Sad smiley face

When Happiness Goes Bad

What is happiness? When you really think about it, it’s clear that happiness depends on the mind of the individual. What is happiness for me is not necessarily happiness for you and vice versa. We all think we are looking for the same thing––this thing called “happiness”––but we’re not really sure what it is we’re talking about. What is this happiness?

Our happiness actually depends on our own mind state, doesn’t it? Whether or not we can be happy depends entirely on our state of mind. It’s not dependent on our outer environment, our new gadgets, how much material wealth we have, or even how many good friends we have. It’s not directly related to any of those things.

So when we talk about happiness here, we’re really talking about a state of mind. And since it’s a state of mind, it’s your state of mind. It cannot be a national state of mind. That’s kind of scary idea, isn’t it? A national state of mind.

Then what is happiness? It is certainly not something that anyone else can give you. Someone else may be able to help you find it, but in the end, you are the one who must discover that happiness in your own mind state.

Happiness Depends on a Healthy Mind

So the key to achieving our goal of happiness––this state of mind capable of achieving anything you want to achieve in your life––depends on how healthy your mind is. Whether we’re seeking happiness in relationships with our parents, children, partners or coworkers, or by achieving mundane goals such as a bigger house or a better car, or even by reaching our goal on the spiritual journey, our success entirely depends on how well we can work with our mind.

We do everything for the sake of happiness, don’t we? In search of happiness, we engage in scientific developments, for example. All such developments are seeking some truth that will free us, some way we can improve our lives to make the world a little bit happier, a little more functional and effective.

We develop business plans as well. A corporation’s original motivation is to create happiness in the world, isn’t it? For example, trading is very nice. Trading is a kind of happiness! “I’ll give you some barley flour (or tsampa in Tibetan) and then you give me some cheese.” That’s what they traded in Tibet––the nomads brought cheese and the farmers brought barley flour. Originally it was just that simple. Then it became bigger and bigger until it now, of course, it is a global economy.

But even though we have a global economy now, the intention has always been the same––to be happy, right? Those who are buying the products made by big corporations are also buying those things with the goal of attaining happiness.

In the same way, all the scientific developments, including military science, are also intended to result in some kind of happiness. But they didn’t really think carefully about it. The part that is often missing there is to recognize that your pursuit of happiness, in such an aggressive form, is actually causing pain to somebody else. That awareness is missing.

We do all kinds of things for the sake of happiness. We even get married!

Unfortunately, in the process of seeking our own happiness, we often become too obsessed with our search. With that obsession comes wrong action. And that wrong action, in turn, results in suffering. In this way, we are creating a great deal of suffering in the world. Humanity is creating so much suffering, even though that was not our original intention at all.

We can see now that we have gone too far––we have crossed the line. Because we now are bringing happiness to certain people, but at the cost of someone else’s suffering and pain.

Happiness: An Exercise

Doing a simple contemplation like the one below can help us gain more clarity about how we are thinking about happiness––what it is we are really searching for, and how we will recognize it when it appears.

1. When you hear the word “happiness,” what is the first thing that comes to mind? Write down your impressions in just a few words.

2. Think of a time when you were happy. Where were you? What was happening?

3. What made this an experience of happiness? What did that happiness feel like? What made it special?

4. Stay with that memory of happiness. Really let yourself connect with it and feel it. Let yourself smile.

5. Now let go of any thoughts or images and just focus on the feeling of happiness in your body. Where is it located? What is the energy of that happiness like?

6. Ask yourself, “How and where do I usually search for happiness?” Write down a short answer.

7. Sit for a few moments, relax, and rest your mind. If an insight comes up, let it be there. Don’t rush to a conclusion or solution.

8. Write down a few impressions of your experience.

You may want to do this exercise more than once. You could even try doing it once a week for a while, and see what you discover.


Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche taught on these aspects of happiness as part of the Talks at Google series in 2016, and at a public program in Seattle in 2017.