The Buddha talked about three different levels of happiness. The first is happiness that can come from pleasant sense experiences: delicious food, nice weather, pleasant music, or any kind of positive sensual experience. These are enjoyable but fleeting. Since all sense experiences change quickly and none can be relied upon to stay forever, this kind of happiness is fragile.
There is nothing wrong with pleasant experiences, but orienting one’s life entirely around them comes with a deep restlessness, one that we may not even notice while we are caught up in that game. If we were solely chasing pleasant experiences for happiness, it could indeed seem like a selfish and limited life.
With just a little examination, most of us can see that happiness is in the mind and heart, not in the nose, eyes, ears, tongue, or body. So the next level is discovered by going directly to the mind, where in meditation we can uncover refined states that bring a deep sense of unity, well-being, and joy. The happiness from these states beats all sense experiences, even the most exquisite ones. It is more sublime, with an immense sense of ease and peace. When we attain these refined mental states, the things that block our sense of well-being (greed, hatred, fear, and other hindrances) temporarily lose their power, which is great. However, these obstacles are not yet totally eradicated; eventually, when conditions change, they will come back. So this kind of happiness, too, is ultimately fragile, requiring particular conditions to arise.
The highest level of happiness is a deep contentedness and peace beyond all changing circumstance. Through insight and wisdom, the obstacles to happiness can be uprooted from the mind rather than just temporarily suspended. This is the most reliable kind of happiness, well-being, and ease: unshakeable and deeply rooted beyond all conditions, an awakening that brings peace even among the vicissitudes of life.
We can investigate each kind of happiness for ourselves; we can see what leads to a more reliable happiness. As we expand our access to deeper levels, we develop more bandwidth for caring about others and being of service in the world. We discover that happiness includes cultivating wholesome states like generosity, kindness, compassion, as well as letting go of fear, selfishness, hatred, and greed. As we grow out of orienting around “self-serving” drives, we can rest in a much greater perspective of spaciousness and caring. We can gradually expand our idea of “self” to encompass all, so seeking happiness eventually means being of service to all.
Excerpted from this article.