Photo: Jeremiah Sullivan
The world's wisdom traditions all point inward, stating that there is a level of the mind that serves as the source of happiness. When a person locates this core self, there is peace and silence. One feels safe and cared for. Love and bliss are available as normal aspects of life, not as intermittent experiences that arrive randomly.
At present, many supporters of positive psychology seem to accept that happiness is a random event that cannot be relied upon; therefore, we should abandon our illusion about reaching a state of permanent happiness. Followers of this perspective further assert that happiness has nothing to do with "higher" notions of the self but is rooted entirely in brain chemistry. As you can see, the new kind of happiness could hardly be more different. And because our society is addicted to consumerism and popping pills for every malady, the road ahead is likely to become more unhappy, even as medical science promises the answers are just around the corner.
A wisdom tradition isn't the same as a religion. It isn't faith or the grace of God that is needed to create the kind of happiness no one can take away from you. That is the ultimate goal—to be so established in your core self that external events cannot take away your own inner peace and contentment. Whether you turn to Socrates or Buddha, this is a matter of making choices along one road and not another.
The first road is the road of pleasure. When you follow it, you maximize the nice things in your life while minimizing the painful things. Even though every wisdom tradition points out that pain cannot be eliminated from life and that pleasure is always temporary, millions choose this path. In the end it is actually a source of pain. Any addict can tell you that after a phase in which his or her drug of choice brings a high, there follows a period in which the fix is used merely to keep away pain. Even if your fix is a new car or a sugary dessert instead of heroin, the brain becomes used to its old fixes, requiring larger and larger doses to get even a fraction of the old high. (Video game makers also count on the thrill of the game quickly wearing off and leading to a craving for newer, more exciting games.)
What's the right road for you?