Hey gang! Welcome to “How Can Buddhism Make Me Happy?” We’ll outline some lessons from Buddhism that can make you happier! This won’t be a systematic exploration of the religion or its philosophy, just a genuine reflection of the author’s experience and understanding with some liberties taken.
So, think of this as a list of takeaways from one of the world’s great wisdom traditions adapted for the modern world. You can use these takeaways to live a happier life. That’s why this post is called, “How Can Buddhism Make Me Happy?”
Use this as a guide, a menu of suggestions if you will. As always, try things, see which makes you happier, discard the rest. Here we go!
1. Practice Makes Perfect
Buddhists believe if you want to be happy, you must practice happiness. Buddhists believe if you wish to be free from suffering, you must practice freeing yourself from suffering.
If you wait for life to make you happy, you’ll be waiting a long time. Waiting for life to make you happy is like waiting for life to make you into a PGA Tour-level golfer. You won’t stumble onto the Augusta National course one day and magically shoot a three under par. You have to practice!
Buddhists believe that happiness and freedom from suffering are like becoming a professional golfer. They require practice. This is one way Buddhism can make you happy!
Key takeaway: If you want to be happy, practice being happy! Make your life the practice of happiness.
2. Slow is Smooth, Smooth is Fast
Buddhists believe there are better and worse ways to practice happiness. There are better and worse ways to practice freeing yourself from suffering. Buddhists call the better ways “skillful means”. If you can practice being happy using skillful means you’ll become happier more quickly and with less emotional wear and tear.
Skillful means are ways of becoming happy that generally have three qualities: they’re more sustainable than alternatives, they’re closer to the root of the problem than alternatives and they’re more beneficial than alternatives. Let’s take a closer look at each of these in action.
More sustainable - More sustainable practices are ones that will work both in the short and long term. Running five miles might make you feel better than running one mile. However if you can make a habit of running one mile and can’t make a habit of running five miles, then running one mile might be the more skillful means.
Closer to the root - Closer to the root practices address problems at deeper and deeper levels.
Binge-watching a television show might distract you from your loneliness and be easy to do. However, when the show is over, you’ll be lonely again. On the other hand, making friends with people you see often might cure your loneliness. So making friends with people you see often might be the more skillful means.
More beneficial - More beneficial practices create more happiness for you and others.
If hugging someone for one second will make them feel a little cared for, but hugging someone for 10 seconds will make them feel very cared for, then hugging that someone for 10 seconds might be the more skillful means.
The most skillful means in any one situation will balance all three of these conditions in unique ways. So, when practicing happiness and letting go of suffering, try to practice with skillful means. That is, in ways that are more and more sustainable, deeper and deeper, and more and more beneficial to you and all beings. This is another way Buddhism can make you happy!
Key takeaway: There are better and worse ways of becoming happy. Practice being happy with skillful means: more sustainably, more deeply, and more beneficially to you and other beings.
3. Mind over Matter
Buddhists believe that one’s circumstances shouldn’t dictate one’s happiness. As it’s been said, “Conditional happiness is misery.” We should be able to be happy no matter what our circumstances are.
Buddhists believe that happiness and freedom from suffering aren’t based on getting a promotion, finding the love of your life or having that first cup of coffee in the morning. No, Buddhists believe that real happiness comes not from getting what we want. Rather, it comes from training the mind to be happy regardless of circumstance. We often think happiness will come when we get what we want. But Buddhists and the Rolling Stones tell us we can’t always get what we want. And so Buddhists don’t rely on that to make them happy. They teach themselves how to be happy no matter what they get. But how do they do that? Well, they meditate, of course! This is yet another way Buddhism can make you happy!
Key takeaway: A happy mind makes a happy life, not the other way around.
4. Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There!
This wouldn’t be a post on Buddhism without everybody’s favorite cross-legged spiritual austerity, meditation!
In Buddhism, a primary way of cultivating happiness and relief from suffering is by meditating. Meditation is often the most skillful means of practicing happiness. Meditation, put broadly, is a set of practices for constructing parts of the mind and deconstructing other parts of the mind. The Buddha says in the Pali Canon, “As irrigators lead water where they want, as archers make their arrows straight, as carpenters carve wood, the wise shape their minds.” By intentionally constructing and deconstructing, we shape the mind.
To become happier, we construct parts of our mind that cause ourselves and others happiness e.g. noticing the good in other people. To free ourselves from suffering, we deconstruct the parts of our minds that cause us and others suffering e.g. our fear of difficult conversations. We cultivate that which brings happiness and we starve that which brings suffering. By practicing this over and over, Buddhists cultivate a mind that can be happy regardless of the situation.
There are many kinds of meditation practices: concentration, mindfulness, love/compassion and more! You can meditate sitting down, walking, exercising or washing the dishes! You can meditate with thoughts, you can meditate with emotions. Almost any way you can meditate has benefits because it means you’re intentionally shaping your mind. Don’t overthink it. Find a practice or set of practices that call to you. Practice each for a short period of time each day and allow your journey to unfold from there. Be curious. Follow your intuitions. Enjoy the process.
If you’re looking for a place to start, check out previous meditation posts on Tonglen and Non-Meditation. This is yet another way Buddhism can make you happy!
Key takeaway: Meditate!
5. Watch Your Thoughts
“Well, great.” You say, “Meditation makes my mind happy regardless of the situation. But I don’t want to be a spineless doormat who’s just resigned to whatever flavorless porridge life serves me.” Well, good news, meditation won’t do that to you!
A popular saying of uncertain origin goes, “Watch your thoughts; they become your words. Watch your words; they become your actions. Watch your actions; they become your habits. Watch your habits; they become your character. Watch your character; it becomes your destiny.”
By molding our minds through meditation we don’t become renunciant, uncaring sea sponges, passively sifting through the ocean debris of life. No, by sculpting our minds, we are actually shaping our future actions, shaping our future life and shaping our world. If one shapes one’s mind to be happy and virtuous, then one will act happily and virtuously. If one faces one’s fears courageously in the mind, one will face the tyrants of this life courageously. If one learns to make peace in the mind, one learns to make peace in the world. Our mind makes the world. And then the world makes the mind. “Aunt Lucy says ‘if you look for the good in people, you’ll find it.,’” goes a line from Paddington 2. If you change your mind, you change the world and you act differently in it. And thus, you change yourself. You change the world.
Watch your thoughts, cultivate that which is wise, creative, skillful and loving. Give no energy to the rest. Your actions will become wise, creative, skillful and loving. And then so will our world. This is yet another way Buddhism can make you happy!
Key takeaway: Shape your thoughts and your thoughts will shape your life.
6. Don’t Believe Everything You Think
When we learn to deconstruct the parts of our mind that bring us suffering, we see that our thoughts are less powerful than they once seemed. It used to be that thoughts were our boss, telling us how things are and what to do. But when we meditate, we learn that we’re the boss and our thoughts are a suggestion box from our employees. Some suggestions may be strongly worded and some essential to our success, but even the best ones are limited. And many more are severely limited, biased and foolish. We may shred them after reading.
Thoughts cannot represent truth in its fullness. Every thought, no matter how profound, is simply not up to the task of describing the amorphous kaleidoscope that is reality. No idea, however wise and loving, can ever be applicable to all situations. “It’s partial truths all the way down,” says podcaster Sam Harris. “The Dao that can be spoken is not the eternal Dao,” says the Dao De Ching.
When one sees that one’s thoughts are, at best, educated guesses (and at worst flat out falsehoods), one is on the path of wisdom. One begins to change one’s relationships with thoughts. “Maybe I’m not a bad person like I always think.” “Maybe people aren’t always gossipping about me when I leave the room like I always think.” And one can let go of actions that no longer serve them. “Maybe I don’t have to look at Instagram models that make me hate my body.” “Maybe I don’t have to stay in the job I hate because others say I should.” One is growing in wisdom. This is yet another way Buddhism can make you happy!
Key takeaway: Change your relationship with thoughts.
7. Love and Wisdom are Like Two Wings of a Butterfly
You need both to fly. Once one sees through the veil of thoughts, one might not know what to do. “I used to do what my thoughts told me to do. I used to believe what my thoughts said was true. But now I see thoughts are often false. And I don’t know what to do in life.” And that’s where love comes in. Allow your thoughts to come and go. They are no longer unquestioned messages from the corporate overlord of your mind. They are tools in the deft hands of the loving angel that lives in your heart. When the discerning mind sees a thought that Love can use, Love picks it up. Then Love tries, however imperfectly, to do what Love does best with a tool. Love uses it to create happiness and relieve suffering from all beings. This is yet another way Buddhism can make you happy!
Key takeaway: Balance your love and wisdom.
8. Love, Love, Love
“Hatred cannot be driven out by hatred, but by love alone is healed. This is the ancient and eternal law,” says the Pali Canon.
The Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield said once, “You want a mantra? I’ll give you a mantra: what would love have me do today?”
Our basic nature is to want to be happy and free from suffering. Everything we do is in service of this goal—whether it's sending an angry email, writing a check to charity, or taking a moment to appreciate a serene spring morning. Awaken to this basic nature and begin to see it in yourself and all beings. Everything people do is done to be happy and avoid suffering. When one sees this, one sees with compassion. One sees with love. The more one practices seeing the world this way, the more one will wish for people to achieve their happiness. The more one will work for the happiness of others, for the happiness of oneself.
Cultivate this beautiful flower of love with the gardening shears of wisdom. Keep it safe from hatred and delusion. Allow it to blossom into the fullest tree and guide your life. This is yet another way Buddhism can make you happy!
Key takeaway: Love, as much as you can that is sustainable.
9. Secure Your Own Oxygen Mask First Before Assisting Other Passengers
You can’t make other people happy if you’re not happy. You can’t love others until you love yourself. One cannot pour from an empty cup.
Fill up your cup. Become happy, loving, wise, creative, skillful. Once it's brimming, begin to pour it out to others. Once it's empty, stop pouring. Fill it up again. Be good to yourself. Then allow your natural spirit of generosity to guide you. Don’t worry, it will come.
All of the energy you invest in your own happiness will redound to the benefit of others. Your love will be so strong, your wisdom so discerning, you won’t be able to help yourself from doing that what is right and necessary for the world. This is yet another way Buddhism can make you happy!
Key takeaway: Make yourself happy, then assist others.
10. Wise Selfishness
And this also wouldn’t be a post on Buddhism without everybody’s least favorite spiritual rhetorical device, a paradox. The paradox is that a) you should work hard to make yourself happy and b) the best way to make yourself happy is to help others.
So, fill up your cup: exercise, eat right, spend time with nature and family and friends (Embody the Pillars of Well-Being). Then, volunteer your time in the community, give money to causes you care about, practice random acts of kindness, smile to strangers on the street, do what love would have you do that day.
And a word of caution from the Tibetan Lama, Mingyur Rinpoche, “Never do something out of love that you don’t want to do.” You’ll build a pattern of resentment into your kindness. Your love will be tainted and become undesirable to you. It will not sustain. It is not the skillful means.
Help others in ways that are sustainable. If you have a lot of money, then give some to those in need. If you have a lot of food, share it. If you feel good, do something kind that you wouldn’t have otherwise done. And only do it if/when you want to. This way, you can make yourself and others happy.
So, try to make others happy. This will make you happy. As Mingyur Rinpoche says, “Buy one, get one free.”
Key takeaway: Helping others, helps you.
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