What an afternoon with a monk can teach you about happiness

Picture a Buddhist monastery in rural Thailand, hidden in the clearing of a forest. Picture the simple wooden buildings and the neat paths connecting them. Close your eyes and try to hear the sound of the temple bells ringing in the distance.

Now see the monks with their shaved heads and simple saffron robes. They walk slowly, smile often and speak in low murmurs.

The monks shave their head as a symbol of giving up worldly possessions and ties, which is also why the more senior a monk is, the fewer possessions he has. Fully-fledged monks don't even use money, and rely upon donations for food, water and everything else that they could possibly need.

Being in the presence of someone so at ease with giving up everything, from relationships to clothes, is at once an inspiring and unnerving experience. You feel the need to ask, "But what about…?", as if there was some vital object or experience that the monk had forgotten when he agreed to give it all up.

But the reality is that like these monks, many of us realise at some point in our lives that we have far more that we will ever need, and far more than what will make us happy.

“Trying to be happy by accumulating possessions is like trying to satisfy hunger by taping sandwiches all over my body.”
- Roger J. Corless

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It doesn't take a monk to see the value of recognising that it isn't things themselves that make us happy, rather it is the meaning that we give them.

What do I mean by this? Well, think about it this way: it's only years of cuddles and love that turn a teddy bear into a "friend", transforming it from a object made from fabric and stuffing. The intrinsic value of this object, and the happiness provides a child (or even an adult!) cannot be found with a microscope nor and X-ray machine. The value exists in our minds and in our hearts, creating attachment between it and us.

This is by no means a negative thing. It is the same value that we give to objects that makes us house-proud, careful gardeners and loving pet owners. At the same time, we need to be careful to not let our minds trap us into feeling this value for everything we own, nor become obsessed with accumulating more and more stuff.

It seems that in the modern world we have become a bit too fixated on consumerism. Perhaps we're doing more impulse buying, or holding onto stuff in the hope that it might become useful to us "one day". In the process, we're churning up valuable resources that our planet is rapidly running out of.

In light of this, it's worthwhile to take a step back and take stock: do I really need all of this stuff? Do I need to keep buying more?

Perhaps you could approach this by refreshing your shopping list. I did this recently and found that there were four bottles of lime juice in my cupboard due to family members neglecting to check what was in stock at home before buying more. Or maybe it's as easy as doing a bit of a spring clean (the Kon Mari technique is great for this!), even starting with a drawer or a wardrobe.

The point of all this is, of course, recognising that stuff is not what makes us happy. If we do feel enjoyment from buying a new pair of jeans or a chocolate bar, how long does the happiness we feel from this action last? If the answer is "until I get home from the shops", then perhaps it's time to take a new approach to how we navigate our hyper-consumerist society.

Back to the monks. What is it that we truly need to feel good, healthy and content?

Once we tick off the essential (food, water, shelter etc.), we can start to think about the things in our lives that bring us happiness: family, friends, photo albums that help to spark fond memories, favourite books.

Perhaps you can work out what is truly precious to you by imagining life living out of just one bag. Alternatively, try out some Japanese cleaning hacks to de-clutter your life. No matter how you get there, I'd be willing to bet that you come to the conclusion that you don't actually need 30 pairs of shoes, or seven novelty coffee mugs. Once you start thinking about the energy, materials and other resources that it takes to produce even a single item of clothing, it becomes obvious that the rate at which we consume is unsustainable.

You don't have to become a monk to learn that happiness doesn't come through the things that we own, but they serve as a reminder that people are able to exist without cable TV, magazines and designer t-shirts to be happy.

Do you think that you could be happy, too?

Images: Shutterstock

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