Looking for happiness in the air

Where Does the Drive for Happiness Come From?

Every living being, not just human beings, has a drive for happiness. It is a natural tendency from birth and is not something acquired by training. Whether someone is learned or illiterate, cultured or uncultured, rich or poor, theist or an atheist—everyone hankers to be happy.  The nonhumans such as birds, animals, and aquatics avoid pain and prefer to be in a comfortable environment. Like human beings, they may not make big plans for enjoyment but certainly, they avoid misery by all possible means. Even plants have the intelligence to avoid obstruction to their growth. Thus, based on our own experience and logic, we could hypothesize that the drive for happiness is inherent in the ātmā. Let us examine if this hypothesis is supported by śāstra.

In Paramātma Sandarbha (Anuccheda 19–46), Śrī Jiva Gosvāmī does an exhaustive analysis of the svarūpa of the jīva or ātmā. In Anuccheda 19, he first cites verses from Padma Puṛānā delineating the svarūpa of the jīva: 

The letter m [in Oṁ] signifies the jīva, “the witness of the presentational field of the body” (kṣetrajña), who is always dependent upon and subservient to the Supreme Self, Paramātmā. He is [constitutionally] a servant of Bhagavān Hari only and never of anyone else. He is the conscious substratum, endowed with the attribute of knowledge. He is conscious and beyond matter. He is never born, undergoes no modification, is of one [unchanging] form, and situated in his own essential identity (svarūpa). He is atomic [i.e., the smallest particle without any parts], eternal, pervasive of the body, and intrinsically of the nature of consciousness and bliss. He is the referent of the pronoun “I,” imperishable, the proprietor of the body, distinct from all other jīvas, and never-ending. The jīva cannot be burnt, cut, wetted, or dried, and is not subject to decay. He is endowed with these and other attributes. He is indeed the irreducible remainder (śeṣa) [i.e., the integrated part] of the Complete Whole. (Padma Purāṇa, Uttara-khaṇḍa 226.34–37) 

Next, he cites some verses from a work of Jamātṛ Muni of Śrī Sampradāya:

The ātmā is neither god, nor human, nor subhuman, nor is it an immovable being [a tree, mountain, and so on]. It is not the body, nor the senses, mind, vital force, or the intellect. It is not inert, not mutable, nor mere consciousness. It is conscious of itself and self-luminous; it is of one form and is situated in its own essential nature.

It is conscious, pervades the body, and is intrinsically of the nature of consciousness and bliss. It is the direct referent of the pronoun “I,” is distinct [from other individual selves] in each body, atomic [i.e., the smallest particle without further parts], eternal, and unblemished.

It is intrinsically endowed with the characteristics of knowership [cognition], agency [conation], and experiential capacity [affectivity]. Its nature by its own inner constitution is to be always the unitary, irreducible remainder [i.e., the integrated part] of the Complete Whole, Paramātmā.

There are about 21 characteristics of the jīva mentioned in these verses. Śrī Jīva Gosvāmī elaborates on each of them in the following anucchedas. There is no mention of a “drive for happiness” in this list, nor does Śrī Jīva Gosvāmi mention it while elaborating on these characteristics. He does not mention it anywhere in his entire analysis of the intrinsic nature of the jīva.

Then how can we account for the constant desire and endeavor to be happy, which we all experience? It is certainly not something that we have acquired, because even animals and birds have it. The clue to the answer is found in the twelfth characteristic, cid-ānanda-ātmaka, “intrinsically of the nature of consciousness and bliss.” This sounds perplexing since it seems contrary to our experience of having a constant drive for bliss or happiness. It is as absurd as seeing a person desperately looking for food after stuffing himself with his favorite meal. If the jīva or self is intrinsically blissful, then why should it search for happiness outside? This is explained by Śri Jīva Gosvāmī in Anuccheda 28 while commenting on this quality, i.e., cid-ānanda-ātmaka, as follows—tatra tasya jaḍa-pratiyogitvena jñānatvaṁ, duḥkha-pratiyogitvena tu jñānatvam ānandatvañ ca—“Because the self is not inert [lit., because of its being the counter positive of inertness], it is of the nature of consciousness, and because of its being the counter positive of misery, it is of the nature of consciousness and bliss.” The meaning is that a jīva is intrinsically conscious and devoid of any misery. Just as not being inert is equated to consciousness, so also freedom from misery is equated to happiness or ānanda. In other words, not being miserable is also a type of ānanda or happiness. The other types of happiness are material happiness—martyānanada; the happiness of experiencing the qualityless Absolute —brahmānanda; and the happiness of devotional love—bhaktyānanda or premānanada.  

Most of the happiness that we experience is nothing but the cessation of suffering or discomfort. When we have discomfort, we feel happy when it is removed. Almost all the happiness that we experience in our material lives is preceded by discomfort. We enjoy food because we feel the discomfort of hunger. If we suffer from heat, we enjoy a cool place. Every desire that we have is a disturbance because it takes us away from our svarūpa, or our natural position. When a desire is fulfilled, we feel happy—not because the object of desire gave us happiness, but because the disturbance caused by the desire disappeared. Because of focusing on the object of our desire, we mistakenly think that the acquired object is the source of our happiness. If the object of desire was the source of happiness, we should always attain happiness from it. But such is not the case. We have all experienced that the very object, position, or action that we intensely hankered for does not give us the same amount of happiness that it gave when we first achieved it. The level of happiness that it gives diminishes over time, and after some time, it may not give any happiness at all. Rather, it may become a source of trouble or discomfort. There are people in the world who possess the object or position for which we hanker but if you observe them, they may not be that blissful. This is because they have their own list of desirable objects or positions. Thus, Kṛṣṇa says that the objects of sense enjoyment are verily the source of misery (Gītā 5.22).

In our svarūpa, there is neither misery nor a drive to attain happiness. The drive for happiness is a thought, feeling, or emotion in the mind, which is external to the ātmā. It manifests only when we are connected to the mind. We experience this every night. When we are in a state of dreamless sleep, we have no thoughts, feelings, or emotions. We have no experience of misery, even if we are suffering from an intense disease or pain. This is because in dreamless sleep, we are disconnected from the mind. This freedom from suffering is experienced as a type of happiness. Thus, upon awakening, we have the experience, “I slept deeply and happily. I did not know anything.” No one says, “I slept deeply and miserably. I did not know anything.” If the drive for happiness was in the svarūpa of the jīva, then we should also experience it in dreamless sleep. Upon waking, we should say, “I slept very deeply and was hankering for happiness.” No one has such an experience. 

The conclusion is that neither śāstra nor our experience supports the idea that we have an intrinsic drive for happiness. The drive for happiness comes only when we identify with the material mind-body complex because in this state, we are not situated in our svarūpa. Not being situated in our svarūpa creates a state of disturbance. Thus, a drive emerges in us to dispel this sense of disturbance. This drive is mistakenly understood to be rooted in the ātmā. 

The fact is that we have the drive to be situated in our svarūpa. Our svarūpa is devoid of misery, and thus we strive to remove misery. In the conditioned state, we identify with the mind-body complex and consider it to be our svarūpa. But this is only an illusion. Our mind and body are always in a state of flux. Our system functions to remain balanced. We also work to remain balanced—free from all mental and physical disturbances. We feel that something is missing in us and therefore think that if we can acquire what is missing, then we will be happy. This is a natural drive that we all have. Whenever we feel happy, we are closer to our self. Suffering means going away from our self. Self-realized people do not experience this drive for happiness because they do not identify with their mind-body complex. They experience a state free from misery. Kṛṣṇa defines this as yoga (Gītā 6.23)—taṁ vidyād duḥkha-saṁyoga-viyogaṁ yoga-saṁjñitam—“Know that state which is devoid of any contact with pain to be yoga.” 

Thus, mukti is defined as giving up the identification with that which is not one’s self and becoming situated in our self—muktir hitvānyathā-rūpaṁ svarupeṇa vyavasthitih (SB 2.10.6). The word mukti means to be free [from misery]. It does not mean happiness. Becoming free from misery is a type of happiness. When we move away from our self, we suffer. Thus, Patañjali defines yoga as disassociation from mental modifications—yogaś citta-vṛtti-nirodhaḥ (Yoga Sūtra 1.2). This results in being situated in one’s self—tadā draṣṭuḥ svarupe ’vasthānam (Yoga Sūtra 1.3). In this way, we see that mukti and yoga as defined by Kṛṣṇa, as well as by Patañjali, are the same. 

Because our self is devoid of misery, it is called the object of love, prīti-āspada. Having attained it, one is never disturbed by anything. It is considered the supreme attainment (Gītā 6.22). Even in the material world, we love everything that we think is ours. The body and things related to the body appear as objects of love only when we consider them as related to our self. When we stop considering things or persons as belonging to us, we become indifferent to them. We enjoy material objects only as long as we consider them ours. In other words, we put ourselves into something and then derive pleasure from it. Truly we relish our self in external objects, relationships, and positions. By relating with them, we erroneously think that we are situated in our self. This is a mistaken state of mukti and is an outcome of ignorance about our true self. Real happiness, however, comes only from bhakti because Bhagavān is the Self of our self, as said by Śukadeva, “Know Kṛṣṇa to be the Self of everyone’s self” (SB 10.14.55). 

Satyanarayana Dasa

6 thoughts on “Where Does the Drive for Happiness Come From?”

  1. Simply brilliant article!

    I love Patañjali. The Yoga Sūtras uplifted me when I was going through a challenging phase in my life. Kṛṣṇa, as of now, is a possibility. If Kṛṣṇa exists, as claimed by numerous sages and scripture, hopefully the curtain of māyā is lifted soon! ❤️

  2. There is so much in this article!
    Is this a fairly good summary:

    – Living beings have a ubiquitous quest for happiness because we lack happiness, yet our very nature is to be happy (or at least to have the most basic form of happiness: freedom from unhappiness).

    – We have a perpetual quest for happiness because we seek it ineffectively, not knowing what it truly is.

    – The self (the conscious entity) is the substrate for any happiness. Therefore it is the basis and foundation of all happiness. Therefore things only produce happiness in so far as we invest our selves into them, and consider them to be part of our selves.

    – The quest for happiness ceases when happiness is found.

    – It is found by understanding the actual self, experientially.

    1. I would like to add one more point, although it was not discussed in the article.
      Understanding of the actual self experientially is not possible without knowing the Absolute Reality, Tattva, that is realized as Brahman, Paramatma or Bhagavan.

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