Cultivating Happiness

True happiness and true power lie in understanding yourself, accepting yourself, having confidence in yourself.” Thich Nhat Hanh

If you prefer to listen

Joy or happiness, which I will use interchangeably, are a natural capacity.  All it takes is to live fully in the present moment. Babies and toddlers know how to find delight in the simplest things. We get so wrapped up in presenting who we are and accomplishing things, that we forget how to enjoy the moment. Many people feel that happiness is not attainable, that only a lucky few can be happy only when the stars align. So as adults, it takes intention to turn toward happiness.  We can choose to be happy. And since happiness is impermanent, we need to choose over and over again, every day.

“He who binds to himself a joy, Does the winged life destroy;

But he who kisses the joy as it flies, Lives in eternity’s sunrise. “

William Blake

There are two ways to cultivate happiness.  Happiness based on external circumstances and happiness for no reason.

We often think we need an experience that creates bliss in order to be happy.  External circumstances can make us feel happy if we allow ourselves to feel happy. The only problem is that we are not in control of the external circumstances, and they are rarely perfect. External happiness arises from causes and conditions and disappears with those causes and conditions. Instead of loving what is, our inner complainer starts telling us how it could have been better or how it won’t last.  And instead of feeling happy, we suffer. When we are chasing after or trying to hold on to happiness, we are contracted from the fullness of joy.

“What we usually try to do is capture any joy that comes our way before it can escape. We have our butterfly net and go after the joy like a hunter stalking his prey. We hide and wait, pounce on it, catch it, and take it home to put on our wall. When our friends come to visit, we say, ‘Hey, Stu, would you like to see my joy?’ There it is on the wall – dead. We try to cling to pleasure, but all we succeed in doing is making ourselves frustrated because, whatever it promises, pleasure simply cannot last.” Eknath Easwaran, a spiritual teacher

Another way to cultivate happiness is to be happy for no reason. We cultivate happiness by cultivating positive states.  Whatever you frequently think and ponder upon, that will become the inclination of your mind.  A mind that is in a state of joy is predisposed to notice that are beautiful and pleasant, while at the same time tending to disregard that which is unpleasant. The perceptions that arise in a joyful mind will tend to emphasize the positive aspects of whatever we see, hear or feel. The glass is seen as half full, rather than as half empty. If we train our minds to look for the good in life, we will see more of it. It is only when we are living in the present moment that we experience happiness for no reason.

As we grow to understand our happiness mental states, we become aware that happiness need not be dependent on our materialistic possessions and pursuits. Joy, the heart’s celebration of life, comes from the aliveness when we let ourselves be open to what is. We do not experience the fullness of joy when we are living in our thoughts.  With mindfulness, happiness becomes more of a choice rather than being dependent on perfect external conditions. Happiness for no reason is celebrating the life that is here without being dependent on things being a certain way.

Thich Nhat Hanh says, “Many people think excitement is happiness…. But when you are excited you are not peaceful. True happiness is based on peace.”  If you think about it, excitement brings with it a restlessness and a contracted urge for more. Joy that results from curiosity is smoother, and open rather than contracted. … Joy arises from being attentive and curious. … Excitement, on the other hand, requires something to happen to us or requires us to procure something that we want—we have to do something to get what we want.”

So, what keeps us from experiencing happiness?  Sometimes it’s a restlessness that wants things different.  It could be a feeling that something is wrong or missing. Maybe there is a painful feeling or body sensation. And maybe it is simply a story you are telling yourself about the limits of your future.


Let’s reflect on what keeps you from experiencing more joy in your life.  Sit in a comfortable position.  You may choose to close your eyes for this reflection.

  1. Take a couple of deep breaths.
  2. Ask yourself, what is between me and experiencing more joy? Give yourself a few moments to answer this question.
  3. Set that answer aside, take a deep breath and ask again, what is between me and experiencing more joy?
  4. Set that answer aside, take a deep breath and ask a final time, what is between me and experiencing more joy?

A common perception is to think that a craving will bring us happiness.  But that is a delusion.  It does not mean we have to abandon the object of craving such as chocolate.  We just need to abandon the craving for chocolate. By seeing that our cravings make us suffer, our energy can be put into things that increase our happiness.

Happiness is impermanent, like everything else. In order for happiness to be extended, you need to feed your happiness. Nothing can survive without food, including happiness; your happiness can die if you don’t know how to nourish it.

Here are some ways you can nourish happiness:

Set the intention to be happy – Being happy starts with the intention to be happy. Practicing intention is like driving a boat, you have to keep looking at where you are at and where you want to go; making adjustments as needed.

Smile – Putting a smile on your face relaxes the hundreds of muscles in your face.  It’s hard to be crabby with a smile on your face.

Practice awe – Through mindfulness, we get in touch with the refreshing and joyful aspects of life in us and around us, the things we are not able to touch when we live in forgetfulness.  Mindfulness allows us to see the awe in having eyes to see, the beautiful sky, the smile of a baby, or the kindness of a stranger.

Give yourself the gift of time to savor the good – By recognizing beauty when you see it and giving yourself 20-30 seconds to savor the beauty you train your brain to see what’s good in life. By doing so you will begin to create happiness grooves in your brain, inclining your brain towards more happiness.

Build your gratitude muscle – Going one step farther than savoring the good, begin to think back on your day to see what you were grateful for.  This teaches us to be aware of what makes us happy. We learn what really added to our happiness and what didn’t.

Add to the happiness of others – The quickest way to increase your happiness is do something to make others happy.

Be happy for others happiness – According to the Dalai Lama: “If you can be happy when others are happy, you can always be happy, since there is always someone somewhere who is happy.”

Letting go – There is a joy that comes from letting go. Think of how good it feels to get rid of unneeded possessions. Letting go of a rigid view of how things are supposed to be allows us to be happy with whatever is.

Do what nourishes you – Think about what brings joy alive in your life.  Thich Nhat Hanh says, “To be beautiful means to be yourself. You don’t need to be accepted by others. You need to accept yourself. When you are born a lotus flower, be a beautiful lotus flower, don’t try to be a magnolia flower. If you crave acceptance and recognition and try to change yourself to fit what other people want you to be, you will suffer all your life.”

Every moment of every day is another opportunity to increase your happiness. Start with the intention to be happy.  Then look closely at what actually brings you joy, and what makes you suffer. In the present moment, you will find all the things you need to be happy for no reason.  No need to wait for external circumstances or the future to be happy.

May you be happy.