According to the US Declaration of Independence, one of our rights is the pursuit of happiness. But what is happiness, how do we get it, and how do we keep it?

I have often found myself saying “I’ll be happy when X happens.” Then when X happens, I think to myself “It’s great that X happened; now all I need is Y and then I’ll be happy.” And when Y comes along, I’ll add on Z. My mind seems to conceive of a never ending stream of needed improvements to my life. When I achieve one, more flow in to fill the space. I’ve taken to rewording the “I’ll be happy when” statement to “I’ll be unhappy until”. By reframing it in this way, I make it clear to myself that I’m actually choosing to be unhappy.

A lot of the spiritual traditions have great things to say that relate to happiness, so I collected some references that resonated with me.

In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra’s, verse 2:7 & 2:8 it discusses how attachment (clinging) and aversion lead to suffering. They are these two great emotional categories: Wanting to draw something toward me (attachment), and wanting to push something away from me (aversion). These feelings lead me to become attached to a future that contains the result I want, or a future without the result I want to avoid. Once I attach to this imagined future, then I am no longer in the present moment, and it causes me anxiety as I attempt to manipulate life into providing me with the future I seek.

When I look deeper into my clinging and aversion I see that they create a feeling of being anxious about the future and wanting to control it. Behind the anxiousness is a belief that life will not bring me the best experiences and I thus need to “add to the intelligence” of life (subtract really) by trying to manipulate events to get the results I want. Behind my anxiousness is a lack of trust in life (Spirit/God). If I observe with uncolored eyes, I see that it is the areas of my life where I am most anxious that I have had the most trouble. I wonder if my Samakaras (negative patterns) are really just the places in my life where I have a pattern of not trusting and being anxious. I think it’s the anxious attitude that actually creates the problems, rather than the problems causing me to be anxious. “In God we Trust”, I had no idea such deep wisdom was printed on our dollar bills!

The Bhagavad Gita also says we should not have anxiety about future results. In Chapter 4, sloka 19 and 20, it states: “The awakened sages call a person wise when all his undertakings are free from anxiety about results; all his selfish desires have been consumed in the fire of knowledge. The wise, ever satisfied, have abandoned all external supports. Their security is unaffected by the results of their action; even while acting, they really do nothing at all.” (Eknath Easwaran translation). This brings to mind an athlete getting into the zone. All his or her attention is focused on the present moment, doing what they have been trained to do. The attention is not on the result, it’s on the actions being performed. The focus is on kicking the ball perfectly into the goal, not the glory received from scoring.

Paramahansa Yogananda in part 1 of his book “The Science of Religion” talks about how we confuse happiness with satisfaction. Satisfaction comes from achieving a desired end (results), and is temporary; it comes from satisfying a desire.  Happiness is immersion in the present moment, and does not depend on current conditions, but rather attitude and awareness. When I satisfy a desire, I temporarily have no focus on future results, allowing me to be in the present moment, and I can thus experience moments of happiness this way. But the happiness actually comes from the suspension of my attachment to the future, not from the satisfaction of desire. Satisfaction feels good, but it’s not the same thing as happiness, and Yogananda warns us not to confuse the two. Happiness for me is a warm feeling of contentment with things just as they are, while satisfaction is the quenching of a desire. If I confuse the two, then I try to fill my life with one satisfaction after another in an attempt to feel happiness.

Perhaps the most inspirational source for me is the Prayer of Serenity by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” It seems clear in my own life that I create suffering when I’m not content with how things are right now. At the same time, I don’t want to just let life toss me this way and that with no clear direction. The key seems to be learning how to accept life just as it is right now, and at the same time to work appropriately toward future goals. I’ve learned that any unhappiness I feel is a clue that points to my attachments.  Most of the time the present is OK just as it is, and all I need is to change my attitude (which is under my control) and let go of my attachment. Other times I need to take some action to come into harmony; like clean my house!

I’ve found that to stay in the present and also work toward my goals, it helps if I am aware of what is under my control control, and what is not. The only things under my control are my attitude and awareness, which are two very powerful things. But I cannot control just about anything else, including other people, the economy, politics and the weather. I’ve come to think of this like a sailing ship. All I can control is my rudder (attitude) and sails (awareness). These two things can allow me to “tack” forward toward our goals even if the wind is against me. Trying to control the wind or water (outer circumstances) is futile, and often backfires, pulling me further from what I wanted in the first place, and always causing great anxiety.

Life is perfectly imperfect. In the absolute sense, it is perfect and cannot be improved upon. In the relative human sense, it is imperfect and is meant to be this way. If I demand that life be perfect before I can be happy, then I guarantee my unhappiness. I find it auspicious that life will face me with this “imperfection” (frustrate my desire for specific results) in that it disrupts the way I try to use results to gain happiness. As my friend Michael Billington often says, “The universe is an enlightenment machine”.

Working toward goals keeps life interesting, focused and passionate. Tying our happiness to the achievement of those goals, or to life being “perfect”, leads only to suffering. To be happy, we must learn to bathe in the present at all times, even while achieving, or not achieving, our desired results.

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