What’s the problem with happiness?

Apr 07, 2022

 

What’s your idea of happiness? Is it collapsing on the couch with some Netflix-and-chill at the end of a long week? The pleasure of enjoying your favorite morning beverage? The peace you experience after a good meditation? All of the above? None of the above? 

Happiness is a tricky concept because it is so subjective and it is often used as a general, overarching term to describe a whole range of pleasurable feelings we might experience. 

The yoga tradition describes three different types of happiness. These three types are based on the gunas, the three primal qualities of matter that constitute the material world.

 

Tamas is the principle of inertia and heaviness. Tamasic happiness is the satisfaction that comes from being idle and checking out.

The Bhagavad Gita says about tamasic happiness:

That happiness which both in the beginning

And afterwards deludes the self

Arising from sleep, indolence, and negligence,

Is declared to be tamasic. 18.39

I think of tamasic happiness as the Netflix-and-chill type of happiness. The distraction it provides can be enjoyable, even needed at times, but too much can bring our mood down.

 

Rajas is the principle of activity and passion. Rajasic happiness is what many of us typically think of as happiness. It’s the pleasure or enjoyment that you experience when you get what you want, or when outer circumstances are to your liking such as winning a game of chess or finding out the politician you voted for won the election. 

The Bhagavad Gita says about rajasic happiness: 

That which in the beginning, through contact

Between the sense pleasures and their objects, is like nectar,

And in the end like poison;

That happiness is declared to be rajasic. 18.38

The problem with both tamasic and rajasic happiness is that they depend on something outside of ourselves. If our happiness depends on an external object or circumstance, it will always be conditional. We’ll be happy when we get what we want but we’ll suffer when we don’t.

This is why rajasic happiness is described as being like nectar at the beginning—when we’re enjoying the things we want—but poison in the end, when the situation inevitably changes. As Prof. Edwin Bryant once astutely remarked, desire isn’t a problem until we don’t get what we want.

Another issue is that what we might think or have been taught will bring us happiness doesn’t necessarily translate into an experience of lasting happiness. Laurie Santos, Positive Psychologist and Yale researcher says that our intuitions about what will make us happy can be misleading:

“Our minds lie to us. We have strong intuitions about the things that will make us happy, and we use those intuitions to go after that stuff, whether it’s more money or changing circumstances or buying the new iPhone. But a lot of those intuitions, the science shows are not exactly right — or are deeply misguided…”

 

Sattva is the principle of clarity and lucidity. Sattvic happiness is the internal and self-generated state happiness that arises from peace and contentment.

The Bhagavad Gita says about sattvic happiness: 

That which in the beginning is like poison

But in the end like nectar;

That happiness, born from the tranquility of one’s own mind,

Is declared to be sattvic. 18.37

The yoga tradition places great emphasis on sattvic happiness because, unlike rajasic or tamasic happiness, it is independent of anything outside of ourselves. Sattvic happiness arises out of the experience of inner tranquility we might experience in meditation, acting in according with our dharma or purpose, or by cultivating yogic virtues. According to the Yoga sutras, sattvic happiness arises naturally in a quiet and contented mind:

“This sattvic happiness does not depend on external objects, which are vulnerable and fleeting, but is inherent in the mind when it is tranquil and content.” Edwin Bryant 

The Western concept of eudaimonia is very similar to the yogic notion of sattvic happiness. Eudaimonia is a Greek word that Aristotle used to describe what he considered to be true happiness. It is defined by journalist Florence Williams as the fulfillment that derives not from feeling good but from striving for purpose, and the idea that life in general, and your life in particular, means something, even in the face of adversity.

Like sattvic happiness, eudaimonic happiness sees happiness as a state of inner fulfillment and connection rather than the satisfaction or enjoyment that comes from outer circumstances and objects.

What does this mean for us?

My own interpretation of these three types of happiness is that rajas and tamas have their place. I don’t think we need to deny ourselves the pleasure of a well-deserved rest at the end of a long week or the satisfaction that comes from celebrating our successes. I think it is helpful, though, to recognize the vulnerable and fleeting nature of the happiness that comes from those things. Then we can use the tools of yoga—postural practice, breathwork, contemplative study, and meditation—to help us tap into that sense of true and lasting happiness that is free and independent from outer circumstances.

 

We’ll be exploring more about the relationship between yoga and happiness in my upcoming workshop Yoga for Turbulent Times coming up on Saturday, April 9, 2022. For more information, see https://www.barrierisman.com/live-workshop-2022-q2. I would love to have you there!

 

 

 

 

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