Saturday, January 3, 2009

Happiness, what is it, how do I get me some?

Happiness has become a big topic.  Last week there was a full page article about it in the local paper.  I recently found "The Happiness Project" on-line and a flurry of books have been published in the last year or two on the subject.  As a culture it seems we are hungry or at least curious about happiness.  As a practicing human I am no exception.  Last January as a result of a health opportunity and some contemplation I decided to take an on-line course called "Awakening Joy" (which I highly recommend).  It has a Buddhist bend to it and is based on a book called "How We Choose To Be Happy."

I have always regarded myself as "a glass half empty" type, inclined toward seeing what is wrong or missing in a situation.  I thought it was "just me" that's how I am.  One piece of info in the course showed me that I was not alone in my position toward life.  Rick Hanson, a brain researcher gave a fabulous talk (, his website, shares this info freely) that basically said the mind is more attracted to negative information.  We are hard wired for this.  In our former lives as hairless little creatures out on the savannahs it was important to our survival to pay attention to the negative.  So what I had taken as a personal short coming and solidified into "a me" that I didn't much care for was simply a human characteristic. There it is, a curse and blessing all rolled into one!

The next piece of info that seemed important was on the neuroplasticity of the brain.  In Buddhist thought I was familiar with the idea of "habitual tendencies", those behaviours that we repeatedly engage in during this lifetime and if you care to believe, over many life times.  Some of these behaviours are keepers, wholesome or neutral things we do, but others disturb ourselves and others.  In the world of brain research these habitual tendencies are physically manifested as neural pathways that are built and reinforced by repeated behaviour....little dirt roads in the brain where we deepen the ruts each time we drive our beat up old neural pick-up trucks over them.  New brain research shows that we can build new neural pathways by changing our behaviour and weaken the old roads by abandoning them.  This contradicts the former belief that our "set point for happiness" was fixed and reinforced the sentiment that I am just a negative sort so why bother with the hard work of trying to be different.

I have been rambling along here and haven't even approached the question of what is happiness or joy?  What does it mean to me, to you?  If you've read this far maybe you'd like to share your thoughts on the subject.  For me (as in the Matthieu Ricard Youtube video recently posted on fluxlife about happiness) I would separate happiness from pleasure.  There is nothing wrong with a little pleasure, don't get me wrong, but it is not sustaining in any way.  Your spouse leaves you, your child dies, how far does a piece of chocolate cake go?  

At the beginning of my 12 month course on joy I thought of it as something really upbeat or perky, almost manic.  But as time went on I had the opportunity to contemplate and practice what was presented.  I came to see happiness as something quieter, more sedate.  For me I began to notice the bodily sense of relaxation (as opposed to tension and holding) that was associated with a sense of happiness.  It was a sense of relaxing into my life, trying to remember as much as I could that everything is okay in this very moment.  I don't need to get anywhere, rush through this task so I can get on to the next one on my list.  I just need to be here in this moment as much as I can and really experience it, its taste, its texture.  I need to remember that I live in a friendly universe, that no matter what is happening in this moment, that it is all for my good (my Zen teacher would call this faith).  If I can remember to be generous, compassionate and grateful then I am cultivating the habits of mind that bring happiness.  

So while it all seems like a tall order, it also seems to me like one worth working toward.  And because I frequently fall off the top of the tall order and find myself bruised and banged I have learned I need to extend some compassion toward myself.  Now that was a big lesson! Otherwise happiness just becomes another thing I cling to, that I extend my tentacles of desire toward, another subtle form of aggression I use against myself and others.  So let me be off in my bright orange and green neural pick-up truck, on my journey of building new pathways.  There are miles and miles to build before I sleep (Robert Frost said that, right?)  May you be happy!

This painting called "The Three Treasures" looks happy to me, don't you think, in it's brightness and playfulness?  It is a mixed media piece with the three Buddha images cut from different types of paper.  Shades of pink and green acrylics are layered on with some texture and scratching going on.  The three treasures are of course, the Buddha (representing all enlightened ones), the Dharma (the teachings that help us on our path), and the Sangha (like minded practitioners that support us on the path).  This painting is sold but other Buddha paintings can be found at my etsy shop.  (oh, oh, a moment of shameless shilling!)


  1. i knew i was neuroplastic! now i'm fer sure about it! thanks ZenDotStudio blog!

    yeah. it's all about new grooves that nourish us. walk away from the old grooves that took away from nourishing us.

    hey, there's nothing wrong with plugging your art. firstly, it's beautiful. second, if it assists your personal sustainability, then you do well to nourish yourself from this, as you nourish us with your words.

    deep bow,

    -Steve @ fluxlife

  2. hey there Zen Dot Studio Blog!

    when you get a chance email me at i'm starting a new blog soon regarding zen and yoga. a friend from LA will be writing the yoga side of it. i'll be writing the zen side of it, and i would like to have a guest writer/co-participant/interviewee/interviewer from time to time, and i would like you to be that person! i know you're busy, but if you ever get a spare moment, i would love you to write as part of the team on the new blog!

    also, i'm just curious and excited to chat with you! you're the only other zen practitioner that i've had a feeling of connection with on the net so far, and i really like what you have to say as well!

    peace within and peace everywhere,

    -Steve @ fluxlife