Happiness Is a Muscle

Among the most powerful concepts I have come across in Buddhist psychology are the Brahma-viharas, which translates literally to “heavenly abodes.” I am not sure exactly what a heavenly abode is. I can’t really relate to that image. Perhaps it meant a lot more to the people who studied these teachings thousands of years ago when they were developed. But I have a teacher who calls them “best homes” instead. I like that. Best homes for your mind and heart.

The Buddha proposed four of these best homes, loving-kindness, compassion, equanimity, and sympathetic joy. These sates of mind, he said, are where we should try to spend our time because these are the mind states that lead to real and lasting well-being despite our circumstances. Loving-kindness is the wish that everybody be happy. Compassion is the desire to see other peoples’ suffering end. Equanimity is balance of mind in the face of whatever life brings you. It’s what enables us to care deeply about a problem and do whatever we can to address it while also accepting that we may not be capable of fixing it. Equanimity creates the possibility of being happy even when things aren’t right. If equanimity sounds like psychological Twister, that’s probably because this is a very hard thing to pull off and it takes a lot of practice. Sympathetic joy is enjoying other people’s happiness. You might feel it while watching your child playing or while seeing a good friend get something they have been wanting.

The best part of these best homes is that according to Buddhist thought, each of them can be built up. Everybody is capable of transforming themselves through practice. You can read more about these practices in a book by a very good Western Buddhist teacher named Sharon Salzberg.* But you don’t have to do any reading because these qualities can be built in your life through very simple practices. For example, the more we choose compassion as a way of responding to others, the more we build its presence in our minds. One way to do this is to follow through when you experience a sincere desire to give in some way, whether it’s your time, your money, or something else. The more we tune into the needs of others and respond, the more compassion naturally occurs in the future.

Neuroscientific research is beginning to explain just how this works. Research has shown that the brain changes in response to what we practice, whether it’s violin, juggling, or compassion. Just like physical activity changes the brain, so does mental activity. In fact, the brains of people who practice mindfulness meditation look and function differently than those who do not. The same is true for people who practice compassion versus those who do not.

Just as the more we lift weights, the more muscular we get, the more we practice states of mind that bring happiness, the more happy we become.

*Salzberg, S. (1995). Loving-kindness: The revolutionary art of happiness.
Massachusetts: Shambhala Publications Inc.