We often link our feelings of happiness to some exterior events or circumstances in our life. For example, we get reunited with a dear friend and as an effect we get happy. Or we get an extraordinary new job or promotion, and we feel happy. We buy a new phone or a new car and we also feel happy. There are countless examples of activities or things we do that make us feel happy. There are of course some kinds of happiness that last longer than others. When we drink ten beers we might feel very happy; but it is for a very short amount of time. Sometimes we even have to pay this “happiness” with a headache the day after.
In hard times, or in times of anxiety and depression, happiness is suddenly lost, and it becomes much harder to find it back just with buying something or with any other exterior cause. That is why I would like to introduce a slight differentiation between two kinds of pleasures or enjoyments, and I will do it using the perspective of Buddhist psychology.
The difference between happiness and joy
The difference between happiness and joy is explained in a very simple way by the Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. In his book “The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching” he writes that “happiness relates to both body and mind, whereas joy relates primarily to mind”. Then the example he gives is about someone who is traveling in the desert and sees a stream of cool water. At that moment, the traveler experiences joy. But when he drinks the water, he experiences happiness.
Another example that we experience in our everyday life can help us understand the difference between the joy that relates to mind, and the happiness that relates to body and mind: When we are hungry and someone puts in front of us good food, we immediately feel joy. When we start eating, we experience happiness.
Generating joy when we are depressed
This distinction is very useful for psychology and precious for psychotherapy. Since joy depends only on our mind, we can always generate it, even under the hardest circumstances. Even if we are sick and experience physical pain, generating joy is always possible. This is the most important teaching of this above mentioned distinction.
Under any circumstance, generating joy does not depend on any external source. This is a power we have within us, at any moment.
To be able to generate joy while we are depressed, we have first of all to be mindful about our inner experience and our intentions. The first thing to do is to admit: “I am sad now, or I feel anxious” Then the second thing to say is “Now I want to leave this negative feeling and I am going to generate joy”.
Then, there are numberless methods we can use to act on our minds. We have to use our creativity and ask ourselves this question: “What are the kind of thoughts that bring me joy? Let me bring my mind to those thoughts and stay there”. It is easier to think about this question when we are happy. When depression comes, we will already know the answer.
The easiest example is as simple as an exercise of breathing:
• I breathe in and think: I am here.
• I breathe out: I smile to myself.
• Repeat it 10 times.
• I breathe in: I am alive.
• I breathe out: I am happy.
• I breathe in: Many people love me.
• I breathe out: I love many people.
It is incredible to notice that such a simple practice generates joy immediately. Then you can practice calming down and bringing your thoughts to joyful situations. If you succeed in generating joy using your inner strength, i.e. your mind, then you can maybe reward yourself with an external cause in order to produce happiness (relating both to body and mind): I don’t know, you can maybe eat a chocolate, call a dear friend, or just go for a walk in a place you like.