Are you happier now than you were 10 years ago?
Are you happier now than you were when you were a kid?
Or, to put it another way: Are you still waiting for the day when you’re finally going to be happy?
For many years, science scoffed at happiness. It was the domain of philosophers and sidewalk preachers. How could you study something so ephemeral, so unquantifiable? (And why study happy people when you could study unhappy people and get paid to fix them?)
Thank goodness for the humanists. They recognized there was a lot of research on broken people but not a lot of research on whole people. They ushered in the era of positive psychology, or the study of what makes us flourish.
Maybe you couldn’t measure happiness, but you could certainly study subjective well-being. You could even rank countries along a happiness index (the U.S. came in 13th in 2016).
Even doctors got on board, telling us that happiness is good for the heart, immune system, blood pressure, and overall health. Happiness is so good for us, in fact, that it helps us live longer.
So let’s do it! Let’s be happy! Come on! Let’s go!
Wait a second…
Surely you can’t make yourself happy. Either you’re happy or you’re not, right? It’s not under conscious control. You can’t just snap your fingers and make yourself happy this very instant.
Other things can make you happy, though. A bigger house, a better job, a husband who produces a dozen roses on Valentine’s Day.
So does that mean we should chase the stuff that makes us happy? We should shop more, go on vacation more, and get more promotions? That doesn’t sound too bad.
And therein lies the problem.
If you don’t think too closely, you’d assume that our “right to the pursuit of happiness” is a license for hedonism. Pursue all the pleasure you can, because that’s what will make you happy—and happiness is good. Science says so!
Pema Chödrön has a different perspective.
Chödrön is no scientist. She’s an old-school Buddhist nun who teaches at a Tibetan monastery in Canada. She cares about happiness, because the Buddha cared about happiness.
It might seem strange to look to a Buddhist nun for tips on how to be happy, given that she’s renounced pleasures like swimming in a pool of million dollar bills or partying in Vegas with the Kardashians.
But, then again, Buddhists have a reputation for being seriously happy. The so-called “happiest man in the world” is a Buddhist monk named Matthieu Ricard. The Dalai Lama is a pretty chipper chap for having lived in exile most of his life.
What do Buddhists know about happiness that the rest of us don’t? What’s their special secret?
They know that happiness is an inside job.
As long as we put any conditions on happiness—we have to be in a relationship to be happy, or have money to be happy, or not have to work anymore to be happy—we’re not really free.
In her book The Places That Scare You, Chödrön asks us why we tie our happiness to circumstances, when circumstances are always changing.
One day we’re a success; the next day we fall flat on our faces. One day we’re flush with money in the bank; the next day the credit card bill comes. One day we feel loved beyond belief; the next day he forgets to kiss us goodbye.
So we could keep trying to reach a place in our lives where everything is perfect and we can finally be happy … but then we’d have to spend our remaining years fighting to keep it that way.
Surely there’s a better solution.
For Chödrön, we shouldn’t be asking ourselves whether we’re happy all the time (and criticizing ourselves if we’re not).
Instead, we should be looking at whether we’re able to notice happy moments and appreciate them while they last.
Chödrön would like us to ask ourselves:
“Do the days of our lives add up to further suffering or to increased capacity for joy?”
Because true happiness lies in cultivating an awareness of joy, not experiencing more pleasure and avoiding all pain.
Most of us aren’t able to say we’re happier now than we were as kids. Instead, adulthood seems to bring more frequent and ingenious ways to suffer.
Maybe you notice all the cruelty and ignorance in the world around you, and you find it impossible to be personally happy when the world is in such a state.
Maybe things irritate you more than they used to: those niggling aches and pains, the loud music at the mall, the endless waiting in lines, the smug faces of politicians.
Maybe it’s hard to get excited about anything anymore, when you’re tired and overworked and under pressure and depressed about the rat race.
Telling you to just be happy would be a bit offensive, wouldn’t it?
But here’s something you could do:
You could allow yourself to savor those fleeting moments of happiness when they come.
You don’t have to hold onto them and force them to stay. Instead, just notice them. Appreciate them. Then let them go.
That’s where age works in your favor.
As you get older, you can see what a rare and precious thing happiness is. It’s not something you can pursue with dollar bills and obsessive planning. You have to set a trap for it, wait patiently, and hope it falls in.
So your job is not, as our forefathers suggested, to pursue happiness with every resource at your disposal.
It’s to stay alert to the happiness lurking in everyday moments. Your child’s hug. Your favorite song on the radio. The warmth of the sun’s rays bursting from behind a cloud.
Stop and feel those moments. Don’t rush past.
The best moments in life happen now.
 Pema Chödrön, The Places That Scare You (Boston: 2001, Shambhala Classics), 19.