Happiness is a tough topic. Why? Because what we deem happiness to be guides how we live our lives. And there is much disagreement over what happiness is or should be.
Here’s what the late Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh believed:
“Many people think excitement is happiness. But when you are excited you are not peaceful. True happiness is based on peace.”
Now do you see why happiness is a tough topic? Because what we believe will make us happy is what we pursue in life. And Thich Nhat Hanh is saying that pursuing excitement will not make us happy.
Since excitement and peace are just a collection of letters making up two words, let’s define, using examples, what we mean by both.
What I mean by excitement
I believe excitement exemplifies actions like getting that big promotion at work. Buying a flashy new car. Even something like “Oh my God! She agreed to go on a date with me!”
Do any of these occurrences make us feel peaceful inside? They don’t. And the reason they don’t is because they spring mostly from our egos.
I’ve been an excitement junkie
This is a difficult topic for me because I have been a major chaser of excitement in my life. I was off-the-charts excited when my agent phoned me all those years ago telling me I’d gotten the writing job on The West Wing. I’ve also gotten a huge rush of excitement any time I’ve won a big tennis match. Or when I landed a client in my lobbying days, which meant big money. “Yes! Cha-Ching!”
So that’s excitement. What about peace? I think we get what that is. Peace is feeling calm inside. Feeling good about who we are and our place in the world, whether we’re a greeter at Walmart or President of the United States.
What I mean by peace
Peace can also be defined by what it is the absence of. No worry. No fear. No anxiety. For me, the absence of worry, fear and anxiety is the trifecta of happiness.
As I’ve traveled further and further along the spiritual path, I’ve realized that peace is where it’s at.
But I don’t see this as a slam dunk, open and shut argument. Because there’s nothing wrong with having excitement in our lives. In other words, events that make our energy rise up and make us feel good, if only temporarily.
The problem, and this is the crux of this whole piece, comes when we organize our lives around achieving those exciting things. Because, again, most of those exciting actions spring from our egos.
Winning fortifies my ego
Here’s a salient, personal example. When I feel that scintillating energy rush from winning a tennis match, I know that my ego is driving most of that. Why? Because as I’ve written about before, a big hunk of my emotional baggage comes from decades of wanting to be seen as a “winner.” Which means if I lose, I view myself as not as valuable a human being.
Well, if I devote hours upon hours each week to tennis training — practicing, lifting weights, doing running drills — all of that is in furtherance of excitement that only reinforces my egoic baggage.
So here’s where I come down on this. I feel like it’s a universal law that pursuing inner peace, as Thich Nhat Hanh said, is where true happiness lies.
And not only does it make us feel better, it also makes us better people. Who is more compassionate, a peaceful person or an inveterate thrill seeker?
The takeaway for us is to orient our lives so that the lion’s share of our energy goes toward developing inner peace.
How? Meditate regularly. Practice mindfulness. Let go of your egoic baggage. If you’re religious, pray. Do anything that facilitates inner stillness.