I’ve been thinking a lot recently about
happiness. It’s a subject not many people
devote themselves to. Until the advent of
“positive psychology” in the last decade, the
psyche was largely studied through the window
of unhappiness. Psychologists had their hands
full treating anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive
disorder and a host of other maladies the mind
is heir to. It was assumed that happiness didn’t need much
thought, on the whole. When pollsters
asked the simple question “Are you
happy?” more than 80 percent of Americans answered “yes.”
But there’s a hidden trap behind this cheerful response.
The expansion of happiness is the goal of life. However you
define success, if it didn’t bring a measure of happiness,
success wouldn’t be worth attaining. So what kind of success
would make a person truly, deeply and permanently happy?
Society pressures us to believe that external achievement is
the key. If you attain enough money, status, power and all the
other trappings of a burgeoning career, you will experience
happiness. To this list, most people would also add the need
for fulfilling relationships and a secure family life.
The trap is that external success doesn’t lead to happiness.
The evidence is well-documented by now. Studies of wealth
reveal that, beyond a certain modest prosperity, having more
money not only doesn’t buy greater happiness; rather, it tends
to make people unhappy. On the broad scale, the traffic in
pharmaceuticals for depression and anxiety is a multibillion-dollar
business. Divorce rates hover around 50 percent,
meaning that anyone’s chances of attaining a happy marriage
are no more than random.
Standing back from this confusing picture, I began to
think of one person who had the courage to test, through
his own experience, almost every avenue that might lead to
happiness. He came to a definite conclusion, and he did it
2,500 years ago. Born a prince, he was carefully protected
from any form of external suffering, yet by the time he grew
up, simply the sight of other people’s suffering convinced
him that money and privilege were fragile and unreliable.
Every person, he reasoned, must confront disease, aging and
death. Those threats were enough to undercut the comforts
of the most coddled lifestyle.
Therefore, he turned to a simpler existence. He left his
family and wandered the countryside, begging for alms and
depending on the kindness of strangers. He had no worldly
obligations and enjoyed the simplicity he had found, yet
his mind refused to be tamed. It ran riot with subtle fears
So he decided to tame his mind by taming his body,
because the body carries out the mind’s rampant desires.
Through rigorous discipline, he underwent one kind of
purification after another until his body wasted away and
he was on the brink of death. Yet his mind refused to be
tamed. He crawled back to a normal existence, and as he
recuperated, he wondered what path was left to him.
By now, you may realize that we are talking about
Siddhartha Gautama, the ancient Indian prince who became
the Buddha. As a physician myself, I think of him as a kind
of soul doctor, someone who was willing to test to the fullest
what it means to be alive and conscious. Siddhartha spent
year after year in dissatisfaction, searching for one thing: a
happiness that cannot be taken away. And year after year
that kind of happiness eluded him.
Until he attained enlightenment. The awakening of the
Buddha is said to have taken place sitting under a tree
on a moonlit night. But how can total transformation take
place instantly after years of searching? Having found the
goal of life—supreme happiness that can never be taken
must be called an
ultimate success. I’d
like to suggest that
what turned Siddhartha
into the Buddha is
actually quite simple:
He discovered his
I am not a Buddhist;
rather, his story is
symbolic of everyone.
Happiness is a universal
goal, and if the Buddha’s
soul experiment was
valid, the true self that he
found is always available.
By “true self,” I mean
a level of awareness
that is happy without
reasons to be happy. It
enjoys a permanent state
of fulfillment, needing
no externals. When
you don’t need money,
status, power or even
other people to love you,
those things don’t vanish.
They remain valuable
as mirrors of your inner
fulfillment. Or, to put it
simply, the externals that
people chase after are the
byproducts of happiness,
not the cause.
That’s where my recent
thoughts led me, to the notion that enlightenment
is actually the simplest and most basic way to
be happy. Siddhartha found that pursuing his
true self, as directly as possible, was the route
As I see it, enlightenment is not only a normal
state; it’s the most normal state of existence. It’s
also the highest definition of success.
Deepak Chopra is a leader in the field of mind-body medicine and
the author of numerous books, including the best-selling Ageless
Body, Timeless Mind: The Quantum Alternative to Growing
Old. He serves as the director of education for the Chopra Center
for Well-Being in California.
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