George Bernard Shaw wrote: “a lifetime of happiness! No man could bear it: it would be hell on earth.” In contrast, the Dalai Lama said the purpose of life is to be happy. Who is right? I believe both are correct, but they are talking about different kinds of happiness.
The simplest kind of happiness is pleasure. We can enjoy a delicious meal or upbeat music, but the pleasure lasts only as long as the experience. Pleasure can be dangerous if we get so focussed on it that we neglect our responsibilities (as with addiction). Cheerful mood is a good form of happiness to cultivate, as it makes life less stressful, for ourselves and those around us. We can uplift our mood through gratitude and by choosing more helpful ways of thinking. However, Shaw is right in that other emotions are necessary, in order to help us appreciate the happy times, and to learn compassion.
The deeper forms of happiness are less ego-focussed and can never be at someone else’s expense. Contentment with your lot in life makes you naturally cheerful. Finding meaning in your role in society brings a sense of ‘rightness’, an inner happiness that may not always be obvious to others. The kind of happiness the Dalai Lama is referring to, relates to the spiritual practice of cultivating compassion, which closely correlates with happiness. And then there are the moments of joy and awe that come from connecting with nature, sensing universal love, and understanding that we are all part of a miracle. These are the kinds of happiness you can never have too much of.