Philosophy,  Psychology,  Religion

Happiness is a Choice

I used to think that happiness is caused by other people, situations, and things. If only they would just behave, I would be happy. As silly as it sounds, it is indeed a deep-seated belief in each one of us. I have now realized that happiness is a cause rather than an effect. When I am unhappy I gravitate toward the useless things—e.g. news, economics, entertainment—hoping that these things will make me happy but they make me feel worse. When I’m happy I gravitate toward writing, teaching, and meditation, which make me happier. Thus, my unhappiness brings more unhappiness, and my happiness increases my happiness. Under happiness, I have an optimistic view of the world; when I’m unhappy the same things are seen pessimistically. Therefore, I now hope not to get happiness, but to choose happiness. This post shares some insights on this choice.

Chant and Be Happy

The Hare Krishna movement is famous for popularizing the slogan “Chant and Be Happy”. Simple and effective. But probably too cryptic. It gives the impression that if you chant you will become happy. That’s quite simple, and everyone can do it. You don’t have to change your dress, leave your job, family, or religion, in order to chant. You simply chant, wherever and however you can. Given the simplicity, why isn’t everyone chanting? And why isn’t everyone who is chanting also happy?

Those who have tried chanting realize that the mind takes you on fantastic journeys while chanting. The tongue may be uttering, but the mind is elsewhere. You try to bring the mind back to the sound again and again. On some days, concentration is easier—those are the days when you are happy. On other days—when you are unhappy—concentrating becomes very hard.

So, “chant and be happy” means that the tongue is pronouncing the words, and the mind is happy in order to concentrate on the sound. If the mind is disturbed, then the tongue may utter the sounds, but the mind would be on its own planned and unplanned expeditions. If the mind is even more disturbed, then even the tongue doesn’t want to utter the sound. In short, “chant and be happy” doesn’t mean that you chant and you will become happy. It means that you have to utter the sounds happily.

Concentration is an effect of your happiness. Consequently, inability to concentrate, or inability to chant, are consequences of your unhappiness. To chant and become happy, you have to chant with happiness. If you are happy to begin with, then chanting enhances your happiness. If you are unhappy during chanting, it will not have any effect, and you will probably stop chanting.

A Labor of Love

All of us are familiar with the fact that if you don’t enjoy doing something, then you do it poorly.

If you are an unhappy cook, then your bread may be burnt, vegetables may be half-cooked, there may be excess salt or spices, and the disproportionate ingredients will cause the food to taste terrible. The happiness in your heart cannot be experienced by others. But happiness has an empirical effect—the food you cook is tasty. Despite the fact that you cannot experience my happiness, you can know whether I’m happy simply by tasting my cooking. When the cook is happy, a subtle quality is created in the food. That quality also makes one who eats that food happy. Conversely, simply by eating the food that is cooked with unhappiness will also make you unhappy.

This is true for every kind of work. You can tell from the quality of the work whether the person was doing a labor of love, or a labor forced by circumstances. The same goes for chanting. If you are happily doing it, then you will also be attentive. Conversely, if the mind is not attentive, then chanting is like forced labor; we are calling God, but we are not happy while doing it. Thus you can measure your spiritual advancement yourself by just asking—how attentive is my mind while chanting?

Choosing Happiness Instead of Sadness

Since my concentration depends on happiness, happiness is a self-fulfilling prophesy. If I begin chanting happily, then by chanting I will beget more happiness. Conversely, if I begin chanting unhappily, my mind will wander, I will not enjoy the activity, I will probably leave it half-hearted, and then I will feel guilty about the entire process—lack of concentration, resulting in cessation of the activity, resulting in unhappiness. Both happiness and unhappiness thus become self-fulfilling prophecies.

Realizing that these are self-fulfilling prophecies is a breakthrough in life, because then you don’t do things in order to become happy. You rather do them happily. In short, we have to find a way to remain happy by choosing happiness over unhappiness, so that we can do our work happily. If I have chosen unhappiness, then my work is not going to make me happy; I will quickly stop working. Work will make me happy when I am doing it happily; positive feeling begets more positive feeling.

The Genesis of Unhappiness

The Śrimad Bhāgavatam describes the birth of Rudra from Brahma as an anxious child. This anxiety is born when Brahma creates his four sons—Sanaka, Sanandan, Sanātana, and Sanatkumār—and asks them to create progeny. These advanced souls are not interested in begetting any children, which causes Brahma to become angry, and Rudra is born from between Brahma’s eyebrows.

SB 3.12.6 — On the refusal of the sons to obey the order of their father, there was much anger generated in the mind of Brahmā, which he tried to control and not express.

SB 3.12.7 — Although he tried to curb his anger, it came out from between his eyebrows, and a child mixed blue and red was immediately generated.

SB 3.12.8 — After his birth he began to cry: O destiny maker, teacher of the universe, kindly designate my name and place.

SB 3.12.9 — The all-powerful Brahmā, who was born from the lotus flower, pacified the boy with gentle words, accepting his request, and said: Do not cry. I shall certainly do as you desire.

SB 3.12.10 — Thereafter Brahmā said: O chief of the demigods, you shall be called by the name Rudra by all people because you have so anxiously cried.

Rudra is the incarnation of anxiety in this universe. The moment He is born, He cries asking for His name and place. These names are called vāk and they represent material objects. Similarly, the place of these objects, in relation to other objects, constitute the meanings of the material objects. In other words, the anxiety represented by Rudra is to worry about material objects and their meanings.

Common examples of such anxiety include ruminating about what someone said and what they meant. Why did they say this? What do they mean by it? What do they want to achieve? These meanings are—if one understands Sāńkhya—expressed at many levels beginning with the mind. The mind contextualizes the meaning from sensations; the intellect judges the truth based on the context; the ego perceives the intentions of the person uttering that contextualized truth; and the moral sense (called mahattattva) decodes the moral values of the person—right and wrong—from the utterance.

Affliction of the Rudra Mindset

It’s noteworthy that this anxiety comes due to fear and frustration; we are afraid that the objects and their meanings are going to cause us harm, or our plans of success will be frustrated. Fear is the enemy of happiness. If I am happy, then I will not worry about who said what, what they meant, what others want to do, what is going to happen; or if I think about these things then I will come out with positive and constructive interpretations.

We commonly think that unhappiness is the outcome of reasoning about worldly events. But that is not true. The reasoning is itself dependent on the state of unhappiness or happiness. If I am happy, then I will give the world a positive interpretation—even if I reason—which will enhance my happiness. If I am unhappy, then all the reasoning is simply going to increase my anxiety because in the unhappy state I will only find more problems by viewing the world pessimistically. Reasoning is a slave to our emotional state. We have to therefore choose a positive emotion before reasoning.

Rudra is born out of Brahma’s anger, and He is depicted as a crying child. When we are afflicted by the Rudra mindset, we act like angry children—crying due to frustration, and desiring to placate this anxiety. Brahma also designates many places for Rudra as described in the following verse.

SB 3.12.11 — My dear boy, I have already selected the following places for your residence: the heart, the senses, the air of life, the sky, the air, the fire, the water, the earth, the sun, the moon and austerity.

All these places are afflicted by anxiety, fear, and unhappiness. The most prominent among them is the heart, but it also afflicts the senses, our breathing, digestion, etc. Due to this anxiety, we will move around rapidly or become stationary because the sky is afflicted. We will gain or lose weight because water is afflicted. We will may burn too brilliantly or lose our sheen because the sun is afflicted. We may become hedonistic and lazy or indulge in flattery and deceit because the moon is afflicted.

Adopting the Brahma and Viṣṇu Mindset

The Brahma mindset is more constructive than the Rudra mindset. Under this mindset, we desire to create positivity as an outcome of our actions; Brahma for instance wants to expand the population and asks his sons to do so. This is the mentality of a positive thinker, but as noted in the case of Brahma, the positive thinker quickly falls prey to negative thinking when their desires are frustrated.

The Viṣṇu mindset is instead one of detachment and self-satisfaction. You can do things like Brahma does—e.g. to expand the population—but failure in such projects will not make you unhappy. You may also desist from projects that are likely to be mixed with success and failure, or perform them without regard to the outcomes. Under the Brahma mindset, there is positivity prone to turn into negativity. Under the Viṣṇu mindset, there is unmitigated positivity due to detachment. In other words, under the Viṣṇu mindset, we are able to give a positive interpretation even to adverse situations.

These are hence called the influence of tamo-guna (negativity – represented by Rudra), rajo-guna (positivity which can turn into negativity – represented by Brahma) and sattva-guna (positivity that stays – represented by Viṣṇu). Only under sattva-guna we permanently remain constructive.

The Nature of Choice

Given a particular world of objects, their interpretations are varied. Each interpretation emphasizes some parts of the world, and neglects others. These sensations become foreground and background and the meaning is produced from ranking their priorities. This prioritization of what we experience is entirely our choice. The happy person will ignore another person’s insult, and an unhappy person will magnify it. The positive things in life will thus take a back seat relative to the unhappy things.

Our choice is simply the selection of an emotional state. As we practice the choice of happiness, the world remains unchanged, but our prioritization of the things in the world changes. What comes to the foreground and what remains in the background constitute our focus. As we change our priorities due to happiness, the half-empty glass begins to look half-full, because fullness is foreground.

There are innumerable examples of these foreground and background visual experiments, which are used to judge your interpretive process. In a black and white picture, for example, if the dark parts are foreground for you then you are prioritizing the negativity over positivity. Similarly, if the white parts are foreground and the black parts are background then you are prioritizing positivity over negativity. A lot can be judged about a person simply by asking them about what they see in a picture. This method has therefore been used by psychologists to understand a person’s mental state.

Interpretation in Sāńkhya

The Vedic texts describe that the universe originates in pradhāna which is the soul imbued with desire for material happiness. Then it chooses a particular definition of happiness called prakriti. From that definition of happiness emerges a moral sense or what we consider right and wrong which is called mahattattva. From that moral judgment we arrive at goals and purposes called the ego. From such goals emerge beliefs of truth called the intellect. From such beliefs emerge thoughts in the mind, from the thoughts emerges the need to create empirical evidence for ideas in the senses, the need for empirical evidence transforms into the properties such as taste and smell called tanmātra, and once these properties have been formalized then the material objects are values of properties.

Objects are numbers—e.g. 10—but tanmātra (material properties) make it mass. Now, the “mass is 10”. Then senses act as the standards of measurement, and the property kilogram is appended—now we have “mass is 10 kilograms”. The mind then says that this heavy object is a chair. The intellect judges the cognition to be true or false based on memory recall of similar experiences from the past. The ego then says this is my chair and I aim to use it. The mahattattva says that sitting on my chair is morally acceptable (sitting on someone else’s chair may need a prior permission). Finally, prakriti says that I’m happy because I am doing morally acceptable things.

It is a fact of life that even the morally decrepit morally rationalize their actions; a serial killer may therefore claim to be doing ‘God’s work’ by purging the world of other ‘sinful’ people, which is morally good in his view. There is hence always a morality in the process of acquiring happiness; the morality may just be very perverted.

If you were unhappy to begin with, then your moral sense will disown the world considering it a waste of time. The ego will then experience revulsion at the ownership of a wasteful thing. The intellect will suspect the truths and beliefs—“Is this really a chair?” The mind will then produce an alternative interpretation—“this is not a chair; it must be something else”. The senses will change the standard definition of a chair in order to stop perceiving a chair, where one was seen previously. The tanmātra will be modified to disregard the properties that lead to the chair perception. And objects will then not reveal the properties which were previously visible to a happy perspective.

The Three Modes of Nature

Our emotional state alters everything from moral values to thoughts to sense perception to objects. Unhappiness thus not only changes our experience, but it also causes diseases in the body. Likewise, happiness not just alters our perception, but it also makes the body healthier. These emotional dispositions are our prakriti; from the subtle emerges the gross. The subtle takes priority, which means that if you have a negative feeling, even positive situations will seem problematic. Instead of seeing opportunities in these situations, we will perceive suffering and disaster in them.

Thus a fearful person sees a snake in a rope, and a confident person sees a rope in a snake. The cause of this change lies in our prakriti or what makes us happy or unhappy. If our prakriti is dominantly in tamo-guna we will be naturally prioritizing the negatives over the positives. If our prakriti is dominantly rajo-guna we will prioritize positives over negatives. However, under the influence of sattva-guna we see the world as it is, and we are neither afraid of the negatives nor attracted to the positives.

As our prakriti is modified—from tamo-guna to rajo-guna to sattva-guna—we become addicted to permanent happiness, which means rejection of tamo-guna or negativity and rajo-guna positivity that can lead to negativity. Fixing on sattva-guna is hence called śuddha-sattva or ‘pure’ goodness.

The Elevation of Happiness

Now that we understand how everything is caused by our sense of happiness, we can ask: What is the ideal standard for happiness? The prakriti is imbued with three modes, so there is happiness in the mode of sattva, rajas, and tamas. Wallowing in self-pity—e.g. that I’m a good guy caught in a bad situation—is an example of happiness in tamo-guna. You get the satisfaction of being the good guy who is exempt from trying harder because the situation is so pitiable. Similarly, indulging in self-pride—e.g. that I’m so great that I conquered all the situational adversities—is an example of happiness in rajo-guna. The happiness in sattva-guna is doing the work, without self-pity or self-pride.

It is a mistake to think that a person with a negative outlook is unhappy. It is more appropriate to think that the person afflicted by negative emotions is enjoying a different type of emotion. Unhappiness is only caused when there is a conflict in the emotions—e.g. that I want to have a positive outlook but I have a negative outlook; I want to enjoy the happiness of those with the positive outlook but I’m not able to enjoy it due to my own negative outlook. We must thus distinguish between negative outlooks (which can be a source of happiness) from unhappiness (caused by emotional conflict).

The problem is that the happiness in tamo-guna and rajo-guna are temporary. Which means that I cannot forever wallow in self-pity, nor can I always indulge in self-pride, because either situation will be disrupted. Only the happiness in sattva-guna is permanent. Therefore, a person who is in tamo-guna or rajo-guna and claims to be happy is only happy sometimes. At other times, he is unhappy.

This gives rise to the necessity of elevating our happiness from tamo-guna to rajo-guna to sattva-guna. If happiness in rajo-guna and tamo-guna were permanent, there would be no necessity for elevation. Therefore, negativity needs to be given up because it is temporary. You cannot forever enjoy self-pity because sometimes the situation will get better and in order to enjoy that improved situation we must feel self-pride. Similarly, if you are feeling self-pride right now, the situation will get worse and you will be forced to feel self-pity. Due to this change, both modes create an emotional conflict and unhappiness. To be permanently happy, one has to adopt the mode of sattva-guna. The argument for sattva-guna is not happiness vs. unhappiness. It is rather permanent vs. temporary happiness.

Permanence Needs Change in Prakriti

The soul is eternal and therefore it seeks permanent happiness. And to find that happiness, it has to change its prakriti—namely the kind of happiness it seeks. The happiness of self-pride and self-pity will be temporary, and therefore a new kind of happiness has to be sought which is permanent. This happiness must become a habit and owing to habituation prakriti is called nature. It is material nature, but it is also our nature, or personality comprised of likes and dislikes.

The nature of sattva-guna is eternal, but those of rajo-guna and tamo-guna are temporary. The soul therefore has to choose a type of happiness that can be stable. Once this choice becomes a habit, then the person always perceives the world just as it is, and is neither attracted nor repulsed by it. We can say that sattva-guna is the mode in which the soul acquires objective perception. In every other situation, the perception is colored by the observer who modifies the foreground and background.

Beyond the Happiness of Sattva-Guna

Sattva-guna is the beginning of happiness, but not its end. An even higher form of happiness is produced from a new kind of bias in which everything connected to God is sought and prioritized and everything disconnected from God is ignored and deprioritized. Of course, ultimately, nothing is disconnected to God. However, some things are more relevant than others. A devotee of God therefore develops a bias—after attaining an unbiased position from a material standpoint.

God is Himself biased; namely He puts certain things in the foreground and other things in the background. Material nature as a whole is on the background; God is said to have His back towards it; His front toward the spiritual nature. The devotee of God develops the same priorities as God. In the material world, such a devotee keeps material nature in the background and spiritual nature in the foreground; in the spiritual realm the background totally disappears and the foreground remains. The materialists on the other hand keep spiritual nature in the background and material nature in the foreground, and for many materialists the background simply doesn’t exist; they imagine that the foreground they can perceive (material properties) does not have any spiritual basis.

Happiness and Relationship to God

The soul is manifest from the chit-śakti of God, which represents His “I have” ability. As a result, the soul is said to be part of God (quite like we say the body has a hand, the hand has fingers—which represent the whole-part relationship). However, these parts can be either on God’s front or His back (i.e. in spiritual or material natures respectively). As the soul moves from the back to the front (or vice versa), his relation to God is altered. This relation is called sat—or the soul’s awareness. By moving to the back, for instance, the soul becomes unaware of God and pretends that He doesn’t exist. As this relation is altered, a different kind of happiness—called ananda—is derived from it. The driver of this change is the quest for a different type of happiness, which pushes the soul from the back to the front.

Factually, God is aware of both His front and back, so God never forgets the soul even if the soul tries to forget God; rather God honors the soul’s desire to go behind God’s back to do things as if God did not exist. This is a mischievous type pleasure and the soul can never be free of fear and guilt of being caught in his act. That fear and guilt are automatically created by the material nature or prakriti.

The guilt is that no matter what you prioritize you have deprioritized something else; the burden of this choice is overwhelming, and the soul always seeks to reverse the effects of this prioritization. The guilt associated with every choice in the material world causes the cyclic change in choices. In the material world, for example, a working mother feels guilty about neglecting her children, and a stay-at-home mom feels guilty about not realizing her potential. This is due to the dualism of the material world. In the spiritual nature too there is guilt; since I focused on something, I neglected other things. A devotee experiences this guilt and is humbled by it. He considers himself not doing enough.

Happiness and Guilt

The difference between material and spiritual guilt is that in the material world a working mother will indeed neglect her children, but in spiritual nature whichever part of God you serve every other part is equally well-served because when you choose one part, someone else will automatically choose another part. This is the philosophy of cooperation in which all the opposites are prioritized, although by different persons. The men feel humbled by women as they are not taking care of children, and the women are humbled by men because they are not working outside. This humility is the product of guilt, rather than pride, and under this humility there is unceasing cooperation between all.

Material guilt is real but spiritual guilt is imagined. Material guilt dampens our desires, but spiritual guilt strengthens our desires. Material guilt causes us to oscillate from one extreme to another because each person is isolated and individualistic and needs to do opposite things by themselves (the isolation is because once the soul turns away from God, each person considers themselves the center of the world). Spiritual guilt compels us to cooperate rather than compete and be stridently fixed in our work, but humbled by other’s contribution. Guilt is the source of unhappiness here, and freedom from guilt is accepted as salvation. But beyond the material guilt is another kind of guilt that enhances happiness. The soul has the choice of happiness—material guilt, freedom from guilt, or spiritual guilt.

When this desire for happiness is altered, different things are automatically visible or invisible. In that sense, choice simply means the choice of happiness. I titled this post ‘Happiness is a Choice’. However, having reached this point, I will modify the claim somewhat: ‘Happiness is the choice’ because once this choice is made, everything else gradually changes through a successive domino effect.