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With so many different definitions of happiness floating around in the world, how do we choose the one that will make us happy?
For the fourth year in a row, the United Nation’s World Happiness Index named Finland the happiest country in the world. How is such a ranking possible when happiness can mean so many things to different people?
Arthur C. Brooks, professor of public leadership at Harvard’s Kennedy School, argues that happiness shouldn’t be ranked but classified since there’s no universal definition of happiness.
A 2016 study found Americans tend to base their sense of happiness on family relationships or personal accomplishments. In Nordic countries, happiness generally refers to a sense of stability and contentment, while in Southern India, happiness is more about achieving a higher level of consciousness. Of course, within these countries, you’ll find many differing opinions of what happiness is.
At times, we forget to look for happiness all together, but instead seek to limit the things that make us feel unhappy, like anxiety and stress. How many times have we thought, My life would be better if I just didn’t have so much stress!
With so many different definitions of happiness floating around in the world, how do we choose the one that will make us happy? Buddhist philosopher Daisaku Ikeda writes,
In order to become truly happy, one needs a philosophy that clarifies what happiness really is.
In other words, defining happiness is the most important step to becoming happy.
Buddhism teaches that there are two types of happiness, relative happiness and absolute happiness. Relative happiness is what we experience when someone compliments us on our shoes, or when we find out we got into our dream school or when someone laughs at our joke. It’s happiness that depends on external circumstances.
Absolute happiness, however, comes from the inside. It describes a state of life where we feel a deep sense of happiness in just being alive, even if we are facing agonizing problems. The 13th-century Buddhist teacher Nichiren writes,
It is the heart that is important.
“The Drum at the Gate of Thunder.” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 949
If our heart is full of courage, compassion, gratitude and a sense of purpose, then we can be happy no matter what external difficulties we’re facing.
How do we develop such a heart? Chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is a Buddhist practice for bringing forth the best aspects of our heart each day. Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is the name of the Buddhist principle that all life contains within it limitless reserves of courage, wisdom and compassion, or Buddhability. When we chant, we are opening our eyes to these qualities within our life, and we develop a vast heart. Such a heart isn’t shaken by anyone or anything, and can even find joy in the face of the most difficult of situations.
When we chant, we are opening our eyes to these qualities within our life, and we develop a vast heart. Such a heart isn’t shaken by anyone or anything, and can even find joy in the face of the most difficult of situations.
This does not mean that we are stoic or even robots who refuse to cry when we hear bad news. Nichiren also writes:
Suffer what there is to suffer, enjoy what there is to enjoy. Regard both suffering and joy as facts of life, and continue chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, no matter what happens.
“Happiness in This World,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 681
Yes, we can grieve when we lose a friend or cry tears of happiness at our little sister’s graduation. The point is, when we face problems, we don’t lose our hope or sense of purpose.
We may encounter all kinds of problems in the course of life. There will also undoubtedly be times when we are faced with circumstances beyond our control. But why is it that, in the same situation, one person advances vibrantly, while another sorrows and laments? It is because happiness is an internal condition, something we feel in our hearts.
Buddhism inspires us to find meaning even in the most challenging situations based on our compassionate, vast heart. This kind of happiness can never be taken away from us.