In the world today where we are being shown images of the rich and famous enjoying themselves, social media where we can see what our so called friends are up to and the constant newsfeed that tells us what we must do to be slim, beautiful and wise- it is easy to compare ourselves with others. Yet, having thought about it, I believe it is the surefire way to be miserable. But can we avoid this?
I think if you really must want to compare yourself with others, then pick the people who have less than you. Pick up people who you might see in the streets, homeless, who have suffered from illness or crime, etc. See how lucky you have been, what privileges you have had and how much better off you are. This is not about gloating about your life but realising that though there may be many people who are healthier, wealthier and more beautiful than you, there are even more people who are in less fortunate position than you. Then do something to help these people. That will make you happier even. And as the Beatles sang, ‘Money can’t buy you love!’ But this is still relative happiness. Do it only if you want relative happiness.
But by helping others, you can turn relative happiness into absolute happiness. The feeling of ‘absolute and unshakeable’ happiness is amazing and empowering. If your friend is sad, offer a shoulder to cry on; if you see someone homeless think of ways to help them (and it doesn’t need to involve money!) and do some work in the community. Open up your life to others and the environment. It is not the relative happiness where you end up comparing yourself with others who you think are higher up in life’s ladder than yourself. Or even with others less lucky than you. Misery is always relative while it is possible to achieve absolute happiness. Think about how much mental energy and time it takes you to compare yourself to others- and just to end up with misery as the final goal.
“Though worldly troubles may arise, never let them disturb you. No one can avoid problems, not even sages or worthies.”
The Buddhist monk, Nichiren, wrote this to a samurai warrior in 1276 in a letter called ‘Happiness in this world’. I was listening a youtube TEDx by Dan Gilbert who has also written a best seller on his ideas. He classifies happiness as ‘synthetic’ i.e made by you and ‘natural’, i.e happiness that comes from external events such as getting a prize, finding a partner, etc. He says that synthetic happiness is better than natural happiness. I agree and am pleased to note that scientific results have proved what Buddhists and other philosophers have known for thousands of years.
However, apart from the strangeness of calling happiness synthetic, the other point is that we need other things to realise this kind of happiness. And what are those?- this Gilbert does not say. First, one needs a degree of control over oneself and be free from external influences. In today’s world, this is not easy task. In Buddhism, we talk about two kinds of happiness- relative and absolute. Relative happiness depends upon external events and objects while absolute happiness is within us, all the time. To compare those to Dan Gilbert’s definitions, relative would be similar to natural and absolute happiness to what he calls synthetic. I prefer to call them in the Buddhist way rather than in Dan Gilbert’s terms. Spiritual practice offers a way of resisting those external temptations in order to find absolute happiness. This way is through mediation or chanting. Many other religions also do this through use or stilling of our voices- through praying, singing or through silence. To try to achieve Dan Gilbert’s synthetic happiness without having the support of a spiritual practice is not possible. Spiritual practice leads us away from material practice or happiness. Secondly, a belief in the essential of our beings as happy is the key to being happy. If you believe you will be unhappy, you will be and vice versa. Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony) said in 40 BC, ‘No man is happy who does not think himself so.’
Even two minutes of meditation have proved to be beneficial to people. I have been doing this for many weeks now and have noticed a clear difference in my way of thinking and feel quite relaxed. By believing that happiness lies within me, I have also learnt to overcome the sorrow of losing a loved one. Try feeling happy today without referring to any thing external- it is wonderful freedom!