Happiness is a Choice: Three Maxims for Joy
Amma frequently demonstrates that happiness is a choice. Life may bring many ups and downs. Sometimes things flow easily and everything seems to work out. Sometimes we easily succeed in our jobs, relationships and studies or at our spiritual practices. At other times, it’s not so easy. We may struggle to keep our minds equanimous in the face of failures, losses, interpersonal challenges and internal struggles. This struggle is not new. Humans have long grappled with this challenge. Indeed, many of the world’s major religions and philosophies have put this challenge to test. Those trying to unlock the secret to happiness included the ancient Greek philosophers.
Epicurus lived in Athens around 270 BC with his closest friends. He spent his days trying to solve the perennial puzzle that troubles most of us: happiness. Epicurus aimed to uncover the key principles of contentment. How can we be happy?
Epicurus laid out three basic instructions as the foundation for a happy life: cultivate true friendships, produce meaningful work, and learn to live happily with less. Implementing these instructions in our day-to-day lives helps support our decision to be happy.
Amma speaks about the value of keeping company with people who have the same goals on the spiritual path, because we can uplift and support each other. Additionally, Amma emphasizes the importance of selfless service and being content with only what is most needed. For instance, we can buy a watch for $20 or $200 but both tell the time. If we buy the watch for $20, then we can donate the rest to the poor. Thus we help them to be happy by meeting their basic needs.
Cultivate True Friendships
Epicurus suggested that true, meaningful friendships are fundamental to our happiness. We should spend our time cultivating positive relationships with the people around us, relationships not marred by bitterness, jealousy and resentment.
Sometimes, life gets in the way, and we neglect those dearest to us in favor of other pursuits. In addition to this, many of us are reluctant to open ourselves fully to our friends. We fear they can’t be trusted or that we’ll be met with rejection. We may have many friends and acquaintances, but not all are held in equal regard where trust and openness are concerned. True friends should inspire us to improve and become happier. They should have our best interests at heart. Our best friends shouldn’t just reflect our interests but also help us focus and instill values.
Amma tells a story to demonstrate how those around us can influence us, “once, a temple and a liquor shop kept parrots as pets. While the temple parrot chanted Vedic mantras, the parrot in the liquor shop uttered obscenities. Children, one’s conduct is determined by the company one keeps.” The habits and attitudes of our friends will inevitably rub off on us. By surrounding ourselves with those who share similar spiritual values and perform selfless actions, we become inspired and uplifted.
On the other hand, we are led astray when we cultivate friendships with those who focus on worldly pleasure and material objects. True friendships with those who share similar values enrich our lives and uplift our spirits.
On a deeper level, we should cultivate our relationship with God and the Guru. In a sense, God is our only true friend. Our relationship with God is truly unconditional. Though God is always there for us, like any relationship, we get out what we put in. By nurturing this inner relationship through prayer, meditation and silence, we gain more inner strength and awareness. We develop deeper happiness and unconditional love to share with others in our lives.
Worldly love should grow to a higher love and become divine love, as Amma is constantly reminding us. This is the highest goal in cultivating meaningful friendships. By offering those around us our hearts and unconditional love, our relationships can transcend the bonds of worldly attachment and a love or friendship based on expectation.
Amma tells us, “real love has nothing to do with lust or self-centeredness. In real love, you are not important; the other is important. In love, the other is not your instrument to fulfill your selfish desires; you are an instrument of the Divine, with the intention of doing good in the world. Love does not sacrifice others; love gives joyfully of itself. Love is selfless. In real love, you do not feel worthless; on the contrary, you expand and become one with everything – all encompassing, ever blissful.” True and meaningful friendships are based on real love and bring us ever-lasting happiness. Real love is the basis of true and meaningful friendships. That is the source of everlasting happiness.
Produce Meaningful Work
The next thing that many of us feel we need in order to be happy is wealth. Though Epicurus formulated his ideas almost two thousand years ago, today we are more motivated by money than ever before. So much so, in fact, that the majority of us spend our entire lives working hard hoping someday we’ll have enough money to buy an expensive house and retire early. Our obsession with earning money wills us to work tirelessly. We drive ourselves to exhaustion and feel tremendous amounts of stress and unhappiness.
Epicurus argues that the key to satisfaction and happiness in our working lives isn’t earning a lot of money, but the knowledge that we’re producing meaningful work. We all long to feel like we’re making a difference. Deep down, we don’t care about large sums or job titles, but the feeling that we’re helping make the world a better place for other people.
In order to live happily, it’s critical that we love our work. After all, work comprises a large chunk of our time. It only makes sense that we do the things we enjoy. Few things deliver as much joy as the knowledge that we’re helping others.
Instead of slaving from nine til five or later every day in a job that you hate, seek to discover how you can provide meaning and support others. In the words of Charles Dickens, “No one is useless in this world who lightens the burdens of another.” When we engage in work or selfless service that allows us to lift the burdens of others, we find a deeper sense of contentment and satisfaction. As Amma often says, selfless service is the only soap that truly purifies.
Amma’s life is exemplary of a life dedicated to the meaningful work of selfless service. Indeed, the central tenant of Amma’s teachings is the engagement of selfless service for others. This is the most meaningful of all work because it not only benefits the recipient, but purifies the sevite as well. Amma says, “when we dedicate ourselves solely to the well-being of others, it is our own mind that becomes pure. When you give your friend a bouquet of flowers, you are the one who experiences the gratification of giving. You are the first one to enjoy the beauty and fragrance of the flowers. In the same way, you can derive happiness from selfless acts.”
When we focus on serving others, we forget our own troubles and can more easily give up our own desires. Sacrifices seem nominal, we are lighter and we become happy.
Learn to Live Happily With Less
Lastly, Epicurus considered our fixation with desire. We seek to fill gaps in our lives by chasing after our wills and drives. We strive to earn more money, get in shape or find a romantic partner. We endlessly follow our desires in the hope that, by achieving them, we will finally feel happy. But there’s a catch: pursuing these desires only delays the arrival of peace. By chasing mindless pleasure, we’re missing the mark completely. Epicurus argues that our longing for luxury, status and pleasure conceal a deeper hunger for satisfaction.
One of his most famous sayings summarizes the core principle behind his teachings, “Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.” This is but one of Epicurus’ maxims for joy.
By living simply we free up our time and energy to more fully serve others. We are less burdened and drained by the ups and downs of constantly chasing after what we don’t already have. Spiritual principles, meditation, and selfless service give us the mental strength and understanding. Then we can overcome our desires, control our mind and wants and be content with what we have.
Amma explains, “A person who has learned how to swim will rejoice in the waves of the sea, whereas a person who can’t swim will drown in the same situation. A person who understands the principles of spirituality is like someone who knows how to swim – for him, every moment is blissful.”
Amma also emphasizes the importance of our attitude, “Earn money to live, don’t live to earn money. If we reject our values and center our mind and thoughts only on money, all of our love will be fake. Moreover, we will have a business-like mentality towards everything. Spirituality is not opposed to acquiring wealth or fulfilling desires, that is a misconception. There is nothing wrong with acquiring wealth or fulfilling desires. Spirituality only insists that these be done through righteous means.”
When we focus only on fulfilling our desires and increasing wealth, the joy of life dries up. Spiritual values and practices help us to move forward in life with contentment and happiness. When we must strive to fulfill desires or reach for success, we can do so without attachment and with the understanding that these external endeavors are not what impart joy and contentment.
The Takeaway, Making Happiness a Choice
Epicurus sought to teach others how to live happily for one reason: nobody seemed to know how. Many of us are still puzzled by the problem of happiness. We think that romance, money and luxury are the solutions to our misery — but they are not. These things only provide fleeting pleasure that fail to produce any long-lasting changes to our wellbeing.
Instead, Epicurus advises that we reflect on the moments that bring us true happiness. We should pay close attention to all the small, wonderful things that populate our daily lives and cultivate gratitude for all that we have, surrendering our desire for more.
We should spend time with friends and ensure they help us improve and grow. It is these friends that provide our lives with joy and meaning. In whatever time we are able, we should try to serve others to make the world a better place. And lastly, we should seek peace of mind in our spare time. Through meditation and learning to live in the present moment, we will no longer crave luxury or wealth, content with what we have already.
A couple thousand years later, Amma is advising us in much the same way. At the coming of the New Year Amma often says that though the number of the calendar year has changed, essentially nothing else has. The human mind remains the same. In many ways, life in Ancient Athens was very different to life in the modern world. Yet human nature is still very much the same and the advice of Epicurus still holds true. Many of the ancient truths in the Vedas also still ring true today. May we all have the Grace of our mind to make a firm resolve to choose to be happy no matter what life may bring.
Author: Amrita Yoga
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