All Posts

Three Kinds of Happiness

Phillip Moffitt
October 19, 2022
 min read

To practice being mindful of happiness and courageously work with it, you need to develop clarity about the various kinds of happiness that you feel. In my experience, there are three kinds of happiness: the happiness that arises when conditions in your life are what you desire them to be; the well-being that comes when your mind is joyful and at ease, regardless of the conditions of your life in that moment; and the unbounded joy you feel when your mind has reached final liberation or cessation of all clinging.

It is easy to recognize the first kind of happiness; you know full well how much you like it when conditions in your life are just as you wish them to be. What you may not do so well, however, is know how to use your happiness based on conditions to find genuine freedom. The second kind of happiness is experienced on those occasions when you are temporarily in such a good mood, or so centered, or so quiet, or so appreciative that when you encounter an unpleasant person at work or a frustrating situation at home, you aren’t overwhelmed. Life isn’t the way you would prefer it to be, but you feel just fine right now and you are not being defined by unpleasant conditions. You have had many such moments in your life, although you may not have noticed them and therefore never had the chance to cultivate them. I characterize this second kind of happiness as being centered in a state of mind that is happy in order to distinguish it from happiness that is dependent on conditions being just as you want them to be. It is obvious that your mind is clearer, your heart is more open, and you have more freedom in the second kind of happiness than in the first kind, which is condition based. Yet, even the second kind is nowhere near the level of attainment of the third kind of happiness, the well-being of full realization.

Notice that when you are happy because the conditions of your life are pleasant (the first kind of happiness), your well-being is dependent on conditions, and therefore ultimately is not reliable or lasting. As the Buddha taught, you cannot control conditions or prevent happiness from being replaced by suffering. Still, who isn’t happy to be healthy, or safe, or loved, and so forth? By contrast, when you are temporarily centered in well-being that is not dependent on conditions being right (the second kind of happiness), your happiness is dependent on your state of mind. But this second kind of happiness is also unreliable, just as the Buddha said. Yet it too can be received and enjoyed and teach you the dharma. The well-being that arises when you begin going through the various stages of nibbana (the third kind of happiness) is not subject to conditions or to the state of your mind. You can be having a lousy time and your mind not be in an exalted state, yet the mind is unruffled. This is a mind that is liberated. There is nothing temporary about it. This third kind of well-being is independent of any external or internal factors.

Do you see the difference between the first two kinds of happiness, which are temporary and dependent, and the third kind, which is lasting and non-dependent? By cultivating awareness of the limitations of condition-dependent happiness, you can break your attachment to getting conditions just right, and mind-state-dependent happiness will start to arise spontaneously.

I have seen many students make a significant shift in their sense of well-being in just a year or two of practicing awareness of the kinds of happiness; you can too. You may have heard of behavioral studies that show people are born with a certain predisposition to happiness and that they tend to consistently report experiencing their innate level of happiness regardless of their circumstances. Mindfulness and compassion practice allow you to affect this kind of core programming and, in my experience, this is particularly true in working with happiness.