Why Is Happiness Still a Mystery?

PBS has just finished a three-part special on human emotions, with the final episode devoted to happiness. It may surprise many that happiness is a hot subject, especially in the new field of positive psychology. Just as medicine studies disease to find out how to get patients well, psychology has almost entirely been about the mind’s maladies. Positive psychology attempts to reverse this focus by studying a person’s strengths rather than his weaknesses.
I think this is commendable. But as hard as it is to get doctors to be interested in the body’s healing system when they spent all their training studying disease, psychology isn’t turning around very fast. The PBS series, entitled This Emotional Life, wound up with a rather weak conclusion: the secret to happiness lies in strong social relationships. When you are embedded in a nurturing circle of family, friends, and co-workers, you are most likely to be happy.

Well, yes, but surely there’s more to the mystery. Countless people cry out for help every day, suffering from depression, anxiety, loneliness, and grief. Telling them to get better relationships is a bit like turning to someone with a broken leg and saying, “Get a better leg.”  Also, it’s just as likely that imperfect family, friends, and work situations create the sense of unhappiness than people can’t resolve. Or maybe their unhappiness, if it’s deep enough, turned their relationships sour.

Positive psychology seems like a good start that’s unsteady going beyond the basics. Even its advocates, according to the PBS series, have their doubts about how effective the new tack is. More data, they say. More findings, more studies, more guinea pigs. But one gets the feeling that happiness is an age-old mystery for a reason.

When people become unhappy, two  things generally exist:
1. Outer circumstances that used to make them happy changed to the opposite, circumstances that make them miserable.
2. On the inside, the person has thoughts and feelings that attack the state of feeling happy.

I don’t think anyone can disagree with these common-sense observations. We see all around us, especially in these hard times, people losing jobs and houses, finding their savings and pensions depleted, and facing insecure situations in general. What the world’s wisdom traditions would say is that the outer world makes us unhappy because we were wrong to rely on it in the first place.

When the outer world fails to bring happiness, a person suddenly faces the inner world. Most likely he or she hasn’t looked at the hidden pain, anger, and fear that lies beneath the surface of the everyday psyche.  But now, forced to look inside, they face a rush of unhappy feelings. They are essentially being attacked by themselves; one part of the mind assaults the other with fear, insecurity, depression, and the other demons of the mind. The world’s wisdom traditions call this the divided self.

If these two conclusions are true, if we are unhappy because we depend on outer circumstances too much and we are divided inside, it makes sense that the secret to happiness is to reverse both conditions:
1. Do not wait for the world to make you happy. Be free of the cycle of pleasure and pain. Find a place where your happiness cannot be taken away from you by people and events outside yourself.
2. When you go inside, heal your own conflict and confusion. The mind isn’t destined to be divided. There’s a way to not be your own victim and victimizer. There’s a core of peace inside where the battle between pleasure and pain no longer exists.

I’m not going to go into more detail at the moment (my book, The Ultimate Happiness Prescription, unfolds what wisdom has to offer when someone is unhappy and wants to find happiness again).  I just wanted to point out that finding happiness is still a personal journey.  The PBS series frowned at the self-help movement in this country as being unscientific, but with an admission — based on the latest science — that 75% of people who make positive changes in their lives do it themselves.

So if you want to undertake this journey into the mystery of happiness, it helps to take with you the two conclusions that thousands of years of wisdom offer.  Be free of external happiness that can fade without warning, replacing it with happiness no one can take away from you. Go inside to find the core of the self where peace and bliss are waiting to be found.

Published in San Francisco Chronicle