is peaceful and positive.
4. Spend times with friends and family
“The only thing that really matters in life is your relationships to other people.”
A study published in the Journal of Socio-Economics states that our relationships are worth more than $100,000! Not sure how they got that figure … but we do all know that money doesn’t buy us happiness, don’t we?! Nor does status etc. At least theoretically we know this, though this recent New York Times article shows that people still chase after more and more money and prestige … we chain ourselves to our own desks.
I am sitting at an airport café writing this, and enjoying the loud laughter, almost hysterical laughter, coming from a group of Bosnian friends sitting at a table close to me. They are having a blast! Love is where it’s at. If spending time with friends and family brings out our love, it’ll definitely make us happy. If it brings out our frustration, dislike, and attachment — not so much.
Everyone can be a friend. To a Bodhisattva, a so called “friend of the world”, who has trained in universal love and compassion, everyone is a friend. I liked the recent footage of Pope Francis jumping out of his Fiat 500 every few feet, or so it seemed, to hug random strangers!
However, I think we also need time alone, and to learn to love being on our own, happy with ourselves, both in general and if we are interested in pursuing a spiritual path. I have spent many, maybe most, of my happiest hours alone. There are numerous benefits to solitude explained in the scriptures and experienced by past and present spiritual practitioners.
Alone or surrounded, it all depends on what we are doing with our mind. If we have love, we can be on a retreat in the middle of nowhere and feel very connected and happy. If we don’t, we can be sitting in the midst of family and friends and feel left out and lonely.
The most reliable friends, if you ask me, are enlightened beings, holy beings — those who’ve perfected their love, compassion, and wisdom, whether Buddhist or otherwise. They unrelentingly see the good in us, looking beyond our faults to our pure nature, and are always there for us. We could do a lot worse than getting used to hanging out with them on a daily basis, sharing with them our good and our bad times.
5. Go outside
I love going outside, personally, enjoying the elements. So, it seems, does everyone else around here (Colorado) who work so they can play – I sometimes wonder if a love of the great outdoors has supplanted the work ethic I’ve found everywhere else in America …
I’ve read various studies that say getting into nature is very helpful, and one thing I enjoy doing when I am walking around is the Tantric self-generation practice of remembering that the 4 elements of water, wind, fire (heat), and earth are the four Dakinis – Dakini, Lama, and Khandarohi, and Rupini. This blissful practice gets the inner elements into balance – good for both the mind and the body. You can check this out in The New Guide to Dakini Land.
I think a wonderful practice while outside is to offer the flowers, sky, and other delights to the Buddhas around you and at your heart, with the wish that everyone enjoy a Pure Land.
6. Help others
“To make yourself feel happier, you should help others.”
“We scientists have found that doing a kindness produces the single most reliable momentary increase in well-being of any exercise we have tested.” ~ Martin Seligman
Cherishing others is the way to solve our problems. And we can help others practically in so many ways, it is the Bodhisattva’s way of life – Bodhisattvas promise two things, to get enlightened and to help others practically. Some of the moral disciplines of helping others in the Bodhisattva vow include, for example, going to the assistance of those in need, relieving the distress of others, and giving wealth to others. The article notes that spending money on other people, called “prosocial spending,” also boosts happiness. In Buddhism, generosity is taught to be a major source of happiness – the Bodhisattva feels amazing joy just at the word “Give”!
If you’re not sure practically how you’re supposed to help more people, Nagarjuna’s advice on the subject can be very helpful:
Even if we are not able to help others directly
We should still try to develop a beneficial intention.
If we develop this intention more and more strongly,
We shall naturally find ways to help others. ~ Universal Compassion
The article also says:
“Volunteering is rewarding in terms of higher life satisfaction.”
And as you may have noticed already, there are often plenty of opportunities to volunteer at your local Buddhist Center :-) Or animal shelter. Or wherever.
Of course part of all this is avoiding the opposite, harming others.
7. Practice smiling
I have sometimes wondered if I’d look more cool if I smiled less and scowled more. I have concluded that this may well be the case, but overall I’d rather be happy than cool.
Of course, you gotta mean it – fake smiles don’t count.
“Smiling can improve our attention and help us perform better on cognitive tasks.”
This list doesn’t mention laughing at the ridiculousness of samsara/sense of humor, but perhaps that can be snuck in here.
8. Plan a trip but don’t take one
I had to think about this one :-) Then I thought about the power of imagination. We don’t ever really go anywhere anyhow.
No list on becoming happier would be anywhere near complete without this. In fact, the things on this list can only make us happy if our mind is peaceful, and the function of meditation is to make our mind peaceful.
Buddha explained that due to ignorance we do a lot of hallucinating. On the most basic level, we hallucinate that happiness comes from outside ourselves. We almost always assume that it is to be found out there somewhere – if I can get the right partner, the right job, the right car, the right pair of shoes, etc I’ll be just fine! And until I have them, I won’t.
This is not true. What we need to be happy is mental freedom.
We chain ourselves to external sources of happiness that cannot deliver the goods. I think that uncontrolled desire is a bit like playing the slot machines. Maybe we hit some kind of jackpot — someone returns our desire for a while until one or the other of us has had enough, or we enjoy our promotion until we realize it is too much like work – but by now we are addicted to trying again and again. A morbid fascination – maybe the oranges will all line up this time!! – distracts us from looking for happiness within. Sometimes it works due to some good karma, frankly more often it doesn’t – but until then we keep trying, bound to the machine in a dingy crypt full of fellow gambling addicts. We need to get out of here and into the sunshine: “I’m free!” Meditation does that for us.
Happiness is a state of mind, a feeling, and therefore its real causes lie within the mind. So of course meditation has to be on this list because with it we go direct to the source. Familiarizing our mind with positivity is the most direct, effective way to become happy. This in fact is what the article says:
“Meditation literally clears your mind and calms you down, it’s been often proven to be the single most effective way to live a happier life.”
This whole Kadampa Life blog is about meditation, but I’ll let the scientists conclude this section:
“… neuroimaging … concluded that after completing the course, parts of the participants’ brains associated with compassion and self-awareness grew, and parts associated with stress shrank.”
“Research even shows that regular meditation can permanently rewire the brain to raise levels of happiness.”
10. Practice gratitude
“Results suggest that a conscious focus on blessings may have emotional and interpersonal benefits.”
Buddha had a lot to say about this. We do some beautiful meditations on cherishing others by remembering their kindness. We are grateful to living beings and we are grateful to enlightened beings, both. I wrote more about that here.
Thanks everyone for reading. I have only touched on a few things here. I’m sure you have a lot more ideas and it’d be great if you felt like sharing them in the comments.