The ninth of the Ten Virtues is happiness and joy. Many of you who regularly visit this site know that I have written a book called The Practice of Happiness (see product page). That I would devote an entire book to happiness shows the importance and value I place on it. Not only is it one of our most basic human desires, it is in fact a misunderstood and seldom practiced spiritual discipline. The word “practice” in the title The Practice of Happiness foreshadows the theme developed in the book, namely that one practices, rather than pursues happiness in order to be happy—a radical approach but one that produces extraordinary results.
I believe absolutely that it is our duty and responsibility to cultivate the virtue of happiness and joy, and practice that virtue daily in our lives. Not only do we become empowered with this practice, but it also empowers everyone we come into contact with. And beyond this, the practice of happiness helps to change the vibration of our global consciousness. If it is even remotely possible for you, you should find something to be happy and joyful about today, even at this very moment.
Can you stop what you are doing and be happy now? Is it possible? There is an old saying, “I felt sorry for myself because I had no shoes, until I saw a man with no feet.” This saying has particular relevance to me this month as my wife and I have just returned from a six-week voyage to West Africa. We traveled through five countries: Ghana, Togo, Benin, Burkina Faso and Mali. We journeyed to many isolated and out of the way places in order to experience “the real Africa.” The poverty and hardship that the vast majority of people in West Africa endure, day in and day out, was astounding. What we in the western developed countries take for granted, things such as clean water, electricity, food and shelter, are luxuries for most of the people there. Even rice, which is an inexpensive staple to most of us, is a luxury to be enjoyed once or twice a month. Most people eat millet.
A trip like this forces us to realize how fortunate we are. Most people in undeveloped nations (that is, most of the world) can only dream of leading our lives. How they would love to have our “problems.” And here is the crux of our situation, what I call “the Western disease.” Most of us have become so neurotic in our needs and pettiness that we have forgotten how to appreciate the simple everyday joys and pleasures that life affords us. We continually want more than we have now, want life to be different than it is now. We seem never to be satisfied, suffering greatly in our blindness and neurosis, when the truth is we have extraordinarily abundant and full lives. We just need to realize it.
The practice of joy and happiness is a virtue because it allows us to appreciate who we are and what we have, without needing anything more. With this appreciation comes awareness, and with awareness even more joy and happiness. Now let me share with you a little trick. Forget about having a happy life, or even a happy month or week. Practice having happy, joyful moments. To try and have a happy life is far too great a task to even comprehend. Besides, no life is one hundred percent happy. Every life has its share of pain, struggle, failure, heartache, sickness, confusion and uncertainty. No life is without these, and yet every life also contains joy, pleasure, love, friendships, beauty, success, health, adventure, creativity, free will, choices and much more.
Practice noticing and appreciating the countless moments of joy and happiness that occur each day. Countless? Yes, when you practice looking for joyful, happy moments you will be surprised at how many we can potentially experience daily. Of course it means we have to give up our pettiness and the feeling that we are hard done by.
A number of years ago I had a moment that changed the way I perceived my life. I was in the bath and it was a beautiful summer morning. The wind was blowing softly in the open window, caressing my body. A Neil Young CD was playing in the background. Outside the window was a small spider web, with a spider that was vibrating in the wind. I just lay in the bath, taking it all in, when I suddenly realized, “This is a perfect moment. It doesn’t get any more perfect than this.” I let the joy and happiness flood into me. It was a deliciously intense moment that brought me great pleasure. I also realized that this is how our life unfolds—in countless moments just like this. If you cannot see and appreciate and be happy in these moments, how can you have a happy life?
Most moments need nothing else but themselves. They are complete and whole in what they are. Appreciating these moments and letting them bring you happiness is a virtue. It is also a practice, a discipline that brings great rewards.
Then the question arises, what right do we have to be happy when so many go without? It’s a valid question and I will answer it with a question. What right do you have to be unhappy when you have so much?
The practice of the ten virtues brings awareness and enlightenment. With awareness comes deep compassion and a feeling of oneness with everything. So you might have times of great grief and sorrow for the human condition, and this is good. This leads to action, action in whatever form seems appropriate. It is through action that conditions are changed.
When you are feeling unhappy at any point in your day, notice whether this unhappiness is about others or yourself. What you will find is that almost all of your unhappiness is self-centered. To know this is to know a great secret. You are the source of your happiness and unhappiness; these feelings do not flow from the conditions in your life. Your reaction to these conditions is what keeps you unhappy, and to be unhappy in your life is to be selfish, unappreciative and incredibly self-indulgent.
Resolve today to change your perspective and begin to notice and appreciate the moments of beauty, joy and happiness all around you. Look for these moments and let them nourish you deeply. Through this practice you will cultivate and activate the ninth virtue, the virtue of joy and happiness.