“Happiness comes from within.” – many, many wise people and thousands of Hallmark cards

As a yoga teacher, I love the quantitative support the practice has received from all the recent medical and scientific research studies on meditation, mindfulness and yoga. It’s one thing to know in your heart that the practice has helped you, so surely it can help others. It is quite another to read articles and papers explaining how and how many people could benefit from it.

As a philosophy teacher, I never imagined I would one day get “proof” of one of the most powerful tenets of yoga’s philosophy: the practice of santosa or contentment. Do me a favor and read that again. It is surprising to many that contentment or happiness is not only a fruit of the practice of yoga, but is a practice itself. In other words, contentment is something that we do.

According to Dan Gilbert, a psychologist and Edgar Pierce Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, we humans have the ability to create – to synthesize – happiness. He goes on to explain that “synthetic” happiness is just as powerful as “actual” happiness in changing our experience of our lives. In fact, he argues that “synthetic” happiness, which we create ourselves by choosing to be content with whatever our situation, yields an even deeper and more lasting sense of satisfaction. If that is the case, it conceivable that Gilbert and his team have proved the ancient maxim that happiness comes from within! (Watch his TED Talk titled “The Surprising Science of Happiness.” You won’t regret the investment of 21 minutes.)

Gilbert’s most astonishing claim (and that’s saying something because his talk is filled with awesome surprises):

“… a year after losing the use of their legs, and a year after winning the lotto, lottery winners and paraplegics are equally happy with their lives.

Trust me, this sounds much less fantastic (in the true sense of the word) in context. We are, it turns out, directly in control of how happy we are. In other words, our happiness is not dependent on the vagaries of life – including events as wildly unlikely as winning the lottery or getting hit by a bus. And this man-made happiness feels just as good and might even keep feeling good for longer than the happiness we “find” as we wander through life.

Gilbert’s research inspires even more zeal in the yogi in me for my practice. After all, for 2,500 years people have practiced contentment on and off their mats by practicing yoga. We start small – finding happiness (or at least contentment) in the most uncomfortable of yoga postures. We discover that we have a choice when in a painful situation. We can internally moan and groan, or even bail out. Or we can choose to hang out, breathe and experience the sensations of our own change and growth.

Before we know it, we might notice that we’re better able to breathe and stay open to our boss’s constructive criticism during a tough annual review. Or we might discover with surprise that we don’t fall into despair when our child is diagnosed with a chronic illness. Or we might be stunned to realize that, if given the option, we would not trade that excruciatingly painful relocation because it yielded opportunities and relationships that we could never have had if we’d been able to happily stay put.

In short, yoga, too, believes that contentment or happiness is something we create. And when we’re relying on this happiness from within (or to borrow Gilbert’s phrase, synthetic happiness), our sense of well-being and good fortune provides a more stable and lasting foundation from which to navigate the inevitable ups and downs of life.

So, while I very much hope you do hit the lottery and don’t get hit by a bus, I also know that neither of these things really matters in the long run. Instead, my hope for you is that you (through lots and lots of practice) are able to tap into your innate, human ability to create your own happiness.

“Come on get happy!” – David Cassidy