The causes of happiness and the role of love in developing connections

One of the main causes of happiness is in relationship and openness to others. So how do we get that? How do we move from a sense of self-sufficiency and a rather disregarding attitude to others to what I suggest is the route to happiness: open-heartedness, warmth and empathy? This route is a connection of the heart we might call lovingkindness, which is actually a biblical term.

Well, we begin by developing a sense of connection with others. It may seem like a strange analogy, but it’s as if we’re living behind blocks of ice, each of us, in our own self-contained compound. There’s a wall of ice between ourselves and others. Yeah, we look over the wall occasionally if we see something that might be useful, but we’re pretty much walled off, separate from others. Their concerns are theirs, my concerns are mine. But it’s just a wall of ice. You know, the thing about ice is that it can be melted. So what’s going to melt that wall of ice so that we can actually touch others, open up to them and feel their presence in our lives?

It’s love. Love is the thing that’s going to melt that wall of ice and warm us up.

How do we make it happen? We begin by realizing that we are already connected with others, wall of ice or not. We may imagine that we’re separate, but connection is the deeper reality. Our lives depend on others. And to warm up to love, to begin to melt that wall of ice, a good place to start is by thinking of those with whom we have the closest kind of connection. And that’s usually our parents.

There is an exercise where we’re contemplating lovingkindness by thinking of our parents and remembering how much they’ve done for us. We ask ourselves, “What do I really want for them? What would be best for them?” The answer is obvious, isn’t it? After all, what did they want for me? They wanted happiness. Naturally, I want happiness for them too. And what is that happiness that I want for them? Is it plenty of material things? Well, sure, I want them to be housed, I want them to be comfortable, I don’t want them to lack what they need.

But I want something more. I want them to have the real causes of happiness that are personal, emotional and spiritual fulfillment. And by the way, I don’t just want it for the present, I want it to be sustained. So when I want them to have happiness, I want them to live a good life, to be kind to others, to be positive and to nurture others. I want them to develop the qualities that are the true causes of happiness to ensure their happiness long-term, just as they wanted it for me.

Granted, it may be just a wish that has happiness and the cause of happiness at its center, but the stronger we develop the wish towards them, the more our hearts start to open. And in fact, the lighter and the more joyful we start to feel. Now let’s try to widen that and see where it takes us.

If I’m grateful towards my mother and father and want their happiness, then what about the rest of my family and friends? What about the helpers, teachers, and others I’ve been close to and grateful towards? They want happiness for themselves and they certainly wanted it for me; naturally I want it for them. Now I concentrate on them for a while, thinking: May they have happiness and, again, the cause of happiness—that goodness in life that will produce sustained happiness for them. That’s what I want. So let me dwell on that; let me develop and cultivate that strong wish in my heart. Again, it may start out as just a wish, but it’s as if it opens a little chamber in my heart. A little door opens and I become warmer and more connected with others—and happiness comes flooding into my own heart.

Let’s try it now with the strangers that live in this town, this city, this place. They’re just going about their lives, but what is it they want? They want happiness, so I want it for them! Happiness as well as the cause of happiness: that they live good lives. That they’re kind and nurturing, that they shelter and look after others. I want them to have that goodness now and in the future. Wow—now I’m really becoming alive with a sense of warmth and connectedness with others!

But what about difficult people, where do they fit in? I say they’re difficult, but in other circumstances they might’ve been my friends. There’s a well-known saying: enemies of yesterday become the friends of today; friends of today may be difficult tomorrow. In the wheel of life, things change. So yeah, maybe I met them at a bad time. Maybe they met me at a bad time. We didn’t rub along; we became difficult for each other. I may think of them as enemies, but whatever label I’m using right now, it’s just a label. If I care to look, I see that they want happiness just as much as I do. And if I want it for me, mustn’t I want it for others, including “enemies” or problematic people?

So now where’s the resistance? If I can open up in this way and have a steady, concentrated contemplation of happiness even when dealing with difficult people, what’s to stop me from feeling it towards the whole world? Nothing! I can really open up to the whole world with this steady wish: May they have happiness and the cause of happiness.

What? You’re worried that there’s not enough happiness to go around? There’s plenty of happiness. It’s not a winner-take-all game. When I began, I might have thought that if others had plenty of happiness, I’d have less. But now the ice has melted and I’ve been freed from my box. That burden of self-obsession, of neurosis, of me, me, me being the only one that matters has somehow melted away. I’ve realized that the more I empathize with others, the more I open up to them and nurture them in my wishes, the more joy and light I feel. And I am sustained and carried by this strong sense of love.

For further reading, check out Lama Jampa Thaye’s article on a contemplative approach to compassion.