Sustaining Contentment — Experiencing Happiness
by Wayne Ren-Cheng
In life we all encounter moments of great joy and jubilation. New love, new job . . . marriage, birth of a child . . . new car, new home. But, we also encounter moments of great sorrow and hurt. Injury, illness . . . divorce, death . . . mechanical breakdowns, disasters. We are each subject to the impermanent and changing factors of the reality we inhabit. It is not something we have control over. Things will happen that give us reason to be happy, and things will happen to give us reason to be sad.
It is known that happiness and sadness are not sustainable emotions. Our bodyminds are not biologically outfitted to continuously maintain these states. Continuous real happiness, the type we are most familiar with, the highly elevated emotion, requires the neurotransmitter dopamine to be produced and the body just isn’t capable of doing that continuously. Dopamine highs can be responsible for infatuation and extreme self-confidence which pose dangers when dopamine production ceases. It can result in sadness which when it is sustained leads to clinical depression and the dangers that presents. Being attached to continuous states of either emotion leads to unsatisfactoriness, discontentment and anguish. So then, if happiness isn’t able to sustained due to biological limitations then how do we explain people that seem to be “always happy”, the “don’t worry be happy” folks. Maybe it is a simple matter of creative re-description, of viewing happiness from a different perspective.
A contemporary movement in phsychology offers that different perspective. For the past 12 years Dr. Martin Seligman has been at the forefront of psychological research on “Positive Psychology”. This is more that just the study of what makes us “happy”. The term “happiness or happy” is being creatively redescribed to a sustainable state of experience, what is termed “contentment” in Buddhism.
Being happy is more than just a simple change in perspective; it also takes a commitment to daily training of our behavior/actions. Seligman redescribes the relationship between happiness and contentment as both referring to states of calmness and mindfulness maintained during a variety of situations, negative and positive. In his book, Authentic Happiness, Seligman defines happiness as, understanding that happy/unhappy times have a direct result on the quality of life and how their power over aspects of our lives can be mitigated.
The Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu, a contemporary of Lao Tzu, presented a parallel explanation of happiness on the 3rd century BCE. “A gentleman who profoundly penetrates all things and is in harmony with their transformations will be contented with whatever time may bring. He follows the course of nature in whatever situation he may be.” A person who realizes the reality of impermanence will also realize contentment. They are content with the knowledge that moods transform and those transformations are temporary.
In the Four Ennobling Truths the Buddha presented an explanation of the origination of unsatisfactoriness and discontentment, and in the Eightfold Path a guide to alleviate them. Much of Buddhist practice is directed toward developing mindfulness and serenity so that we can approach the positive and negative with equanimity.
Meditation is beginning of our ability to recognize adversities for what they are. We go on to recognize our own dispositions that help or hinder our ability to deal with adversity. Developing knowledge and tools we realize that in some situations it is our long-held beliefs that hold us back, and we realize ways to change. Once we begin handling adversity in more positive ways we are empowered to be content with our life no matter what type of situation we find ourselves in.
We practice to develop the ability to acknowledge adversities for what they are . . . temporary. Through meditation we discern the beliefs we already have concerning actions to take when adversity occurs. Engaging in self-honesty and viewing things as they are we recognize the usual results that have occurred due to our chosen actions. Contemplation allows us to dispute those beliefs and their results which enables us to realize we are empowered to make better choices in the face of adversity. Even in adverse situations we can be content with our ability to react positively and create more positive outcomes.
We have the freedom to choose between desiring the elevated emotion of happiness and then suffering a letdown when the body stops producing dopamine, or to recognize that an equitable state of contentment with things as they really are will lead to a sustainable happiness.