The Real Source of Happiness

The Buddhist teachings on the jhana states contain a secret about where positive emotions really come from. Allen Weiss explains.

Allen Weiss
20 November 2019
Photo by Artem Kovalev.

If you’ve ever watched a movie that really rivets your attention, become immersed in a great book, or been totally absorbed in a project, you know how emotionally positive a state of concentration can be. Most likely, you forgot all your wants and doubts. You didn’t feel tired, bored, or anxious. If you noticed it, you found you were in a pleasant mind-state.

This shows us that one way you can experience positive emotional states is to cultivate the act of being fully absorbed in something, whether an activity, perception, or experience. In Buddhism, this is called right concentration, which, together with right mindfulness and right effort, constitutes the wisdom section of the Buddha’s noble eightfold path. The positive mind-states that arise from sustained concentration or absorption, such as joy, delight, happiness, and contentment, are called the jhanas.

How can you experience the benefits of the jhanas in your everyday life, when you are not meditating? The good news is that you don’t need to study the jhanas or go on a month-long meditation retreat to reap their benefits. You can use the teachings about the jhanas right now to cultivate and sustain positive emotional experiences in your life.

What the jhanas teach us is to place our attention directly on the positive emotion.

There is a key difference between the jhanas and our typical experiences of absorption. With the jhanas, your positive mind-state is not created by something in your external world (a movie, project, book, etc.). It’s created by your own innate ability to concentrate and become absorbed in something. As the Buddhist teacher and nun Ayya Khema said, “We may believe that it’s the quality of the sunset that gives us such pleasure, but in fact it is the quality of our own immersion in the sunset that brings the delight.”

So although we might think the trigger (e.g., the sunset) is what’s important, what actually creates delight is our immersion in the experience. In meditation, we often use the handy and fairly nonexciting object of the breath as a means to become absorbed and have pleasant experiences. But you can use any object of your attention to achieve positive mind-states.

To maintain and extend the positive mind-states of jhana, we mindfully attend to the positive emotion itself, not to what triggered it. So, if you’re in the mind-state of contentment and want it to continue, place your attention on the emotional sensations of contentment.

We are all quite good at putting our attention on negative emotions like anger, fear, guilt, shame, etc. If you attend to your negative emotions with mindfulness, you’ll notice that they move through you and dissipate. But it’s the opposite with positive emotions. By mindfully attending to positive emotions, you can make them continue and even increase. This difference reveals how the mind is inclined toward positive mind states.

By applying the jhana teachings, you can cultivate and sustain positive emotions. What we usually do when we feel a positive emotion is quickly move on to something else. Or we focus our attention on what made us happy—a gift we are given, something we bought, or a kind word from a friend. Or we start worrying about when this positive feeling will end, or why we rarely feel this way.

You might say to yourself something like, “Happiness is just like this.”

What we don’t do, but should do, is to put our attention directly on the subjective feeling of the emotion that has arisen. When a pleasant emotion arises, you can cultivate it with mindful attention.

What the jhanas teach us is to place our attention directly on the positive emotion and—this is important—simply watch it without judgment, commentary, or wanting it to stay. This is what it means to mindfully watch the emotion. When you do this with positive emotional states, the positive emotion will likely continue or increase.

Since the mind is naturally inclined toward pleasant states, you can take advantage of this tendency to bring more positive emotions into your life. So the next time you have a positive emotion, see where that emotion is experienced in your body. Any positive experience will do. Say, you’re walking down the street and you see a small child do something that makes you smile. Put your attention on your smile and any emotion you experience for at least twenty seconds

Just stay with the positive emotion. You might say to yourself something like, “Happiness is just like this.” Don’t start thinking about why you’re not happy all the time, or fearing that the happiness will end, or any of the countless other ways we mess up our positive emotions.

The wisdom of the jhanas tells us when we experience joy, just relax and be joyful. When we are happy, just relax and be happy.

Further Reading

Allen Weiss

Allen Weiss

Allen Weiss is director of Mindful USC at the University of Southern California and a senior teacher at InsightLA.