Hello best life seekers!
Does your baseline happiness meter seem stuck at “life sucks”? Are everyday hassles getting old and starting to take a toll? If you’re also postponing your happiness until some event happens – like meeting the right person, landing the right job, or obtaining some measure of wealth like a house or specific salary – then maybe it’s time to re-evaluate things with Joy On Demand: The Art of Discovering the Happiness Within by Chade-Meng Tan before you’re stuck being miserable for the next ten years or your remaining lifetime.
I used to be miserable. My default mood was “life sucks”. If something good happened, I’d have a brief flash of happiness but before long I was back to “life sucks,” even if nothing particularly bad was happening. Then I learned how to be happy. That’s right. I LEARNED to be happy. It took practice and didn’t happen over night but at some point I grew happier and happier until now my default mood is happy or at least content. When something bad happens, and it takes a lot, I might dip into unhappy before springing quickly back to happy or content. So how did this life-altering change happen?
Happiness is a Trainable Skill
The same journey from misery to happiness took place for Chade-Meng Tan. His book Joy On Demand chronicles how meditation and mindfulness practices can lead to proven increases in mood and happiness in as short as 15 seconds but at greater levels with continued practice of mind training. Like me, he found that meditation and training the mind were ways of developing the skill of happiness.
Chade-Meng Tan worked at Google and developed a mindfulness program at the company called Search Inside Yourself (also the title of his first book). The vast majority of participants did little or no meditation before the class, but after just a few days or weeks of meditation, many of them reported meaningful increases in happiness. A 2003 study found that just eight weeks of meditation is enough to cause significant changes in the brain associated with increased happiness.
In Joy On Demand, Chade-Meng Tan points out that we have a mind condition that makes us crave two types of pleasure – sense pleasures and ego pleasures. For example, when our senses are pleasantly stimulated as when we eat something tasty, we feel joy. Similarly, when our ego is pleasantly stimulated, like when we’re praised, we also feel joy. Most of us are seeking constant stimulation in order to feel joy – be it of the senses through food, drink, music, sex, visual stimulus, etc. or via ego through power, money, fame, possessions, relationships, etc. If you look closely, almost everything we do is to experience a sense of pleasure. We’re constantly chasing after it.
What Joy On Demand explains is that we can feel joy independent of sense or ego pleasure. This is revolutionary and takes us out of the hamster wheel chase of defeating, illusory, and transient sense and ego pleasures. Chade-Meng Tan uses the example of eating chocolate. When we eat it, we experience joy but when we are just sitting there not eating chocolate, we can still experience joy. But in order to do this, we must train the mind to access joy when it is free from stimulation. He notes that this is also the secret of raising your happiness set point.
To train the mind to access stimulus-free joy, we need to understand how joy arises independent of sensual stimulation and then cultivate those skills. Joy On Demand lists and trains three skills for doing just this: easing, inclining, and uplifting the mind.
Happiness is a Mental Game
We are constantly talking to ourselves. It’s an endless monologue about our feelings and reactions, beliefs and ideas, judgments, fears, hopes, dreams and anxieties as we chase happiness and avoid pain. We go through all sorts of mental contortions in an hour, let alone a day or lifetime. Our minds are spinning like crazy. One moment we’re lost in the past remembering past wrongs or better times or we daydream and think nonstop of the future and whether it will be better or worse than now. Our mind spins and darts. It’s a badly behaved dog on a leash dragging us where it wants to go. Basically it needs training.
Enter meditation and mindfulness practices. With them we begin to train the mind to settle down and behave more purposefully. Our minds can go from unruly canine to happy and well-behaved while walking at our side. In this state we can easily access happiness but we need to cultivate a few skills to do so. And once we cultivate these skills, we also strengthen our ability to deal with life’s challenges and difficulties, as well as emotional pain.
Without training, our minds grope blindly in the dark to help us through our difficulties, often unskillfully or in a counter-productive manner. It’s sort of like giving a child a stocked kitchen and asking them to prepare chicken cordon bleu. They have no training in cooking nor an understanding of food preparation. It would be unrealistic to expect them to make a wonderful meal. After they’re older and been trained, they can create all manner of exceptional dishes. It’s the same for our minds. We can’t task it with solving our problems or dealing with the craziness of life and expect it to be very helpful without training.
Neither can we expect it to know how to access happiness or joy.
3 Skills We Should All Train for Greater Joy
Joy On Demand teaches three important life skills for happiness: easing into joy, inclining the mind toward joy, and uplifting the mind.
Easing into Joy. This skill is learning to rest the mind to put it into a state of ease. When the mind is at ease, joy becomes more accessible. Part of the practice is learning to access that joy in ease, and then in turn, using the joy to reinforce the ease. Chade-Meng Tan calls this easing into joy: being joyful at rest, no ego stroking or sensual pleasure required. Cultivating this form of inner joy begins to free us from over reliance on sense and ego stimulation for pleasure. This means joy becomes increasingly available anyplace, anytime.
Inclining the Mind Toward Joy. This is the skill of learning how to notice joy and give it our full attention. We learn where to look in order to see and appreciate joy that is already available to us, in moments that we hadn’t noticed before. There is joy to be found in a calming breath and in the pleasures of ordinary activities. We invite this joy in. Inviting and noticing joy become part of our meditation practice as well as habits in everyday life. In time, with practice, the mind starts to get to know joy. It becomes familiar with joy. The more the mind becomes familiar with joy, the more it perceives joy, inclines toward joy, and effortlessly creates the conditions conducive to joy.
Uplifting the Mind. With this skill we learn to uplift the mind with wholesome joy, especially joy arising from goodness, generosity, loving-kindness, and compassion. The wholesomeness of such joy benefits mental health the same way wholesome food benefits physical health. Such joy also leads the mind into a more stable, collected state because it doesn’t have to fight with anything like regret or envy. In turn, the stable, collected mind is more conducive to wholesome joy, thus establishing a virtuous cycle. With training in easing, inclining, and uplifting the mind comes the increasing ability to access joy on demand in most normal life circumstances (i.e., in the absence of overwhelming difficulties such as losing a livelihood or a loved one)
These three skills come with practices as simple as stopping and taking a deep, mindful breath once an hour; or once a day, picking a random person to focus on and wishing happiness for them. These are simple practices, dismissively simple, but they actually have outsized impacts on our happiness and peace. When I first started meditation, I could never understand how I could access peace in one breath. Now it is very real to me – refreshing, revitalizing, and deeply peaceful. That same breath can also bring me joy. But it takes practice, not just reading and intellectualizing. Mostly we just read, obtain a new fact or data point, and move on without ever putting those lessons into practice.
Practice is where you find and learn joy.
Happiness is an Inner Mind Trick
One of the great lessons of Joy On Demand is learning that our happiness set points can be lifted. Too many of us accept that “this is the way things are” with us or that we cannot change. Yet we can become happier. Buddhist monks and other contemplatives have been doing it for thousands of years and scientific studies have measured the associated changes in brains or moods of present-day practitioners.
Chade-Meng Tan observes that in modern society with its modern technology, pleasure is more accessible than ever, all around us, on demand. Our lack of joy is certainly not for lack of ways to gratify our egos and senses. However, the joy that comes from these sources is inherently problematic since it depends on external factors out of our control.
We have a lot of misconceptions about where and how to find joy. We base it on obtaining money or power, buying stuff or consuming stuff, on our titles or positions, or pin it on future achievements and hoped for relationships. Others believe we can only find happiness if we give up everything and live in a hut in the woods. You might think you need to meditate for many years to access joy, but you can begin to experience benefits in one breath. That may sound bizarre but it is also true. It points the way to the internal source of happiness that does not depend on things, people, or events.
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