For this article I’m going to ask you to put aside any beliefs you have about happiness. It may seem like a strange question to ask, what is happiness? Or was is real happiness? As if there is such a thing as fake or false happiness. What we’ll discuss in today’s article are the misconceptions that many of us have surrounding happiness, and how these ideas are created in our society. Furthermore we’ll delve into the true meaning of happiness, and try to guide you in the best direction for achieving that form of happiness.
So what is real happiness? You might think that when you smile or laugh, that this is an indication that you are truly happy. Or maybe you’ll convince yourself that if you bought a new top, or started a new relationship, or landed your dream job then you would be happy. The downfall of these attitudes towards happiness is that they all rely upon an external trigger, something to create a reaction of happiness within us. It’s great to have goals and aspirations, especially ones that we are passionate about and believe will improve our quality of life. However, if we are dependant on external factors to ensure our happiness then we can never feel secure in that emotion in case we lose that dream job, or perfect relationship or we get the urge to buy another piece of clothing because the last one no longer brings us the same joy that it did when we first purchased it. We attach happiness to things, places and people without attempting to consolidate and form lasting happiness within ourselves.
Surely, with centuries of inquiry we would have completed the search for pure and lasting happiness by now. And yet for most of us the search continues each and every day. Of course this isn’t to say that none of us have ever felt happiness, or even that these external influences can’t bring us a form of happiness. Rather we are going to find out that there are many forms of happiness, but some are more long-lasting and pure than others. These moments, which we call real happiness, go by many different names depending on who you ask. Some examples are:
- Peak Experiences
- Flow States
- Buddha Nature
- Pure consciousness
- Discovering your True-Self
- Non-Dual Awareness
In psychology these moments are referred to as peak experiences and they have a few notable characteristics:
· A sense of connection.
In moments of peak or awakening, the structures of the “ego” dissolve and with them we remove the separation between the “I” and the world. We no longer view ourselves as a singular point or awareness, distanced from everything around us by space. We take in the whole space and see everything that surrounds us, including sounds, smells and sensations as connected.
· A sense of clarity.
When we achieve clarity in these moments everything seems more vivid, brighter, even simple objects are caught in our attention. Steve Taylor, the author of Waking from Sleep, believes that the majority of our lives are spent in a kind of sleep that we can wake up from. These wakening moments are seen as higher states of consciousness and are in a sense exactly what we are talking about in this article, moments of real happiness.
One of Steve Taylor’s research volunteers was quoting saying, “Everything suddenly becomes more clearly defined. Images, sounds and smells take on a whole new meaning.”
· A sense of serenity.
Here, serenity can also mean calm. And what we might experience is the calming of our usually busy minds. Our inner dialogue might become quiet, so we are not passing judgement on our surroundings or on ourselves. We will also experience thoughts and emotions floating through our awareness rather than getting stuck in our minds for us to obsess over. We will be at peace in the moment, and experience no judgement or negative emotions towards ourselves or others.
· A sense of completeness.
If we are feeling a moment of peak experience and we could stop and assess the situation, what we would find is that there is nothing missing from the experience. Everything would be perfect as it is. Because there is very little mental chatter in these moments, there are no voices in our minds comparing what we are currently experiencing with what we think we should be experiencing, or what we have viewed others experiencing.
· A sense of flow.
Possibly the most important feature of a peak experience is it’s sense of effortlessness. You will not have to tell yourself that you are happy, or you should be feeling happy about the experience – you just will be. You might lose track of time or other unimportant factors and exist within a moment that goes beyond you as a person. Everything happens naturally, without effort, without the need to think too much.
Can we exist in a peak experience indefinitely?
Returning to British psychologist Steve Taylor, he says about these experiences: “The real meaning of these experiences is that they are an ‘awakening’. They give us a glimpse into a world of beauty, meaning and togetherness that goes beyond the normal human state of separation and suffering – they show us a new way of living.”
So what you might have realised at this point is that the experts all agree that these peak experiences are not our everyday mental states. However, through meditation we can create an experience of real happiness that we might never have had before, or may have only experienced a handful of times. This happiness will be unrelated to what we are doing or what we have and will therefore be a sustaining kind of happiness, it will be real happiness. Living in the 21st century comes with a multitude of worries and stressful scenarios for everyone, so to combat this and train our minds to be more receiving of peak experiences there are some things we can do surrounding our management of negative emotions and thoughts. What we need to remember is that these moments of real happiness are not intrinsically linked to what we are doing at the time, they are instead made possible by our state of mind.
Peaks, plateaus and valleys
It often makes it easier to understand this concept of peak experiences and real happiness if we find a way to visualise it. A great way of doing this is to picture a mountainous landscape, with peaks, plateaus and valleys. The geographical shapes correlate with our emotional and mental state in terms of these feelings of genuine happiness.
For most of us we experience the majority of our lives in the valleys. These are times when we feel incomplete in some way and are seeking something to make us feel happy – the examples from earlier still stand: a new piece of clothing, a new relationship or our dream job. When we have gained these things we will experience a peak moment of happiness where we feel completed. However, nothing lasts forever and so when the joy of this peak experience passes we return to the valley position and the cycle continues. Think of it like you are standing at the bottom of one of these mountains and your deepest desire is to reach the top and take in the view. Once you have struggled to the peak and enjoyed a well-deserved feeling of accomplishment you must come back down again – and then what do you have. Eventually the need for that feeling of accomplishment and completeness will return and you will seek out another mountain to climb.
For those who have trained their minds, it becomes possible to identify the characteristics of these peak moments and to incorporate that into their day-to-day lives. With this mentality, which does require training and commitment to achieve, we are able to create a new normal in our mental state which we refer to here as a plateau. Using meditation we can all achieve this baseline emotional state of peace and contentedness without relying upon external factors to create our happiness.
We have mentioned many names for real happiness today, however, the overarching description is always consistent. There is a sense of internal completeness and fulfilment that is necessary to real happiness. We have identified that this is not our natural state in today’s fast-paced and highly comparative society, as we have all become too dependent on external objects, people or experiences to create our happiness for us – and this kind of happiness just doesn’t last! So what we need to work on now, which you can do through our Real Happiness course, is separating those peak experiences from any external influences. Accept that the happiness they bring you is always going to be temporary, and release yourself from the hold this cycle of peaks and valleys has over you. Meditation can help us to create a deep sense of contentment within ourselves, so we can exist on the plateau of peace and real happiness indefinitely.
Through my personal experiences, I have always held a strong interest in human suffering and satisfaction; this greatly influenced my career path. I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy before completing a master’s degree in psychology at Regent’s University London.
I then completed a postgraduate diploma in philosophical counselling before being trained in ACT(Acceptance and commitment therapy).
I’ve spent the last eight years studying the encounter of meditative practices with modern psychology.