Withthe holidays just around the corner, brightly-lit stores display a mind-boggling variety of tempting products for sale.
“Buy! Buy! Buy!” scream the advertisements.
Showing you images of ecstatic people receiving gifts, the advertisements seem to tell you that the more things you buy, the happier you’ll be. Is it true?
Do things have happiness?
There are two reasons why you may want something:
- You don’t have it now and getting it will make you feel better or enhance your life in some way.
- You already have it, but not in the measure that satisfies you, so you want more of it.
These reasons suggest a sense of lack or incompleteness. They show that you’re not totally happy now.
You think that getting that dress, that beautiful piece of jewelry, the latest cell phone or a new car will make up for some lack in your life and make you happy.
But do things actually have happiness?
Well I admit, if you get something that you want, you do feel happy. But, is it the type of happiness that you’re looking for?
The happiness that you get from things is incomplete and temporary. If you’re like me, I’m pretty sure what you want is complete and permanent happiness. That happiness lies within you. But, because you don’t know how to tap into this inner source, you run into the outer world thinking that that’s where you’ll find it. (Read True Happiness is inside—really?)
With all the festivities and enticing products around you this season, you’re probably not convinced that things don’t contain happiness.
Let’s look a little deeper into this. . .
If Things Could Make You Happy…
1. Once you get what you want, you’d be totally happy and never want anything else again.
If happiness was inherent in the objects of the world, the remedy for sorrow would be pretty straightforward—simply go out and get what makes you happy, and that’s that. You’ll never be unhappy or want anything again.
In fact, giving people what they want would be the simple remedy for all sorrow. There would be no unhappiness in the world.
Obviously, it’s not that simple. You can get things that make you happy for some time, but a feeling of incompleteness soon returns, and you start looking for the next thing to fulfill you.
You can’t buy enduring happiness.
2. The same things would make everyone equally happy—at all times and under all circumstances.
Sugar is always sweet and seawater is always salty no matter when, where or who tastes them.
If happiness was the nature of things, like sweetness in sugar or saltiness in seawater, the same things would bring the same experience of happiness to everyone. But that’s not the case.
One person enjoys wearing jewellery while another prefers perfume. If you offer jewellery to the perfume lover, or perfume to the jewellery lover, each would readily turn it down.
As a matter of fact, if happiness was the nature of things, having them would make you happy at all times and under all circumstances. But this doesn’t happen. For example, if you love ice cream and I offered it to you when you had a tummy ache or just after you woke up in the morning, you’d surely not want it.
Jewellery, perfume, and ice cream don’t contain any happiness. We project joy onto these things based on our personal likes and dislikes which are formed from our previous experiences.
3. More and more of an enjoyable thing would bring you more and more happiness.
If you love chocolate cake and have a second helping, you’d probably feel a little happier.
But your joy doesn’t increase as you increase the number of helpings. For instance, you wouldn’t enjoy your third helping as much; the fourth even less and so on. By the time you’ve had your tenth helping, you’d be totally put off by even the thought of cake.
This shows that happiness isn’t in the chocolate cake (or any other thing, for that matter), because more and more of it decreases your happiness.
Even if you had the means to enjoy whatever you desire whenever you wanted it, the pleasures will eventually become “same old, same old”—boring and monotonous.
4. The wealthy would be the happiest people in the world.
We all know that having more material objects and comforts doesn’t insure us against sorrow. The rich and famous living glamourous lives experience unhappiness just like everyone else. In fact, many of them turn to drugs and other addictions, and even take their own lives. (Read: The Four Paths to Happiness)
Material objects don’t contain happiness. Teacher of Vedanta, Swami Tejomayananda teacher puts it beautifully. He says that when you had less, you were uncomfortably unhappy. And now, with so much more, you are comfortably unhappy.
Things do not and cannot give us a sense of completeness. It’s because of this that the spiritual masters tell us that material things are a source of sorrow.
Stop and think
I’ve learned these facts from my spiritual teachers. I try to stop and think carefully when faced with the tempting objects of the world—especially at this time of the year when there’s so much on display.
When I take the time to slow down and think, it helps to put things into perspective. I become more mindful about what I should buy.
If what you’ve read makes sense to you, you may be inclined to do the same. And with more money left in your pocket, you’ll probably feel lighter and richer too.
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Conceptually appealing but only partially true. Material objects do not contain happiness but they do facilitate it. Happiness does increase as a result up to roughly $70,000/year income (I think it’s on TedTalks, but not entirely sure) because one does not have to worry about lack of food, housing, or clothing beyond that point. Beyond that level there is no increase in happiness. It is lack of happiness that ensures our survival as a species, or we would not go out or make effort to obtain our most basic needs. We need “new” food every day, and “new” air every minute for the body.The critical point is to know when to stop obtaining new things without thinking.
“Material objects do not contain happiness but they do facilitate it.” I like how you use the word “facilitate.”
Actually, that’s exactly what Vedanta explains too. It tells us that we don’t know that happiness is already inside of us. In fact bliss is our true nature. But because we identify with our small human personalities (the body and mind), we don’t know or experience that bliss. To rid ourselves from sorrow arising from a lack of security or pleasure, the desire for objects arises. Desire in turn disturbs the peace in the mind. To regain the sense of peace (which is synonymous with happiness), we go out and get the object that we desire. Getting it calms down the agitations in the mind and we become peaceful. To use your word, getting what we want “facilitates” peace or happiness—it makes it show up. When we feel the happiness, we wrongly attribute it to the object. Note that the peace/happiness was already present underneath the mind, but it was not experienced as a result of the desire-driven disturbances.
In my article, Four paths to happiness (To read, click here) I share that our search begins with striving to gain basic security in life (stable income, a home, food). Once this is met, we begin to seek out comforts and pleasures to be happy. There comes a time when things don’t give us the same satisfaction as before. (Perhaps this happens when our income increases to a certain level as you suggest) You are right when you say that “the critical point is to know when to stop obtaining new things without thinking.” When we have security and enough comforts, we start looking for subtler joys that come from giving to others and living a moral, clean life. Finally, we gain the highest happiness when we rediscover the bliss already within us.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts and “facilitating” my deeper reflection.
First of all let me tell you that I really enjoy your letters and articles. They are inspiring, thought provoking and not full of abstract concepts.Keep up the good work.
In your comments you have referred to different levels of needs. In our MBA course (45 years ago) we read about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. It is about a theory in psychology proposed by Abraham Maslow in 1943 and further refined later on. You may be aware of it; if not, you may google it and review. You may find it interesting.
He talked about hierarchy of needs:
Physiological Needs, Safety Needs, Social Belonging, Esteem and Self-Actualization.In later years, Maslow went beyond Self-actualization and added Transcendence, where he talked about spirituality and desire to reach the infinite (Vedantic concepts).
Happiness and Peace of Mind may not be always synonymous. Let us say you are celebrating a wedding or another important event in your family. You may be very happy but that happiness also brings lot of agitation in mind and so you may not be peaceful. Peace of mind, as you have mentioned, implies absence of any agitation in your mind.
Thanks so much for sharing your kind thoughts about my newsletters and articles. It’s good to know that you are enjoying them and finding them useful.
It’s interesting to read that Maslow talked about spirituality and a desire to reach the infinite in his later years.
I can relate to your example of how one can be happy even when the mind is agitated. While celebrating a wedding, dancing and enjoying good food and good company, the mind is not peaceful and yet, the experience can be very enjoyable.
Vedanta describes this type of happiness as Rajasic—that is, driven by desire. This type of happiness arises and remains so long as the mind is in contact with things that excite the senses. But when the objects are no longer there (for example, when the wedding celebrations are over), the happiness dies down. We can’t sustain it.
What we are really searching for is unending and complete happiness. It’s happiness that is not dependent on or sustained by any outer thing, person or circumstance. Vedanta explains that this happiness is the nature of the spiritual Self—who we essentially are.
While the happiness you describe is happiness, it doesn’t last. The true and enduring happiness of the Self is experienced when the mind’s agitations have died down and it has become quiet and peaceful.