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Home > Fundamentals of Tibetan Buddhism > Level 2: Lam-rim (Graded Stage) Material > The Sources of Happiness According to Buddhism

The Sources of Happiness According to Buddhism

Alexander Berzin
Berne, Switzerland, March 2010
Originally published in "Glück"
(Berner Universitätsschriften, Band 56), pp. 41-52
Andrè Holenstein, Ruth Meyer Schwiezer, Pasqualina Perrig-Chiello, Peter Rusterholz, Christian von Zimmermann, Andreas Wagner, Sara Margarita Zwahlen, eds.
Bern-Stuttgart-Wien, Haupt Verlag, 2011.

Ordinary Happiness: The Suffering of Change

Some people have characterized Buddhism as a negative religion that identifies all that we experience as suffering and does not acknowledge happiness at all. This, however, is a misinformed view. It is true that Buddhism speaks of our usual, ordinary happiness as the suffering of change. This means that this type of happiness is unsatisfying: it never lasts and we never have enough of it. It is not true happiness. If, for example, eating ice cream were true happiness, then the more we ate of it at one sitting, the happier we would become. But soon we reach a point at which the happiness at eating ice cream changes into unhappiness and suffering. The same is the case with sitting out in the sun or moving into the shade. This is what is meant by the suffering of change.

Buddhism, however, provides many methods for overcoming the limitations of our ordinary happiness, this suffering of change, so that we reach the everlasting joyous state of a Buddha. Nevertheless, despite the drawbacks of our ordinary happiness, Buddhism also explains the sources for achieving that kind of happiness. Buddhism provides this teaching because one of its basic axioms is that everyone wants to be happy and no one wants to be unhappy. And, since everyone is looking for happiness and, as ordinary beings, we do not know of any type of happiness other than the ordinary, usual kind, Buddhism tells us how to achieve it. Only when that wish and need for happiness has been fulfilled on the most basic level of ordinary happiness can we go on to aim for deeper, more satisfying levels of it with more advanced spiritual practices.

[See: Happiness: An In-Depth Analysis of Its Role in Sutra and Tantra.]

Unfortunately, however, as the great Indian Buddhist master Shantideva wrote in Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior (sPyod-‘jug, Skt. Bodhicharyavatara) (I.28):

Although having the mind that wishes to shun suffering,
They rush headlong into suffering itself.
Although wishing for happiness, yet out of naivety (gti-mug, Skt. moha),
They destroy their own happiness as if it were a foe.

In other words, although we wish for happiness, we are naive about its sources and so, instead of creating more happiness for ourselves, we create only more unhappiness and sorrow.

Happiness Is a Feeling

Although there are many types of happiness, here let us focus our attention on ordinary happiness. To understand its sources, we first need to be clear about what is meant by “happiness.” What is this happiness (bde-ba, Skt. sukha) that we all want? According to the Buddhist analysis, happiness is a mental factor – in other words, it is a type of mental activity with which we are aware of an object in a certain way. It is one section of a broader mental factor called “feeling” (tshor-ba, Skt. vedana), which covers a spectrum that spans a wide range from totally happy to totally unhappy.

What is the definition of “feeling?” Feeling is the mental factor having the nature of experiencing (myong-ba). It is the mental activity of experiencing an object or situation in a way that actually makes it an experience of that object or situation. Without a feeling somewhere on the spectrum between happiness and unhappiness, we do not actually experience an object or a situation. A computer takes in and processes data, but since a computer does not feel happy or unhappy in doing this, a computer does not experience the data. This is the difference between a computer and a mind.

Feeling a level of happiness or unhappiness accompanies either cognition of a sensory object – a sight, sound, smell, taste, or physical sensation such as pleasure or pain – or cognition of a mental object such as when thinking something. It does not need to be dramatic or extreme. It can be very low level. In fact, some level of feeling happy or unhappy accompanies every moment of our life – even when we are deeply asleep with no dreams, we experience it with a neutral feeling.

[See: The Relationship between Happiness and Unhappiness, and Pleasure and Pain.]

The Definition of Happiness

Buddhism provides two definitions for happiness. One is defined in terms of our relation to an object, while the other is defined in terms of our relation with the state of mind of the feeling itself.

  • The first defines happiness as the experiencing of something in a satisfying manner, based on believing that it is of benefit to ourselves, whether or not it actually is. Unhappiness is the experiencing of something in an unsatisfying, tormenting way. We experience something neutrally when it is in neither a satisfying nor a tormenting way.
  • The second defines happiness as that feeling which, when it has ended, we wish to meet with it once more. Unhappiness as that feeling which, when it arises, we wish to be parted from it. While a neutral feeling is that feeling which, when it arises or ends, we have neither of the two wishes.

The two definitions are related. When we experience something in a satisfying way, the way we experience the object is that the object, literally, “comes to our mind” (yid-du ‘ong-ba, Skt. manapa) in a pleasant manner. We accept the object and it remains comfortably as the object of our attention. This implies that we feel our experience of the object is of benefit to us: it makes us happy; it feels good. Because of that, we want the benefit from this experience to continue and, if it ended, we would want it to come back. Colloquially, we would say that we enjoy the object and the experience of it.

When we experience an object in a tormenting manner, this unhappy experience of the object, literally, “does not come to our mind” (yid-du ma-‘ong-ba, Skt. amanapa) in a pleasant manner. We do not accept the object and it does not stay as the object of our attention comfortably. We feel that our experience of the object is of no benefit and, in fact, it is hurting us. We want it to end. Colloquially, we would say that we do not enjoy the object or the experience of it.

Exaggeration of the Qualities of an Object

What does it mean to feel comfortable with an object? When we are comfortable with an object, we accept it as it is, without being naive, and without exaggerating or denying its good qualities or its shortcomings. This point brings us to the discussion of disturbing emotions (nyon-rmongs, Skt. klesha; afflictive emotions) and their relation with whether we experience an object with happiness or unhappiness.

One set of disturbing emotions is lust, attachment, and greed. With all three of them, we exaggerate the good qualities of an object. With lust, we want to get the object if we don’t have it. With attachment, we don’t want to lose it when we do have it; and with greed, we want more even if we do have it. With these disturbing emotions, we tend to ignore the shortcomings of the object. These are not happy states of mind, since we do not find the object satisfying. That means we are not satisfied with the object. We do not accept it for what it is.

For instance, when we see our girlfriend or boyfriend to whom we are very attached, we may experience the sight with happiness. We are satisfied to see the person; we find it satisfying. But as soon as our attachment arises as we exaggerate the good qualities of the person and of being with him or her and we exaggerate the negative qualities of our being without this person, then we feel dissatisfied and unhappy. We do not accept the situation of seeing the person just now and merely enjoying the moment, but we want more and dread his or her going away. Consequently, all of a sudden, we now experience seeing our loved one with dissatisfaction, uneasiness, and unhappiness.

Another set of disturbing emotions is repulsion, anger, and hatred. With these, we exaggerate the shortcomings or negative qualities of the object and want to avoid it if don’t have it; we want to get rid of it when have it; and when it ends, we don’t want it to recur. These three disturbing emotions are usually mixed with fear. They too are not happy states of mind, since we are not satisfied with the object. We do not accept it for what it is.

For example, we could be having root canal work. The object of our experience is a physical sensation of pain. But if we accept it for what it is, without exaggerating its negative qualities, we will not be unhappy during the procedure. We could have a neutral feeling as the way in which we experience the pain: we accept that as long as the procedure takes, it takes and so we are not praying for it to be over quickly; and when the dentist stops drilling, we do not wish for him or her to drill more. We have equanimity about the pain of the drilling – neither repulsion nor attraction nor naivety. In fact, during the procedure, we could experience happiness focused on the thought that we are preventing the future pain of more toothaches.

Note that being happy or satisfied with something does not preclude wanting more or wanting less of something, based on need. It does not make us inactive so that we never try to improve things or to improve ourselves or our situations in life. For example, we can accept, be satisfied and consequently be happy with the progress we have made on carrying out a project at work or on recovering from surgery. But based on need, we can still want to make further progress without being unhappy with what we have achieved so far. The same is the case with the amount of food on our plate or the amount of money we have in the bank, if in fact the reality is that we do not have enough and need more. Without exaggerating the negative aspects of not having enough food to eat or money in the bank, or denying the benefits of having more, we can make efforts to get more food or money without being unhappy about it. If we succeed, it’s OK; and if we fail, that’s OK too, we will somehow manage. But still we try. Most importantly, we try to get more, but without the mental wandering of expectations for success or worries about failure.

Shantideva put it nicely in his chapter on patience (VI.10):

If it can be remedied,
Why get into a foul mood over something?
And if it can’t be remedied,
What help is it to get into a foul mood over it?

Constructive Behavior as the Principal Source of Happiness

In the long term, the main cause for happiness is constructive behavior. This means refraining from acting, speaking, or thinking under the influence of disturbing emotions such as lust, attachment, greed, repulsion, anger, naivety, and so on, without concern for the long term effect of our behavior on ourselves and on others. Destructive behavior, as the main cause for unhappiness, is not refraining from that type of behavior, but rather engaging in it. For example, with longing desire, we exaggerate the good qualities of an object in a store and ignoring the legal consequences, we steal it. With anger, we exaggerate the negative qualities of something our partner has said and, ignoring the effect it will have on our relationship, we yell at him or her and say cruel words.

Acting, speaking, and thinking while refraining from being under the influence of disturbing emotions builds up the habit to refrain from being under such influence in the future. As a result, if a disturbing emotion arises in the future, we do not act on the basis of it and, eventually, the strength of the disturbing emotion will weaken and eventually the disturbing emotion will hardly arise at all. On the other hand, the more we act on the basis of the disturbing emotions, the more they will arise in the future and the stronger they will be.

As we have seen, when we experience an object with happiness, we experience it without the disturbing emotions of naivety, lust, attachment, greed, repulsion, or anger. Our experiencing of the object is based on accepting its actual nature as what it is, without exaggerating or denying its good or bad points. This way of experiencing things, then, comes from the habit of constructive behavior with which we act, speak, and think likewise based on accepting the actual nature of what people or things or situations are, without exaggerating or denying their good or bad points.

The Circumstances for the Potentials for Happiness to Ripen

Our way of experiencing objects or thoughts – with happiness or unhappiness – is not determined, then, by the object or the thought itself. As we have seen, if with our long-term previous behavior we have built up the habit of refraining from exaggerating or denying the positive or negative aspects of these things, we can experience even the pain of having root canal work in a happy state of mind. Going back to the definition of happiness, we experience the procedure in a satisfying manner, based on believing that it is of benefit to ourselves.

Although we might have built up the habit of refraining from acting, speaking, or thinking under the influence of disturbing emotions and so built up the potential to experience objects and thoughts with happiness, still certain circumstances are necessary for that potential to ripen into an experience of happiness. As we have seen, the object of our experience does not necessarily determine whether we experience it with happiness or unhappiness. Rather, experiencing an object with happiness depends more strongly on our attitude of accepting the actual reality of what the object is, regardless of what that object might be – the painful physical sensation of root canal work or the sight of a loved one. So, our attitude, our state of mind, is critical for whether at the moment we feel happy or unhappy, no matter what object we might be seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, physically sensing, or thinking.

We have also seen that when we accept the reality of what something is and are not naive about it, then we do not exaggerate or deny its good or bad qualities and so we do not experience the object with lust, greed, or attachment or with repulsion or anger. Therefore, what helps to trigger the ripening of happiness at any particular moment is being free of naivety.


In any given moment of unhappiness, our naivety is not necessarily restricted to being naive about the object we are experiencing. Naivety has a much wider range. It can also be focused on ourselves. When we are experiencing a problem with great unhappiness, then with naivety we tend to become fixated only on ourselves and we might even think that we are the only one who has ever experienced this problem.

Take the example of losing our job. The reality is that there are millions of people around the world who have lost their jobs and are now unemployed. We can think about our situation without being naive about impermanence, for instance. We remember that all phenomena that arise from causes and circumstances will be affected by further causes and circumstances, and will eventually end. That can be very helpful. But even more effective is to expand the scope of our thinking further to include not only our own but also everyone else’s problem of losing their jobs, if that has happened to them. We need to think, “This is not just my problem alone; it is the problem of an enormous number of people. I am not the only one who needs a solution; everyone else needs a solution too. Everyone needs to overcome such problems and unhappiness.” That is, in fact, the reality.

With this way of thinking, which is without naivety, we develop compassion (snying-rje, Skt. karuna) for others, rather than wallowing in self-pity. Our minds are no longer narrowly focused on just ourselves, but are much more open in thinking about all others in a similar situation. With the wish to help them overcome their problems too, our own individual problems diminish in importance and we develop the courage and strength to deal with them in an objective manner. We certainly did not want to lose our job, but with equanimity we accept the reality of the situation and, thinking of others, we might even be happy at the thought that now we have the opportunity to try to help them.

The Relation between Compassion and Happiness

Compassion, then, is one of the key factors for triggering our potentials to experience an object or a situation with happiness. But how does that work? Compassion is the wish for others to be free of their suffering and the causes for their suffering, just as we wish the same for ourselves. But when we focus on the suffering and unhappiness of others, we naturally feel sad about that, not happy. Or we may have blocked feelings and feel nothing. In either case, we don’t feel happy about their suffering. So, how does compassion bring about a happy state of mind?

To understand this, we need to differentiate upsetting (zang-zing) feelings from nonupsetting (zang-zing med-pa) feelings. Here, I am using these terms not with their strict definitions, but in a more colloquial, nontechnical manner. The difference is whether or not the feeling of happy, unhappy, or neutral is mixed with naivety and confusion about the feeling itself. Remember, when we differentiated happiness from unhappiness in general, the variable was whether or not we were naive about the object we were experiencing. Here, even if we do not exaggerate or deny the qualities of an object that we experience with unhappiness, for example, we might still make that unhappy feeling into some sort of solid, truly existent “thing,” like a dark heavy cloud hanging over our heads. We then exaggerate the negative qualities of that feeling and imagine it to be, for instance, “a horrible depression” and we feel trapped inside it. In this case, the naivety is not accepted the unhappy feeling for what it is. After all, a feeling of unhappiness is something that changes from moment to moment as its intensity varies: it is not some sort of solid monolithic object that exists truly on its own, unaffected by anything else.

We can apply a similar analysis to when we experience feeling nothing when thinking of the suffering of others. In this case, when we exaggerate the negative quality of feeling sad or unhappy, we are afraid to feel it and so we block it. We then experience a neutral feeling, neither unhappy nor happy. But then we exaggerate that neutral feeling too, imagining it to be something solid, like a big solid “nothing” that is sitting inside us, preventing us from sincerely feeling anything.

[For the technical distinction between upsetting and nonupsetting feelings, see: Mind and Mental Factors: The Fifty-one Types of Subsidiary Awareness.]

To develop compassion, it is important not to deny that the difficult situations of others are sad, as may be ours, such as when losing our job. It would be unhealthy to be afraid to feel that sadness or to block or repress it. We need to feel this sadness, but in a nonupsetting manner in order to be able to empathize with others’ suffering, to develop the deep sincere wish for others to be free of it, and to take some responsibility to try to help them overcome it. In short, the Buddhist advice is, “Don’t make a solid ‘thing’ out of feeling sad; don’t make a big deal out of it.”

Quieting the Mind

To experience the feeling of sadness in a nonupsetting manner, we need to quiet our minds of all mental wandering and dullness. With mental wandering, our attention flies off to disturbing extraneous thoughts such as thoughts filled with worry, doubt, fear, or thoughts filled with expectations of what we hope will be something more pleasant. With mental dullness, we fall into a mental fog and so become inattentive of everything.

Buddhism is rich in methods for ridding our states of mind of mental wandering and dullness. One of the most basic methods is to quiet down by focusing on our breath. With minimal mental wandering and dullness, our minds are tranquil and serene. In such a state, we can more easily calm down as well any exaggeration or repulsion or indifference to others’ problems and suffering and to our feelings about them. Then even if we initially feel sad, it is not upsetting.

Eventually, however, as our mind relaxes and calms down further, we naturally feel a low level of happiness. In a tranquil mental and emotional state, the natural warmth and happiness of the mind become manifest. If we have built up strong enough potentials for experiencing happiness from having engaged in constructive behavior, our tranquil state of mind helps to trigger them to ripen as well.

Developing Love

We then enhance this happiness with thoughts of love (byams-pa, Skt. maitri). Love is the wish for others to be happy and to have the causes for happiness. Such a wish naturally follows from compassionate sympathy. Though we feel sad at someone’s pain and sorrow, feeling that way is difficult while actively wishing the person to be happy. When we stop thinking about ourselves and focus instead on someone’s happiness, our heart naturally warms. This automatically brings us a further gentle feeling of joy and can trigger even more potentials to feel happy that were built up over a long time by our constructive behavior. Thus, when love is selfless and sincere, a gentle happiness accompanies it that is not upsetting and our sadness disappears. Just as a parent suffering from a headache forgets the pain while comforting his or her sick child, similarly the sadness we feel at someone’s misfortune disappears while we radiate thoughts of love.

[For a fuller discussion, see: Developing Balanced Sensitivity, chapter 15.]


In short, the long-term, most basic source of happiness according to Buddhism is building up a habit of refraining from acting, speaking or thinking destructively under the influence of disturbing emotions and attitudes such as lust, greed, attachment, repulsion and anger, all of which are rooted in naivety. Such constructive behavior builds up the potentials on our mental continuums for experiencing happiness in the future. We can trigger those potentials to ripen by not exaggerating or denying the good or bad qualities of any object or situation we experience or any level of happiness or unhappiness with which we experience it – regardless of what the object or situation may be. Without naivety, and so without attachment, repulsion, or indifference, we then need to quiet our minds of mental wandering and dullness. We need especially to quiet our minds of worries or expectations. In that serene and tranquil state of mind, we will already feel a low level of happiness and trigger the potentials we might have for feeling even greater happiness.

We then expand our minds by turning our attention to the problems of others and how they might be in even worse situations than ours. We stop thinking of only ourselves. We think how wonderful it would be if all others could be free of their suffering, and how great it would be if we could help them to accomplish that. This strong compassion naturally leads to a feeling of love – the wish for them to be happy. Thinking of their happiness triggers even more of our own potentials for happiness to ripen.

With these thoughts of compassion and love, we may then turn our thoughts to the Buddhas or to any great humanitarian figures. Thinking of their examples, we gain the inspiration (byin-gyis rlabs, Skt. adhisthana) to take some responsibility to actually try to help others. This helps us to gain the strength and courage to tackle not only the problems of others, but our own as well – but again, without exaggerating them and without worries about failure or expectations of success.