Psychology Sociology

Does Happiness Come From Within?


With Eastern philosophy currently on trend in the Western personal-development genre, gurus have been popping up everywhere, preaching the idea that happiness comes from within. This perceptual change is usually achieved through detachment from ego and the material world of possessions through meditation or present-centered breathing practices. This ultimately leads to a state of non-striving whereby the practitioner finds happiness by no longer seeking happiness.

Personally, I’ve found many benefits in inner-based practices, particularly those of Eckhart Tolle. Although working on our inner-life can free us from the forms of striving that prevent happiness, we are still stuck with a problem: all forms of striving can’t disappear. If this were the case, our societies would immediately collapse and idleness would ensue. And who really wants to give up all forms of striving? I personally love striving to write better, think of better ideas, lift more at the gym, and become a better person overall.

So how does one achieve both inner happiness and an outer-life of striving? I believe this is where we can learn from the Western traditions. Aristotle stated, “happiness depends upon ourselves,” but did not believe it could be found in isolation. He believed that we are political animals and need to strive to develop our own personal virtues through exercising our reason, particularly in our relations with others and our work. This can only be achieved in outward practice and necessarily includes striving. Therefore, I argue that it’s not about whether or not we strive for something, but it’s what we strive for that matters.

Striving to improve in one’s work and hobbies can be a source of happiness, so long as happiness is part of the journey, not projected as a destination. The Psychologist, ‎Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes this as a ‘flow state’ produced by “vital engagement” with one’s work. Beyond immersion, one’s relation to work can produce happiness if the work takes on the characteristics of a vocation or a calling. From janitors to presidents, one’s work can take on these characteristics when seen as a form of service to a cause greater than one’s self, in addition to maintaining belief in the worthiness of this cause.

This leads us back to the opening question: does happiness come from within? Moral Psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, gives us a brilliant alternative to the common idea that it solely comes from within, stating that happiness comes from between. By this he means happiness can come from our relationship with our work or our relationship with our religious practice. He states, “commit yourself to people and projects, and enter a state of ‘vital engagement’ with them.” Although happiness “depends upon ourselves,” as stated by Aristotle, it also draws on a source of meaning external to the individual. I believe Karl Marx was right about a key aspect of modern employment: its tendency to alienate workers.

Happiness can be achieved from within, making one aware of ineffective forms of striving, but it can also be achieved in the relationship between an individual and their vocation, whatever form that may take. Happiness is not merely the absence of striving; rather, it is the proper application of striving.

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  2. Happiness from within is something many people struggle with. It’s easy to get caught up in the greener grass next door or the Jones’ new car. I agree that finding happiness comes from the decision to find happiness in the things you have instead of unhappiness in the things you don’t. Being driven is not counter productive to happiness. In fact, I am a big believer than being driven is inspired by happiness and the desire to challenge oneself and to expand knowledge and experience. It is knowledge and experience that allow us to truly realize what we have within ourselves, which allows us to be empowered to find our own happiness. Great post!

  3. I liked what you seem to be seeking in this post, your attempt to strike a balance between the inward and outward focuses, and you working through the issue of striving. I do have to say that your characterization of Eastern approaches, though, doesn’t seem to jibe with my understanding of them in these areas. For example, in the Taoist and Buddhist readings of Eastern philosophy I’ve done, I don’t recall much if any use of the term “happiness.” I do think that Western adaptations of Eastern thought have emphasized that. Taoism and Zen Buddhism in particular, to my understanding of them, continually subvert dichotomies such as happiness and sadness. I’m not supposed to meditate to be happy; I’m supposed to meditate to be *still* and listen, and I’m not seeking to hear the chatter of my telling me what will make me happy or what I really want. I’m listening for the underlying reality and unity of existence–my real Self–so that I can bring my (small s)elf in tune with it. And the outcome of that stillness and that listening isn’t happiness (partly because I have no idea what really means) but *peace.* In the West there is often this idea that understanding the true nature of things will bring me power or control, including the power to fix the world and everything around me, and thus I will get what I truly want and be happy. But my understanding of Taoism and to a lesser extent Zen is that in arriving at stillness and peace and harmony with existence I don’t just sit, self-satisfied with that, but I carry that peace with me and radiate it in everything I do: in my job, in my marriage, in the way I interact with my children, in the way I drive my car, in the way I eat and exercise and play poker with my friends, or run my business, or anything else that everyone else does. Those who see meditation and mindfulness as a renunciation of the world and others don’t get it at all, so far as I see. The idea is an embracing of the world and everything in it from this place of stillness, which comes from letting go of the self and dwelling in each and every present moment of existence, and through that being able to hear and respond to what the universe asks of me right now. The potential problem with striving, then, is that through it I attempt to impose my limited will and understanding on the universe. So to cease to strive doesn’t mean to cease to *act.* In Taoism there is a phrase called “wu-wei” which is sometimes translated “actionless action,” meaning to act in harmony with things as they fundamentally are rather than things in the divided, oppositional way in which they often *appear* to us. It’s not just moderation; it’s seeing through the artificial divisions we impose on reality. And sorry for the length of this comment.

  4. Steve, there’s convergence between what you have written and what Dr Viktor Frankl wrote back in 1946 in Man’s Search for Meaning. For Frankl, purpose comes from something outside one’s self. As an American, I uncritically swallowed our culture’s value of independence. Now, as one working in Africa as a missionary, I have come instead to value interdependence, which is modeled by my African brothers and sisters. Contentment comes in relationship to God and others, which (of course) what Jesus taught in the two Greatest Commandments, love of God and neighbor. Thanks for an insightful blog post.

    1. Thank you for your comment. I believe interdependence is part of what makes us human. You are right about Victor Frankl. He is one of my favourite psychologists, and his perspective informs a great deal of my writing.

  5. Good post! I have a draft on that topic myself. But I went a bit further. In my opinion, saying that happiness comes from within is a simplification, like many today. The mind and the body are not separate, and can’t be separate. To put it the most simply possible: if you had a chronic pain you wouldn’t be able to be happy. If your body is sick, you cant be fully happy. Same with obesity, which is illness itself. We now know that depression, one of the biggest problems in today’s world can be cured with just your diet! People need to realise external world can bring pain but also happiness (like having a strong body for example!) same as it can come from your head (negative thinking vs positive thinking).

  6. Reblogged this on Live your life; Don't just survive… and commented:
    Healing and becoming strong from the inside out can be an overwhelming task. Simply defining what that means and why it is important is daunting. Then comes acknowledging and processing the different aspects of being empowered from the inside out. One aspect is happiness. Steve Rose does an excellent job of identifying happiness and raising the possibility that it’s focus may not be what it should be. If we were to adjust our perspective on it, move the focus away from it being a destination and more of companion or by product of a journey, would we be happier with being happy?

    This concept brings up an interesting consideration for those who look for someone or something to make them happy. When we are looking for someone to fill a void that we feel we can not personally fill, we become vulnerable to someone else’s agenda to fill that place. If happiness were a byproduct of enjoying the journey of a mission or purpose, would it be easier to recognize if one were off course? If we no longer feel happy, perhaps we need to rethink our destination or the path we are taking to get there? Would that make it easier to recognize if one were in an unhealthy relationship?

    This is a well written piece on pondering if happiness is better served from the inside out.

  7. I like the idea of happiness coming from “the between” rather than within or strictly externally. I’m not sure that I could configure the idea that happiness comes from within from my own experiences, those being that in general it is external forces which had most impact on happiness. I think i’m open to thinking about the possibilities between “the between” and “the outside” though.

  8. I agree the striving has to be egoless, it has to be for no reward, once you realise you are doing something for the love of it the reward is irelevent but what you are doing is making you happy and reward will follow but you are humble and not expectant….. 🙂

  9. I see happiness as a transient state subject to serendipity and the dependent origination of all things and all situations. I prefer the idea of contentment, which is truly and internal state of being.

    Consider an individual who is suffering at a particular point in time. They are unlikely to experience happiness. On the other hand, they may very well be content within themselves. Inner strength comes from contentment, which is even a possibility while one is suffering.

  10. Thanks for the connection. It seems my post was meant to find yours. Productive read to say the least.

    “Beyond immersion, one’s relation to work can produce happiness if the work takes on the characteristics of a vocation or a calling.”

    “I found myself in a vocational candy store of possibilities and a haunted house of uncomfortable what-ifs, simultaneously. “

  11. As someone who sufers depression I both like and hate this article. Yes finding an inner balance and learning to view even crap situations from the funny side is something you can learn and it will make you happier………BUT………Your brain must first be chemically wired to feel “happy” or no matter what you do the world will be a dark hellish pit of dispare at worst or emotionally numb at best. I’m luck I’ve managed to survive the hell, got through on chemically numb and am now at the unmedicated actually happy but it took a lot of effort and outside help to get here so from my point of view no happiness doesnt totally come from within

    1. I agree with you in the case of depression. The article was meant to argue against the commonly held belief they happiness solely comes from within – sometimes chemical, therapeutic, or social change is necessary.

  12. I agree with some things stated on this post, but I don’t see why positive striving in life has to be in opposition with anything. I do think that happiness comes from within, and that no matter what the circumstances outside, if we are not happy with ourselves, there’s no career or material possessions that will make us happy. I don’t think that one should stop striving to be better and improve for fear of losing their inner happiness. I don’t think it’s like that at all. The words of the Budhha point us to the right path of action in this case when it says: “Everything in moderation, including moderation”. I think that striving for anything in life, if aligned with the energy of creation present within us will, as a result, bring happiness and fulfillment. In my understanding it is the union of both the inner and outer lives that can guarantee meaning, fulfillment, and happiness; certainly not one to the detriment of the other. Being a holy person (in the sense of many true spiritual practices) is to have both feet planted on the ground, working with the objective reality and its practicalities while being aligned with the world of the Spirit or Higher Self. There’s no need for duality. Duality exists in the field of the mind. When we bring these two worlds together in harmony, we can strive, improve, be successful and make money, and still practice a spiritual life. Happiness, to me, is achieved that way, without tension or separation, but with acceptance and inclusiveness. As I see it, only by making peace with the seemingly opposite within us can we be whole, and happy.

    1. I agree.. Thank you for this. I think only the warped versions of spirituality derived from Buddhist ideas neglect the “moderation” aspect which is also central to Aristotle’s ethics.

  13. Happiness comes from within and reflected in outer world. Similarly, sadness and negativity of our world (relationships) can affect our inner peace. So we can’t isolate ourselves from ouemter world in anyway, unless we start living a life of a saint or monk. We are social animals afterall and socio – economic factors do influence our emotions and state of mind.
    Umair R.

  14. I believe strongly that happiness is achieved from the entwining chain of both internal and external facets. We need self-awareness to begin our internal journey, however our external worth is also a measurement of our pure appreciation. I value my family and loved ones as fundamental to my very being. My vocation also continues to inspire my own motivation. My dreams and aspirations cement the chain and provide the glue to ensure my continued stimuli and daily contentment. We are what we believe 🙂

  15. I understand “spirituality” as the negotiation of the boundaries between “I” and “we”. “Inner based” practices help us to define the “I”, which is an essential first step for people that organize their lives around “we” (including many women?).

    So my question is: did you find “flow” in work before or after you began your “inner based” practices?

    1. Thank you for this model of the “I” and the “we”. I think both are very much intertwined. Spiritual practices don’t exist in a vacuum and necessarily come from a “we” (religious or philosophical tradition). I don’t think anyone can be purely “spiritual but not religious,” since their ideas of spirituality are often influenced by religious ideas – even in the sense of a cafeteria-style spirituality where ideas are selectively taken from various faith traditions. In this sense of the relationship between the “I” and the “we”, even the monk engaging in isolated meditative spiritual practice is drawing on ideas and practices from a “we”.

    1. I agree that having an optimistic outlook and being resourceful are keys to happiness, but I think it’s just part of the equation. I think an over-emphasis on a personal decision to be happy could be problematic though, especially in the case of mental illness where simply deciding to be happy doesn’t work and external intervention and therapeutic techniques are needed.

  16. You mention (pace Haidt) “relationship with our work or our relationship with our religious practice”. You also cite (pace Aristotle) political relationships with others. But you don’t mention what I see as one of the most important types of relationship in terms of happiness, namely being in a fulfilling, intimate relationship with a wife, husband or partner.

    1. Thank you! I agree that politicians can’t make peace for us, but a major interest of mine is how political action can shape our social structures into more communal and compassionate arrangements. Rather than having a divide between ethics and politics, I like Aristotle’s fusion of both. The virtuous individual is not only the product of a healthy social environment, but also the product of sustained personal effort.

      1. You’re a bright young soul…tell your faculty to give you your degree and turn you loose…you have social problems to solve. I’m more partial to Mr. Plato myself…perhaps I need to reread the Nichomechean Ethics. Perhaps I should have more faith in political action…

  17. Striving is a very general word. What I believe is that the gurus specifically mean to avoid the kind of striving that leads to strife – a word with a strong confrontational and negative connotation. But strife surrounds us. According to Darwin, it is the driving force of natural evolution. It is also the driving force of capitalism. And the people who gain happiness from strife don’t need a life coach, or guru. I, personally, don’t get much satisfaction from strife.

  18. This article hits it on the head. The need to strive or excel in some area of one’s life probably cannot be crushed nor, possibly, should be.
    If a person achieves no success in work or career, some area of life must be the buoying force (on Maslow’s Hierarchy) in order to feel fulfilled.
    We see a lot of advice to volunteer in our community to gain fulfillment when other aspects of life fail to meet that need. Finding a “giving” network to “receive” happiness is a cyclic opportunity that can help to meet this need.

    1. I agree that other areas of life can balance out the areas that don’t provide it. I also agree that both the “giving” and “receiving” aspects of a community are important for both personal and communal growth.

  19. What a great way to wake up. Sound essay. I have always admired Csikszentmihalyi, though I cannot pronounce his name or spell it correctly. I have followed his books for years. I found the one on creative people interesting.

  20. I spent many years working long hours and using that hard earned income to acquire “stuff” I “thought ” would make me happy. But at the end of the day I was surrounded by items that brought comfort but not necessarily happiness.

    Then a couple years ago, in a tragic event, I lost it all. I had to start over from scratch! I no longer had my “stuff” but I had my life, my health, my family, and I rediscovered God. My perspective on the meaning of happiness changed and I believe it was for the better.

    I have better respect for my time and refuse to waste it on things or people who don’t see its value. I no longer desire to spend so much time working that I have no time for my family. I yearn to be still and meditate more. I strive to be at peace with myself and not obsess about what needs to be done.

    But it’s a process! Retraining the brain takes time. So in those areas I strive to be better for my self, my family and my sanity and ultimately my overall happiness.

  21. Great post! Makes me really think. I am a person who is always striving to do more, feel more, be more. It is what drives me and I actually find happiness in the process of becoming, For 25 years I found happiness in my vocation trying to improve educational opportunities for urban youth until I had my breakdown from my severe PTSD. I have been on an inner journey the last 10 years and it has brought me great happiness and freedom and helped me get in touch with my essence. Now, I am combining internal and external work. It is in its infancy stage but it has certainly been an adventure that has brought me bliss and pain.
    Thanks for your sharing.

  22. That’s interesting, Steve. This concept of happiness is something I’ve been working through (and continue to work though). J.P. Moreland has a book (Kingdom Triangle), where he argues for the classical sense of happiness (living for something greater than yourself) vs. the a more modern definition (living FOR yourself). I wrote a little about this at the beginning of the year on my blog.

    If I’m following you, this seems to be in line with your argument–that inward focus (happiness for the sake of happiness) is ultimately not happiness.

    – Joe

  23. I think that many of the conversations around happiness use different definitions of what being happy constitutes.
    Paul Dolan (Happiness by Design) sees it as being a balance of purpose and meaning over time, while Seligman and others see it as needing purpose, positive emotion, relationships etc.
    Others might see being happy as dependent on having material possessions.
    What is agreed that happiness exists.
    What is needed is a balance between how we see the world, what our needs are, and how we chose to live within it.
    Happiness seems to be one of those things that we cannot find external to ourselves as it is based on our view of our world at any particular moment.

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