Let’s Talk Happiness!

Welcome to my blog, I’m Thomas, the happiness nerd, and I’m here to discuss my thoughts and experiences on my path to happiness. I’ve looked wide and deep, read a lot, discussed a lot, practiced some, and want to share with you what I’ve learned so far. In my content I’ll focus on scientifically sound and/or logically coherent approaches to happiness, which are grounded in “reality” (or what we can grasp of it). I hope that you will engage with me in the comment section, so I can learn from your knowledge and experience! Everybody with decent manners is welcome!

The idea of starting a blog came to me during a Vipassana meditation retreat (for details: dhamma.org), so I’ll dedicate my first entry to describing this experience. It was my first ever and it was a hardcore initiation: Getting up at 4 a.m. in the morning to sit and meditate for 12 hours every day for ten seemingly never-ending days in a row. No speaking, no reading, no writing, no contact with the outside world, no news, no entertainment, no sports, no sex (not even masturbation), no nothing. Just practicing and learning about meditation, eating, and sleeping (and of course keeping up one’s personal hygiene). Why would anyone go through such an ordeal, let alone voluntarily? The answer, like arguably the ultimate answer to everything we ever do: Happiness.

I wanted to see, if meditation could make me happier and boy was I surprised by how much it did! I can honestly say that during these ten days, while they were also among the most challenging of my life, they were among the happiest. And to put this into perspective, I was very lucky in life, so I should have – and in relative terms probably do have – experienced happiness in abundance. I was born with a cheerful and calm temperament, had a happy childhood, always had and still have many great friends, got an inspiring and debt-free education including an exchange year in Cambridge, and even my first job, while not perfect, had a lot going for it. Still, those ten days of deprivation, back-pain, and hard work were among the happiest. How? Why?

First the “how.” For this, let me describe what kind of situation the meditation experience improved upon. You probably know this feeling: You’re finally getting something you wanted or you’re witnessing a unique moment, but you’re kind of underwhelmed, not really there. If you haven’t, I’m genuinely happy for you, please teach me your secret! For me, unfortunately, this happened way too often and it seemed to happen more and more in recent years. Receiving the diploma I worked for so long just to think “I thought this would feel better.” Or flying to a distant continent, experiencing exciting flavors, impressive works of art, and majestic panoramas, yet with the experience always staying behind my expectation of how I thought it should feel like. [On a side note: I mostly stopped flying, because I’ve already done too much harm to the planet. Please consider doing the same.] One might criticize that my expectations for how life should feel like are unrealistic and that I should adjust them. There might be some truth to that. But I do know those other moments, too, where I’m fully there, feeling alive, immersed, and present. The timeless bliss in the arms of a loved one. The deep calm on a misty November morning. But also the adrenaline rush after realizing a horrible mistake made or the overwhelming grief at the funeral of a loved one. Whether pleasant or unpleasant, significant or mundane, for me, such moments are characterized by undivided attention and a sense of immediacy and “realness.”

During the retreat, I had those moments way more often and longer than ever before. I saw a tree swaying in the wind and I experienced it so fully that I was almost swaying with it, the distance between us reduced to zero. Another time it seemed like I could feel the touch of my clothes against every hair on my body, the tiniest movements, the subtlest sensations. Later, I would take a few steps and would feel the stones under my shoes, the air against my palms, and the sun against my ear. Like, really feel them. And if these things sound trippy to you, well, they sometimes were. On one morning, it was just like my first MDMA trip, just like it and just as good, but without having taken the substance. Other times were more like “regular” peak experiences that I had sober. And yet other times were like the overall positive mood of a really good day, when things have been going great and one is just “in the zone.”

Now the “why,” which is the more difficult question for me, because it goes beyond my immediate experience. Ultimately, I don’t know why I was so much happier during those ten days than during any other ten days of my life. I’m not denying that the circumstances of the retreat likely contributed their part. I was on holiday in Japan, one of my favorite places in the world, I did not have to worry about cooking, cleaning, travelling, working, or interacting with anybody. I was cared for. [I’m forever indebted to the selfless helpers in the meditation center, who made my experience possible with their voluntary work. I will repay my debt by serving the same way in another center in the future – something I would have never considered before this retreat.] The social media detox definitely also played a role. But it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows. As I mentioned, we got up at 4 a.m., were deprived of our usual pleasures, had to spend almost every waking hour silently with ourselves without distraction (and you only know how hard that is once you’ve tried), endured significant levels of back-pain most of the day, ate only twice a day and only what was served, had hard beds, cold feet, short showers, and almost no autonomy over our time. In some ways, it was harder than prison (in others definitely not, let’s not kid ourselves). Thus, pleasantries couldn’t be the whole story of why the retreat did such wonders for me.

If you’d ask teachers of this Vipassana tradition, why this kind of meditation makes you happy (other kinds may or may not), they’d probably give a two-part answer (even though there are some more parts to it, but they’re less easily summarized): First, you train your ability to focus on the present moment, making you less distracted, agitated, worried, neurotic, and “all over the place.” Hence, you’re calmer, which is one important ingredient of happiness. It also makes you more grounded in reality and hence less anxious, as it’s harder to spin off into catastrophic fantasies of what could go horribly wrong, if you truly only focus on what is evidently real right now (note that thinking about what could go wrong per definition shifts your focus into the future, not the present).

Second, you train your ability to accept the present moment as it is, no matter if it’s pleasant or unpleasant. This means that you don’t strive to get somewhere you currently aren’t and you don’t fight any unpleasant circumstances that may otherwise bother you. You’re fine, no matter what. You’re reasonably happy without even having to move a finger. I know, this isn’t necessarily the ultimate answer towards complete happiness, because you aren’t fantastic, no matter what. The meditation technique also doesn’t tell you what to do with your life. Still, being just fine, no matter what, is better than only being fine, when everything’s fine, which is likely how most of us feel. Because let’s be honest: When was the last time everything was fine, that is, you had no desires, no worries, no hunger, no discomforts, not even an itch? Btw, this ability to accept the present moment bears strong resemblance to the concept of ataraxia, which is a goal state both in Stoicism and in Epicureanism. So there seems to be some cross-validation between philosophical traditions here (something I always look for, but more on that maybe another day).

Training to focus on what is and be fine with that changes our deepest habit patterns. Because, by nature, we’re looking for what’s wrong, so we can avoid it or fix it and what’s pleasant, so we can make it ours. Noticing a potentially dangerous rustle in the grass and running away from it was adaptive for surviving in the savannah, and it was naturally selected for. After all, during the evolution of our species, the unagitated buddhas tended to get eaten. Likewise, if you could get your hands on some ripe fruit or an attractive mate, you tried to do so. We evolved towards survival and procreation, not happiness. But we aren’t in the savannah anymore and mere survival and procreation just wont’t do anymore, we want happiness. Which is not to say that you should accept that car driving towards you as the reality of the present moment and just stay still. You actively change your life towards the better if you can. But having the strength and tendency to not be bothered by every small inconvenience does wonders for your happiness. And it makes you feel self-efficacious: You know you’ll be fine, no matter what. As a psychologist I’d say that all these ideas are largely consistent with what we scientifically know about the mind and how psychotherapy works, but more on that in a future post.

Let me conclude with some rapid Q&A:

So, should you sacrifice your next vacation for a ten-day Vipassana meditation retreat?

Not quite. I’d advise to leave a couple of vacation days for some real recreation before and after, because the retreat itself is 120 hours of hard work.

Will it pay off?

If you manage to complete the ten days, then almost certainly yes. I had my personal goal met at day three, the following seven days were just an added bonus in terms of happiness, self-growth, understanding, etc. (I haven’t spoken about the self-growth and understanding aspects yet, but there’s a lot to be said).

Do you need any previous meditation experience?

No. If you want to prepare, do some physical exercise to strengthen your back.

Can I get started with meditation without having to invest ten+ days?

Sure. There are some great apps out there, but you generally have to pay to unlock enough of the contents. I recommend the Waking Up-App by Sam Harris and the Ten Percent Happier-App, which includes some guided meditations with Joseph Goldstein. You can also find some guided meditations by these teachers on Youtube. In my experience, though, there’s nothing like a retreat. It pretty much takes ten days to really learn the techniques correctly and to witness the strong immediate benefits. I think this makes it the easiest way.

How much does the retreat cost?

No money, just time. After you successfully completed the course, you’re allowed to donate as much as you want (your participation was made possible by previous donations and voluntary work).

Is Vipassana meditation the answer to all your problems?

Definitely not. In my experience, the path to happiness is not that simple.

Does the Buddhist philosophy behind it get everything right?

Definitely not. Karma, rebirth, and their atomic model, among others, do not convince me one bit.

So, considering everything, should I do it at some point in my life?

That’s a definitive yes from me. The retreat was one of the most transformative experiences in my life. As I said, it’s not the answer to everything, but it’s one of the biggest puzzle pieces that I have encountered on my journey to deep and lasting happiness so far. Also, I haven’t seen anything else yet that does what Vipassana does, neither in theory nor in practice.

49 thoughts on “Let’s Talk Happiness!

  1. Isn’t one of the first steps to find happiness within yourself? Realise that there are things we can’t change and start accepting them. As well as changing the ones we can. Stop critisizing everyone else and starting with me – is there something I can change on this subject? If not, is it really as bad as I think it is? Or can I accept it.

    I like your writing style and content, look forward to more from you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Tanja, thanks for your comment! I think that’s exactly right, we can only find happiness within ourselves. We might be able to influence our closest surroundings, but we have very limited control over other people and the larger systems in which we live. So one’s best chance is to work on oneself, as you say. Thanks for your feedback, I really appreciate it! I have more coming soon 🙂


  2. Great post and thank you for sharing your experience in such a clear and thorough way.liked the cross link you made to stoicism- absolutely true IMO.I had a hard time with the atomic particles supposition as well… haven’t decided about the karma and rebirth- both are such hopefull concepts I found myself embracing them gladly, though I am aware of the lack of scientific basis there ..

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading and even commenting! It’s cool that the link to Stoicism makes sense, to you, too 🙂 Yeah, it’s true, karma and rebirth have something hopeful and even consoling about them, so it would be kinda nice, if they were true. But I don’t see any positive evidence for them in the world we perceive. And if the world seems to work without these assumptions, I try not to make them. But you never know 🤗

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Thomas I connected with your context in your writing . It’s nice to read another persons blog who looks at life in different ways. I post everyday and I copy them and send them to 25 friends. So it’s also great to see that someone visits my blog. I will excited to see your next post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey Scot! Thanks for visiting and especially for commenting! I like the thoughts on your blog and that you keep the posts short and sweet. Will be coming back for more – hope to see you again, too 🙂


  4. I love this, my friends and I were talking about this. Also not working towards your happiness and on yourself is another form of self-harm and a lot of us don’t realize that. Thank you, for sharing your thoughts & experiences with us. I can’t wait to get my read on!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much! I can really recommend this specific retreat (but there are other great ones out there, too)! Yes, by working towards happiness one improves one’s own life. Added bonus: One is also more pleasant for others and doesn’t add to their sorrows as much – win-win 🙂 Keep reading and keep writing, I’m also keen for new material from you!!


  5. I like your focus on happiness, through a self-less approach. Curious, as a Vipassana meditator (respect!) that because you are not, at this moment, convinced of karma and rebirth, you dare to say that the “Buddhist philosophy” definitely does not get it right. Also, what is “their atomic model”? Buddha showed that there can be no smallest particle, so he trashed modern science’s atomic theory centuries before westerners came up with it. A Buddhist who knows what is ultlmately the right theory of everything – now that is a koan!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi! Thanks for your great, thoughtful, kind, and funny comment! 🙂 I gotta say, you’re right that the “definitely not” was a pretty bold choice of words 😀 I had hoped the sentence after it made it clear that it was just my opinion that I expressed. No, of course, I could be completely wrong, and karma, rebirth, the atomic model, etc. might get it right. I just think it’s highly improbable in the light of the findings of the modern sciences. With the “atomic model” I was refering to a teaching by S.N. Goenka during the retreat (thanks for the respect, btw, it was pretty tough indeed): There he said something like “all atoms have the quality of one or more of the four elements fire, water, earth, and air” (I hope I don’t grossly misrepresent him from my memory). Modern chemistry contradicts this, if one takes the teaching of four elements literally. And I trust the Buddha with a lot of things when it comes to wisdom, but not when it comes to physics and chemistry. And I assume he wouldn’t mind that at all (but then again, he probably wouldn’t mind anything). Does this clarify your points? Thanks again, I appreciate it! Also thanks for teaching me the word “koan” 🙂


  6. Hello Thomas,
    Finally, great reading even without having the knowledge of all that!
    Happiness? We both have definitely totally different backgrounds, means different views, desires and experiences. Nevertheless, based on my years of traveling, living and working in many different cultures here on earth, complete happiness would be devastating for all of us – my experience, only! Why? You might be familiar with personality types (Karl Gustav Jung, Elizabeth Myer Briggs)?
    I’m an INTJ-A, 99 % introvert!! Being alone, for me, to be happy, is a must 😂😉 I can bath in solitude! So, we are all different, which shouldn’t be a surprise.
    Yes, I was different, 50 years ago. The interaction with the people I had, has changed and impacted my life dramatically. Not everyone can do that, what I did. Your topic is an endless topic and everyone will have a different approach and view of. For me, to be happy, is to do something, that has a positive impact on me or some else! Without doing, I would dry out and die! That’s what I meant with complete happiness would be a disaster 😉
    I love to sit with you and have a meaningful conversation – thank you, Steffan


  7. Hi Thomas,
    Looks like my comment didn’t get through, about 2 weeks ago, wonder why?
    Great article. My Thought in a nutshell, happiness is a choice, the choice everyone has to live her or his life. Unfortunately, there aren’t many who do or can do so … Even so, happiness has an official definition, it is still up each one of us to define it for ourselves, and then to be respected and tolerated. Long way to go …
    https://capricornblueplanet.com and https://sh-traveler.com

    Hope all is well – hello to Kelly

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Steffan! I just checked: You’re right, your comment didn’t get through, it was marked as spam for some reason (which it obviously isn’t). So, thanks for trying again, now both comments are approved and I learned about the spam-function 😃 I agree, happiness is a choice – or rather a million choices again and again. Choices to work towards it, learn about it, leave unwise paths, and commit to wise ones. Thanks again for commenting (twice) 😊 Best wishes, Thomas


    1. Cool, I’m happy to hear that! Meditation is a strange thing: It’s simple yet difficult, it’s a relaxing break yet hard work. But the benefits in the moment and the long run are just too good not to do it! Good luck with your practice!


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