There is good evidence to suggest that pleasure is merely an evolutionary development – we feel it when we do something that is ‘good’ for us, in the sense of liable to help us survive and thereby propagate the species. Hence eating and sex are good examples of pleasurable activities. Eating things that are bad for us is likely to be accompanied by opposite feelings such as nausea or disgust so as to discourage us. We will tend to choose those things that are likely to bring pleasure and avoid ones that are likely to bring pain.
There appear to be areas in the brain which, when electrically stimulated, trigger feelings of pleasure. A recent theory suggests that pleasure is a function that enables us to choose between activities. Thus, an experiment with lizards shows that their favourite foods – i.e. the ones that give the most pleasure – can tempt them out of a warm environment into a cold one, whereas less enticing food will not.
Essentially, however, pleasure seems to be a short-term emotion, working in an obviously mechanistic way similar to pain. In fact, there is good reason to suppose that pleasure and pain are effectively opposite ends of what is the same ‘thing’ – an evolutionary brain mechanism for encouraging behaviour optimal to survival. Happiness, on the other hand, appears not to function in this way. It does not seem to relate so clearly to ‘things’ or ‘events’. It seems much more related to me directly. I can say ‘I am happy’, but not ‘I am pleasure’. Drugs might bring about an extremely pleasurable state but they could never make me happy.
Most people (Advaitins excluded of course!) tend to think that happiness is simply an emotion that we feel occasionally and there is no denying that this is how it seems. They might think that it is a reward, in a sense, for something they have done. This is because this is the sort of situation in which it typically arises. If we have been working towards a goal, we often feel happy once the goal is reached. If we have been wanting something, we usually feel happy once we have obtained it.
If it were possible to do so reliably, it would be worth looking back to all of the occasions on which we were happy and endeavouring to establish a common denominator for those experiences. Unfortunately, the truth of the matter is only clear in the present and looking through the filter of memory and all of our concepts and mistaken ideas is unlikely to be helpful. Reliving the past is not an activity to be encouraged!
When looking to the future, as we usually do when not reminiscing or agonising over the past, we often think that we need certain things in order to be happy. Precisely what form these take depends upon which aspect we have identified with. If we believe we are the body, we will want to be fit and healthy, beautiful and so on and are likely to pursue material things. If we identify with the mind, we will pursue ideas and ideals and find self-esteem through other’s recognition of our achievements. Identification with higher aspects of the intellect might see us seeking to excel in the arts or abstract studies of some other sort. Religious types will find happiness through acting morally and unselfishly, perhaps seeing their ultimate purpose as not being realised in this life.
Many people seem to be at their happiest when they are doing something that they enjoy. The logical conclusion that they draw from this is that, in order permanently to be happy, they should seek always to be doing something that they enjoy. Though this might seem reasonable on cursory examination, it is quickly found to be false. If, for example, the ‘something’ happens to be raving it up at a night club, exhaustion and probably other undesirable consequences will quickly ensue. If it happens to be eating, fullness and ultimately nausea will occur.
Most activities that bring happiness are contingent upon factors other than our own desires and motivation and these other factors rarely pan out exactly as we would wish. And they are all inevitably limited in time. As soon as they end, we are back more or less where we started.
Happiness is happiness, whether you call it bliss, Ananda or anything else. Whenever we normally experience it, it is usually short-lived and invariably attributed erroneously to some external object but it is still the real thing. It is not limited in any way but our recognition of it is quickly covered over by the next activity of mind. I.e. the limitations are not of happiness but of the mind.
The problem is, of course, that we are always looking to find happiness outside, in events, objects or people, when in reality it is our own nature.
The reason why we are frequently happy, albeit for a relatively short time, when we are pursuing what we might call ‘enjoyable’ activities, is not because of any property intrinsic to the activity. It is because, as we sometimes put it, we ‘forget ourselves’. What this actually means is that the sense of ‘I am doing this’ or ‘I want that’ or even ‘I am enjoying this’ is momentarily forgotten. There is simply ‘doing’ without any overlay of ego or mental commentary. In the absence of mind or ego, the natural happiness of the Self is able to shine through. Momentarily, there is no duality, no enjoyer and enjoyed, subject and object, simply enjoyment of one’s own Self.
The extent to which we fail to appreciate this is cause for the ultimate irony, however. The moment quickly passes. The ego returns and immediately claims ‘I am happy’ and ascribes the happiness to a separate object or the result of an action. This is then stored in memory, reinforcing our false belief that happiness results from all of this ‘doing’ etc. and then, inevitably, we feel that we have to seek to repeat the activity or search for something new in order to ‘bring back’ the sense of joy. And we fear the loss of this ‘happy state’ as it is now perceived. Such ideas immediately cover over the Self with ignorance and the happiness dissipates. And it is all quite untrue – at the moment of happiness the ego was not there at all. If it had been, there would not have been any happiness. Any thinking about happiness objectifies it as something other than ourselves and thus renders it unattainable.
So it is that we are forever searching in the wrong direction, for something ‘other’ than ourselves in order to find that which can only be found within.
Our experience tends to reinforce these false beliefs since we typically find that it is those with ‘full lives’ who seem to be the happiest. Someone with very little to do, with few friends and no outside interests, we often find to be depressed or miserable, sitting around by themselves wishing they were doing something else. But this is due to the same reason, merely from the other side. Here, such a person is self-obsessed, forever thinking about what they want, the problems that they feel they have and the lack of any solution. Their attention is forever focussed on their ego and related ideas in mind. There is simply no chance of seeing the natural happiness through all of this junk.
Continue with final essay on this topic - Desire for Objects.