We spend our lives pursuing whatever we believe will make us happy – wealth, success, popularity, excitement or whatever, but even if we achieve any of these, we find that the pleasure is fleeting, and we still remain unsatisfied. Meanwhile, we find many reasons for unhappiness and suffering.
We will look at what Gurbani has to say about achieving a deeper and more lasting happiness and how to apply it in our lives.
Video of Presentation
Body of Paper
The Pursuit of Happiness
– Inder Mohan Singh
We all spend our lives pursuing happiness in one form or another. The US declaration of independence even defines the pursuit of happiness as a basic human right, along with life and liberty.
Everyone strives for whatever they believe will make them happy. It starts with the little baby – when it is hungry it wants milk, and it cries. The mother nurses it, and it is happy. Later it misses its mother, and it cries again. The mother comes and holds the baby, and it is happy and smiles. As the baby gets older it wants toys – perhaps the latest toys the child sees on TV. After the kids get toys, they will play with them for a while, but they will get bored and want newer toys. As they get older and become teenagers, popularity becomes important to them. They want their friends to think they are really cool. As they get older, popularity with the opposite sex becomes a big drive. As adults, we pursue money and success in our careers, love, marriage and a family, and a bigger house. And we still go after toys, but the toys may be more expensive – a flashy car, neat gadgets like the latest iPhone or Apple watch.
The pursuit of happiness is never ending. We are always looking for something else, something that we believe will make us happy. As we get what we want, we may be happy for a while, but the excitement wears off. We are again unsatisfied, and the search for happiness continues.
In a recent study [The Things We Think Make Us Happy… Don’t – http://www.realclearscience.com/blog/2014/07/the_things_we_think_make_us_happy_dont.html]
it was found that when people achieve a goal or experience a major positive event in their life, their happiness level goes up, but then it wears off over a few months and drifts back to the same level of happiness as before. The study did find a wide variation in the happiness level of the participants, but each participant’s happiness level tended to revert to the participant’s base level some months after the positive event in their lives. Those who were relatively happier to begin with eventually stayed happier and those who were comparatively unhappy stayed that way.
In the words of the author of the study Ross Pomeroy: “Fame, talent, wealth, beauty; most people think that ‘if I only had these things I would be happy’. But it turns out that the people who have these things are not on average happier than people who lack these things. The grass is always greener on the other side of the street.”
In other words, the things we believe will make us happy do not quite get us there. As we achieve our desires, we may find that our needs grow or change.
Furthermore, things often do not go our way in spite of all our efforts. Bad things happen – some things work and some things do not.
ਮਾਨਸ ਜਤਨ ਕਰਤ ਬਹੁ ਭਾਤਿ ॥
ਤਿਸ ਕੇ ਕਰਤਬ ਬਿਰਥੇ ਜਾਤਿ ॥
The mortal makes all sorts of efforts
but these attempts are in vain. [Guru Arjan Dev, SGGS p. 286]
Happiness and Suffering – the Ups and Downs of Life
Gurbani tells us that Dukh and Sukh, happiness and suffering, are a part of life. Good and bad things are going to happen; life is full of ups and downs.
ਸੁਖੁ ਦੁਖੁ ਦੁਇ ਦਰਿ ਕਪੜੇ ਪਹਿਰਹਿ ਜਾਇ ਮਨੁਖ ॥
Pleasure and pain are the two garments given, to be worn in the Court of the Lord. [Guru Nanak, SGGS p. 149]
So while we chase after things that we expect will make us happy, what occurs is according to His Hukam or Divine Will: good fortune, bad fortune, ups and downs.
ਜਤਨ ਬਹੁਤ ਸੁਖ ਕੇ ਕੀਏ ਦੁਖ ਕੋ ਕੀਓ ਨ ਕੋਇ ॥
ਕਹੁ ਨਾਨਕ ਸੁਨਿ ਰੇ ਮਨਾ ਹਰਿ ਭਾਵੈ ਸੋ ਹੋਇ ॥੩੯॥ [SGGS p. 1428]
People make all sorts of efforts to find peace and pleasure, but no one tries to earn pain.
Says Nanak, listen, O my mind: whatever pleases God comes to pass. ||39|| [Guru Teg Bahadur, SGGS p. 1428]
Our emotional state bounces around with the ups and downs that life hands us. One moment you are promoted at work, and you are all excited and on top of the world. Then, you go home and have a fight with your wife, and you feel terrible.
ਕਬਹੂ ਜੀਅੜਾ ਊਭਿ ਚੜਤੁ ਹੈ ਕਬਹੂ ਜਾਇ ਪਇਆਲੇ ॥
Sometimes, the soul soars high in the heavens, and sometimes it falls to the depths [Guru Nanak, SGGS p. 876]
That is life – we are constantly tossed about on the stormy ocean of life that Gurbani calls “bhaujal”, an ocean full of the waves of “Maya” of material existence.
We think our happiness or suffering is caused by external events or situations, and that is what we try to control. But in reality it is how we react to them and how we handle these situations that determines our emotional state, much more than what happens to us.
The Two Types of Happiness
There are two significantly different ways in which we think about and use the word “happiness.” The first type refers to that which give us pleasure – wealth, success, fame, etc. This is what most of us spend our live chasing. The words used in Gurbani for this kind of happiness include “khushi, hasna and rauna, harakh and sog. In English we talk about pleasure and excitement. This type of happiness is externally driven, it depends on the situation we are in, and it is fleeting, leading to emotional ups and downs. This is the type of happiness and suffering that Gurbani cautions us about. We are admonished not to get caught up in it, but to learn to transcend it.
There is a deeper kind of happiness, which we refer to here as true happiness, which Gurbani leads us towards. This happiness is constant and deeper; it is more of an inner mental and spiritual state than something externally driven. In speaking of this type of true happiness , Gurbani uses words like anand, Sehaj, vigaas (blooming like a flower), chau (as in man chau bhaiya prabh aagam sunya), and chardi kalaa. (The phrase Chardi kalaa is not in not found in SGGS, but it has become an important part of Sikhi vocabulary). Gurbani also uses the imagery of lush greenery (hariaaval). There is a beautiful shabad – “man hariya khirya baag” (my mind is a lush garden full of flowers in bloom) to describe this kind of blissful state. In English, we often talk about Bliss, joy, peace and serenity.
It is this second form of happiness – a constant, joyful, uplifted spiritual state of sehaj and anand that we should aspire for. This is what Gurbani promises us if we follow its teachings in the way we live our lives.
In terms of the first type of happiness, which is transient, and externally driven, Gurbani urges us to learn to transcend this kind of sukh and dukh, to treat happiness and sorrow the same.
ਸੁਖੁ ਦੁਖੁ ਦੋਨੋ ਸਮ ਕਰਿ ਜਾਨੈ ਅਉਰੁ ਮਾਨੁ ਅਪਮਾਨਾ ॥
ਹਰਖ ਸੋਗ ਤੇ ਰਹੈ ਅਤੀਤਾ ਤਿਨਿ ਜਗਿ ਤਤੁ ਪਛਾਨਾ ॥੧॥
One who knows that pain and pleasure are both the same, and honor and dishonor as well,
who remains detached from joy and sorrow, realizes the true essence in the world. ||1|| [Guru Teg Bahadur – SGGS p.219]
It is not that we should not feel happiness or sorrow, but that we should be able to take the ups and downs of life in our stride. The Gurmukh learns to maintain an even keel, a level of serenity, of aatmak adolta, a state of sehaj no matter what happens. The Gurmukh looks at both happiness and suffering as gifts from Waheguru. In Japji Guru Nanak shows us how even when the worst things happen, he accepts the Divine Will gracefully
ਕੇਤਿਆ ਦੂਖ ਭੂਖ ਸਦ ਮਾਰ ॥
ਏਹਿ ਭਿ ਦਾਤਿ ਤੇਰੀ ਦਾਤਾਰ ॥
So many kinds of distress, deprivation and constant abuse.
Even these are Your Gifts, O Great Giver [Guru Nanak, SGGS p. 13]
How do we go about achieving this second type of true happiness, this deeper, lasting state of chardi kalaa.
Strategies for True Happiness – Naam Simran
The most basic strategy that Gurbani gives us for true happiness is Naam Simran -constant remembrance and awareness of the Divine Presence. Nam Simran is a subject worthy of it own separate article, but very briefly, this is achieved through an integrated process that includes (1)Naam Japna or meditating on the Divine Name, (2) study and reflection on Gurbani or Paath and Gurbani vichaar, (3) kirtan and (4) prayer or Ardaas.
This leads to a state of sehaj or equipoise and Chardi Kalaa, in which one can transcend pleasure and pain and maintain an even keel through the ups and downs of life.
ਕਬੀਰ ਹਰਿ ਕਾ ਸਿਮਰਨੁ ਜੋ ਕਰੈ ਸੋ ਸੁਖੀਆ ਸੰਸਾਰਿ ॥
ਇਤ ਉਤ ਕਤਹਿ ਨ ਡੋਲਈ ਜਿਸ ਰਾਖੈ ਸਿਰਜਨਹਾਰ ॥੨੦੬॥
Kabeer, whoever meditates in remembrance on the Lord, he alone is happy in this world.
Protected by the Creator Lord, he shall never waver, here or hereafter. ||206|| – [Kabeer, SGGS p.1375]
This graph below sketches out the process of transformation that Naam Simran can bring about in our lives. The horizontal axis shows the spiritual growth through Naam Simran from the initial state of a Manmukh to that of a Gurmukh. The vertical represents the level of happiness.
We start out being relatively unhappy, and bouncing up and down as we are buffeted by good and bad experiences. As we progress through our lives practicing the teachings of Gurbani and growing spiritually, our overall level of happiness and feeling of wellbeing is elevated, while the amplitude of emotional swings is reduced. In the advanced stages, as a Gurmukh one learns to maintain a more constant state of bliss. When things don’t go our way, we don’t despair or get angry with others or God. When good fortune strikes, we are thankful.
Most of us are somewhere in the middle. We start out towards the left end and hopefully by Waheguru’s Grace, we movie to the right and upwards as we follow the teachings of the Guru. Our average level of happiness steadily goes up, and the oscillations in our emotional state get reduced as we learn to take things in our stride and maintain our chardi kalaa. When something unfortunate happens we are able to snap back quicker, and when good fortune strikes, we accept it with humility and Grace and don’t get diverted from the Sikhi path.
Naam Simran is the core, basic path for achieving true happiness. Now we will look at a few other specific areas, that we can work on. These are in fact all related to Naam Simran.
Sharan and Ardaas
An important enabler for transcending the ups and downs of life and maintaining our serenity is to constantly lean on Waheguru, (sharan vich aana), to always depend on Him, praying to Him – knowing that we can always count on Him to take care of us.
ਊਠਤ ਸੁਖੀਆ ਬੈਠਤ ਸੁਖੀਆ ॥
ਭਉ ਨਹੀ ਲਾਗੈ ਜਾਂ ਐਸੇ ਬੁਝੀਆ ॥੧॥
ਰਾਖਾ ਏਕੁ ਹਮਾਰਾ ਸੁਆਮੀ ॥
ਸਗਲ ਘਟਾ ਕਾ ਅੰਤਰਜਾਮੀ ॥੧॥ ਰਹਾਉ ॥
Rising up, I am at peace; sitting down, I am at peace.
I feel no fear, because this is what I understand. ||1||
The One Lord, my Lord and Master, is my Protector.
He is the Inner-knower, the Searcher of Hearts. ||1||Pause|| [Guru Arjan, SGGS p. 1136]
The Gurmukh knows that Waheguru is the kind, loving parent of all. He has no doubt that God knows what is good for us much better than we do and will take care of us.
ਤੁਮ ਕਰਹੁ ਭਲਾ ਹਮ ਭਲੋ ਨ ਜਾਨਹ ਤੁਮ ਸਦਾ ਸਦਾ ਦਇਆਲਾ ॥
ਤੁਮ ਸੁਖਦਾਈ ਪੁਰਖ ਬਿਧਾਤੇ ਤੁਮ ਰਾਖਹੁ ਅਪੁਨੇ ਬਾਲਾ ॥੩॥
You do good for us, but we do not see it as good; You are kind and compassionate, forever and ever.
You are the Giver of peace, the Primal Lord, the Architect of Destiny; please, save us, Your children! ||3||
Prayer or ardaas is a great source of spiritual strength and confidence. It is also an important part of building a strong personal relationship with Waheguru.
Another key component of the strategy for true happiness is recognizing His Hukam, knowing that all that happens is according to the Divine Will. This is an important part of dealing with the down part of the up and down cycle – to live in tune with His Hukam and accept it cheerfully.
ਤਿਸ ਕਾ ਹੁਕਮੁ ਬੂਝਿ ਸੁਖੁ ਹੋਇ ॥
Understanding His Hukam leads to peace and happiness [Guru Arjan, SGGS p. 281]
We have to accept gracefully whatever happens, both good and bad, as His Hukam
ਜੋ ਤੁਧੁ ਭਾਵੈ ਸਾਈ ਭਲੀ ਕਾਰ ॥
ਤੂ ਸਦਾ ਸਲਾਮਤਿ ਨਿਰੰਕਾਰ ॥੧੬॥
Whatever pleases You is the only good done,
You, Eternal and Formless One! ||16|| [Guru Nanak, SGGS p. 3]
Most of the time we think of God only when things go wrong. We treat God like a spare tire, to be invoked in times of trouble. Instead, we should think of Him as the steering wheel of our life, who is needed all the time to guide and shape our lives. When something goes wrong, think of Him and offer your prayers to him. When something goes well, think of Him and thank him. Always remember that it is all in His Hukam – He is the steering wheel of your life.
This brings us to one of the most important components of our “true happiness strategy” – gratitude. Let us remember Him not only in times of trouble, but also when things go well and thank him for all our blessings.
Much of the time, we are unhappy because we feel we don’t have something that others have. We compare ourselves with others in various ways. A billionaire like Larry Ellison with a huge house worth over $200 million looks at someone with a still bigger house and he is unhappy that he doesn’t have the biggest house in the world – maybe it is only the second or third biggest. So we can always find someone who has more. We forget that there are so many more people who have much less.
If we just stop to count our blessings, and remember to be grateful for them, this can be one of the most important steps towards a happier life.
Figure 1 – So many blessings to be thankful for
Even when there is nothing special or unusual happening, there are so many things to be grateful for if we only stop to think about it. A key secret to true happiness – count our blessings and be grateful.
One thing that I try to do, but don’t always remember, is to go over all the good things that happened during the day before going to sleep, and thank Waheguru for them. And in the morning, thank Waheguru for another beautiful day. The whole day goes better when I remember to do that at the two ends of it.
Another very important step is to learn to let go of any grudges or anger that lingers in our hearts towards any one.
ਪਰ ਕਾ ਬੁਰਾ ਨ ਰਾਖਹੁ ਚੀਤ ॥
ਤੁਮ ਕਉ ਦੁਖੁ ਨਹੀ ਭਾਈ ਮੀਤ ॥੩॥
Do not harbor ill will towards others in your mind,
and you shall not be troubled, my brothers, my friends. ||3|| [Guru Arjan, SGGS p. 386]
We all have situations where someone has hurt us in some way. But if we carry that sense of hurt or anger in our hearts, that weight becomes a major obstacle to our own happiness and peace of mind. You sit down for Naam Simran, and your mind runs off such that you can’t concentrate. It hurts one self more than hurting the other person. Holding a grudge against someone is like giving that person rent-free space inside your own head.
Forgivness is so powerful, it has been equated to the Presence of God himself – “jahaan khimaan tahaan aap”
Seva and Parupkar
Seva or selfless service and parupkar or doing good deeds for others, which form an important part of the Sikhi ethos, can be a powerful source of personal fulfillment and happiness. Interestingly a study reported that people involved in caring for others had the highest levels of happiness – those working for NGOs, often working in poor areas in the third world, and members of the health sector, particularly nurses and others assistants. These people dedicating themselves to serving others led happier, more fulfilling lives than success-driven people focused on doing well in their own careers.
There is more happiness in giving than in receiving. Gurbani tells us that those who are spiritually enlightened delight in doing good things for others:
ਬ੍ਰਹਮ ਗਿਆਨੀ ਪਰਉਪਕਾਰ ਉਮਾਹਾ ॥
The God-conscious being delights in doing good to others. [Guru Arjan – SGGS p. 273]
Seva and parupkar are not limited to volunteering at the Gurdwara or for non-profit organizations. It can be things we can do for a spouse, children and parents, for friends and neighbors, or at work. The work environment can be very competitive, but if instead of just focusing on personal success and advancement, we try and help our colleagues and subordinates to be successful, we can get more self-fulfillment in our jobs, and probably be more respected and help our own careers.
Of course, this only works if it is voluntary. Those forced into serving others because of poverty or other personal situations can be unhappy instead. Those forced into taking care of sick parents or relatives can become resentful and angry but those who willingly do things for their parents, children and others are among the happiest people.
The Perils of Seeking “Happiness”
Now let us look at a kind of paradoxical message from Gurbani about happiness.
As we read in Rehras every day, Guruji tells us that happiness can be a disease and suffering can be a cure – dukh daaroo sukh rog bhaiya.
How can that be? How can suffering be good and happiness a disease?
Let us look at the downside of “happiness”, or when good things happen that we think will make us happy.
Often we take credit for our good fortune, thinking it is all our doing, instead of recognizing the Divine Hukam. We get arrogant and look down upon others. It strengthens our haumai or ego. We know from Gurbani that haumai is one of the biggest obstacles on the spiritual path.
ਹਉਮੈ ਨਾਵੈ ਨਾਲਿ ਵਿਰੋਧੁ ਹੈ ਦੁਇ ਨ ਵਸਹਿ ਇਕ ਠਾਇ ॥
Ego is opposed to the Name of the Lord; the two do not dwell in the same place. [Guru Amardas, SGGS p. 560]
We see this even in the field of religion. Some of the most dedicated religious people can develop a “holier than thou” attitude, and start preaching to others and becoming very critical of those who they may condemn as sinners. Some may become religious leaders and acquire followers, but lose their own way in the process:
ਕਬੀਰ ਸਿਖ ਸਾਖਾ ਬਹੁਤੇ ਕੀਏ ਕੇਸੋ ਕੀਓ ਨ ਮੀਤੁ ॥.
ਚਾਲੇ ਥੇ ਹਰਿ ਮਿਲਨ ਕਉ ਬੀਚੈ ਅਟਕਿਓ ਚੀਤੁ ॥੯੬॥
Kabeer, he has made many students and disciples, but he has not made God his friend.
He set out on a journey to meet the Lord, but his consciousness failed him half-way. [Kabeer, SGGS p. 1369]
Furthermore, when we get something, we want more. Satisfaction eludes us and we get greedy. This is one of the reasons why nothing seems to keep us happy for long.
ਸਹਸ ਖਟੇ ਲਖ ਕਉ ਉਠਿ ਧਾਵੈ ॥
ਤ੍ਰਿਪਤਿ ਨ ਆਵੈ ਮਾਇਆ ਪਾਛੈ ਪਾਵੈ ॥
Earning a thousand, he runs after a hundred thousand.
Satisfaction is not obtained by chasing after Maya. [Guru Arjan Dev, SGGS p. 278]
We also look at others who have more and get envious.
The more good things happen to us, the more we get entangled in them and life gets more and more complicated. If you have more money you have to invest it wisely, and watch out for scammers who want to cheat you out of your wealth. You have to worry about taxes, consult tax specialists to set up clever tax shelters. If you have a huge, beautiful mansion, you have to deal with maintenance, get alarm systems, or if you are in India, hire a chaukidaar. If you are leaving town, you have to get somebody to house sit for you.
ਵਡੇ ਵਡੇ ਜੋ ਦੀਸਹਿ ਲੋਗ ॥
ਤਿਨ ਕਉ ਬਿਆਪੈ ਚਿੰਤਾ ਰੋਗ ॥੧॥
Those who seem to be great and powerful,
are afflicted by the disease of anxiety. ||1|| [Guru Arjan, SGGS p. 188]
So for all these reasons, what appears to be good fortune can in fact distract us from the spiritual path and actually keep us from achieving real happiness in our life.
For those of us who are blessed with these things that are supposed to make us happy – wealth, success, a happy family, the more God blesses us with worldly happiness, the harder we need to work on our spiritual side to inoculate ourselves from these downsides of “happiness”. We need an extra dose of Naam Simran and a strong sense of gratitude to handle good fortune.
If we follow the teachings of Gurbani about true happiness, we can aspire to a constant state of chardi kalaa as experienced by Gurmukhs. This is expressed beautifully in these words by Guru Arjan Dev Ji:
ਦੁਖੁ ਨਾਹੀ ਸਭੁ ਸੁਖੁ ਹੀ ਹੈ ਰੇ ਏਕੈ ਏਕੀ ਨੇਤੈ ॥
ਬੁਰਾ ਨਹੀ ਸਭੁ ਭਲਾ ਹੀ ਹੈ ਰੇ ਹਾਰ ਨਹੀ ਸਭ ਜੇਤੈ ॥੧॥
He has no pain – he is totally happy and at peace. With his eyes, he sees only the One Lord.
He does not see any one as evil – all are good. There is no defeat – he is totally victorious. ||1|| [Guru Arjan, SGGS p.1302]
About the Author
Dr. Inder M. Singh is the Chairman of Chardi Kalaa Foundation, and has served on the boards of several Sikh non profit organizations including SALDEF and Sikh Foundation.
He is the Chairmanof Lynx Software Technologies and was CEO until 2006. He founded Excelan, and served as its chairman, CEO and president.. He was a co-founder of Kalpana, one of Cisco’s early acquisitions. Dr. Singh has served on the boards of several high-tech companies.. He holds Ph.D. and M.Phil. degrees in computer science from Yale University, an MSEE from Polytechnic Institute of New York, and B. Tech (Hons) in Electronics from IIT, Kharagpur.