In various places on Zen Throw Down I've drawn a distinction between happiness and contentment. While I love happiness and joy (and who doesn't?), I've come to understand that it's much wiser to seek contentment than happiness. This is mainly because contentment requires no striving and can be maintained in a world that is full of suffering. On the other hand, happiness constantly demands effort to obtain, disappears all too easily, and/or is merely a mirage on the horizon that beckons without getting closer.
This view of happiness runs counter to how many of us are raised. For example, in the United States the "pursuit of happiness" is inherently woven into our national identity. Cultures may differ, but the desire for happiness seems universal. Zen Buddhism, however, teaches us that happiness is something to cherish when one has it...but that one should never cling to it, mourn when we inevitably lose it, or chase after it.
|Memes are not wisdom|
Lastly, and most importantly, one can't be taught to be happy because happiness itself is a temporary condition. No one can maintain it no matter what they are taught. In Zen Buddhism we are taught that all beings suffer; it is simply part of life. So it is foolish to cling to happiness or to try avoiding all suffering because we cannot maintain the one or avoid the other. Further, both states are temporary. We are happy until something goes amiss, and then we suffer. We suffer until things start going our way again, and then we are happy.
This circle of joy and suffering drags most people into a deluded mindstate, as they spend all their energy trying to evade suffering or to capture happiness. This is all wasted energy because no matter how happy we become, suffering will always eventually come back to us. In short, trying to maintain happiness as a permanent state is like trying - to quote a lyric from The Sound of Music - "to keep a wave upon the sand." We waste our time and energy running around in this circle.
This is why contentment is a better goal that happiness. While happiness is the absence of suffering, contentment allows for suffering. To explain what is meant by this, imagine a time when you were suffering. It's unlikely you could have said to yourself: "Everything is so awful, but I'm happy anyway!" (If you could say this, then it's questionable whether you were really suffering!). However, it's totally possible - especially from within a disciplined, centered mindstate - to be unhappy and yet to be content on some level.
We can be content even when we suffer because, despite the pain or sadness or anxiety we feel we can look at ourselves in the current moment and know that we're okay. We may not be happy, but we are able to let things slide off our backs and be patient with ourselves.
And this is the crux of the difference between happiness and contentment: while happiness vanishes the second anything goes wrong, contentment can be maintained even in quite averse circumstances.