Explore the multi-dimensional aspects of happiness, transitioning from simple sensory pleasure to the profound realm of spiritual bliss.
Embarking on a journey from the simple joys of our senses to the profound depths of spiritual enlightenment, let's unravel the intricate tapestry of what truly constitutes happiness.
How important is it for us to be happy?
A review of more than 160 studies of human and animal subjects has found “clear and compelling evidence” that—all else being equal—happy people tend to live longer and experience better health than their unhappy peers. The study, published in Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being, comprehensively reviews the evidence linking happiness to health outcomes.
Scientist and research study author Professor Ed Diener said, “We reviewed eight different types of studies, and the general conclusion from each type of study is that your subjective well-being—that is, feeling positive about your life, not stressed out, not depressed—contributes to both longevity and better health among healthy populations.” 
What Makes Us Happy?
Spiritual teachings advise us to look deeply into the nature of happiness. The experience of happiness can arrive in many different forms, variations, of the three main types:
How wonderful that there are so many ways to experience the sweetness of life!
When we examine these different designations of happiness, we can learn a lot about ourselves and life. We discover right away that the desire to be happy or to avoid suffering motivates everything we do. All our drives, from the basic instinctual ones like hunger, sleep, or sex, to the higher ones such as the quest for knowledge, success, or even spiritual realization, are rooted in a more profound desire to experience fulfillment, contentment, or happiness.
"Unsurpassed happiness is gained by contentment."
—Patanjali's Yoga Sutras 2.42
The three broad labels for classifying different types of happiness as pleasure, joy, or bliss are related to the origin of the experience—whether it is physical, mental-emotional, or spiritual. These categories are not iron-clad designations but simply a way to help us explore how happiness arises, what forms it takes, and how best to relate to it.
The words for happiness are often used interchangeably, which goes to show how confusing this most basic human experience can be. For our purposes here, let’s explore pleasure as satisfying sensory desire, joy as realizing a goal or purpose, and bliss as spiritual fulfillment.
When we desire something related to sensory experience and then attain it, we feel happy. But, with a bit of discernment, we can see that the same thing that brought us pleasure may later bring pain. A mundane example is desiring a particular food we enjoy, let’s say, chocolate. If you like chocolate, experience a desire to have it, and then get some, the natural result is happiness. But, after the chocolate is gone, sooner or later, you may find that the desire arises again. Ah! That happiness was short-lived.
Suppose you go after more (and more) to feel that pleasure and satisfaction again. In that case, it is possible that instead of happiness, you will encounter a digestive upset or a headache from having too much of a sweet thing. Pain comes instead of pleasure.
Life is, fortunately, permeated with pleasure. It is unavoidable. When we are thirsty and have a drink of water, voila! Pleasure! What is helpful is to understand its inherent limits. Pleasure comes to us as the result of satisfying a physical desire. The fulfillment of desire in the physical realm generally leads to more desire. If we pursue that, we find ourselves bound to chase after something that can never fully satisfy us.
If we look to sensory pleasure to gratify our longing for lasting happiness, we are looking in the wrong place and setting ourselves up for an encounter with pain. The sages compare that error to drinking salt water when we are thirsty. While we can appreciate life’s pleasant experiences, it is helpful to recognize them for what they are and avoid asking something transitory to give us permanent happiness.
When we set goals and reach them or succeed in life, the joy we feel stays with us longer than sensory pleasure. This form of happiness is related to our mental-emotional make-up, a more subtle experience than the fulfillment of sensory desire. It’s easy to compare these two by recalling even our most recent experiences. Consider a physical, sensory pleasure that you had today. How did it arise, and how was it satisfied? How long did the pleasure last? Now compare that to the joy of meeting a goal, accomplishing something you wanted to do or feel good about. That joy tends to be longer lasting than the fleeting pleasure of sense fulfillment.
Even more enduring than the joy we experience when we achieve something or succeed somehow is the happiness we find when we serve life by selflessly helping others. Being of service to others brings a deep and long-lasting sense of inner peace and happiness. Why? Because when we selflessly assist others, we move a little farther from the ego-centric drives that exacerbate our sense of separation.
Joy is longer-lasting and more refined than sensory pleasure. Yet, it, too, is impermanent and has a flip side which is sorrow. Just as the very thing that once pleased us may later bring us pain, so too with joy and sorrow. Our happiness with achievement may turn to sorrow at the next bend in the road, the changes that naturally occur in the physical world.
Beyond pleasure and pain, joy and sorrow is the highest type of happiness known as bliss. Bliss is innate. It is unconditional, not the result of anything, and therefore not subject to change. No desire needs to be satisfied or a goal achieved to experience bliss. It is a divine soul quality revealed to us when the mental field is calm and we are aware. Bliss is always hiding behind the veil of our desires.
The highest happiness is the bliss we experience through Self-knowing—realizing our true nature. When we know our essential nature, we discover our innate wholeness. That experience is free from any and all desire. Because nothing needs to be added on or attained to be happy, nothing can take it away. We are inherently blissful.
What then? The Buddha said, “There is pleasure, and there is bliss. Forgo the first to know the second.” I don’t think that this is an admonition never to experience pleasure if you want to know spiritual bliss. We are not required to give up pleasure or life’s joys to know bliss. We need to know which is which and not lose the happiness we already have while looking elsewhere for it.
© 2023 Ellen Grace O’Brian