A long time ago, as a young adult, I asked my dad: "Dad, what is happiness?"
At first, he told me I wasn't ready to hear the answer.
I should tell you by way of background that my dad was from a much older generation, born in the early nineteen twenties, and at the time, he was probably in his mid-sixties.
He had grown up very poor in Europe, lived through WWII and all its horrors, gone back to grad school as an older student, immigrated to the US and become a full professor at a big 10 school, married, had 3 kids, and a house with a lawn and a 2 car garage.
He was not particularly emotional. He was to the point. Factual. Since he had been through so much, his answers really mattered to me because they were based on extreme life experience. So, when I kept up the pressure, this is roughly how our conversation went:
Me (again): "Dad, how would you define happiness?"
Dad: "Don't be concerned about happiness."
Was he evading my question? I didn't get it and I wondered- Isn't that what everyone is going for? Isn't that the whole point of life? That sure was what I was looking for: the people, the situations, the money, the experiences, the stuff to make me happy.
Me: "Why not? Why should I not be concerned about happiness?" I asked.
Dad: "Well, look at your own experience. Look at the experience of happiness. What is the nature of it? How often do you experience it?"
Me: "Not enough! That is why I'm asking about it."
Dad: "OK, and you want more?"
Dad: "And you think you can get to a state of permanent happiness?"
Me: "Yes!" Boy, did he have me figured out.
Dad: "Well, you're wrong."
Me: "No sir, you're wrong! It must be possible, I bet it is."
Dad: "Happiness comes and it goes. Live long enough, try enough experiences and you will come to find that out. It's not about happiness. That is the wrong goal."
(Notice, that hmmm was not in quotes, which means that I was no longer talking--he had stumped me and I was silent, reflecting on my experience. And I was not willing to let go of my belief that the goal of life is about permanent, fun, great happiness...and yet...wondering what the heck he was talking about...because, if it isn't about happiness, then why do anything at all?)
Dad: "It's about being content."
You can imagine that at the time, hearing him talk about contentment was quite a downer for me. Being content seems so...un-fun. Not worth it. Unexciting. And kind of scary actually. Happiness sounded so much better. I don't remember every thought I had, but knowing me back then, I was probably thinking something like this--'maybe he doesn't know what he is talking about, maybe he is just not very happy in his life.'
So...now, almost 30 years later, who is right? My (deceased) dad or my younger self?
I would say both of us were right.
My dad was right that happiness, when dependent on those things that change, is fleeting, and therefore not reliable. Which means that one should find something that is reliable. And his observation was that contentment seemed more reliable.
And I was right that some sort of permanent happiness is possible. But, ironically, it doesn't happen unless you drop the goal of happiness.
When you shift your attention away from the running, racing, pushing, craving pursuit of happiness, a constant peacefulness shows up that happens to have some level of happiness as a side-effect.
So, dropping the goal of happiness means dropping into contentment. Contentment by its very nature is a kind of completeness and as you experience this completeness, it gives you a low-level pleasant happiness. That completeness also tends to overflow at times, which is experienced as strong happiness.
How to "get there" is a process of maturation...and meditation accelerates that process.
That doesn't mean don't be happy. On the contrary--when it is there, enjoy it--every last moment of it. But when happiness leaves you, know that waiting for you there in the background, is what you are really looking for.