Five Pillars of Happiness

Thomas A Cummings, PhD, MS

Licensed Clinical Psychologist

Registered Yoga Teacher -200

MS in Neurobiology

Advanced Trainee in Mindfulness Meditation

Graduate (Summa CL) School of Hard Knocks, Psychotic State University (PSU)

Post-doctoral Fellow in Angst, Futility, & Irony, University of the Pathetic (PU)


Dr Cummings, having seen the darkness and angelic beauty of more than 1600 patients, still pursues his education; his patients are his best teachers.  In his personal life he has made every mistake one human could possibly make in one lifetime, yet he continues to make more imaginative mistakes anyone could ever dream of.  He learns from his mistakes, for he knows them by heart.  He can repeat them flawlessly, without thinking.  As an elder who is miraculously still alive, and who surprisingly still has friends, he has much to offer.  You have an opportunity to learn from his mistakes, for Thomas, humbly, is still working on his mistakes…tirelessly.   

Pop Quiz:

Which one of the following does NOT belong with the others:

A. Tibetan Buddhism

B. Western Psychological Science

C. Mindfulness Meditation

D. The Law of Attraction

E. Happiness

To check your answer, come to Dr Cummings’ “5 Pillars of Happiness” Workshop on Saturday, August 25th, 1-3pm!

Curiously, happiness is not about money, success, nor fame.  Nor does marriage or having children ensure long-term happiness.  It turns out that happy people make happy marriages and happy parents, not the other way around.  Those in constant pursuit of happiness are, sadly, less happy than those who are not.  There are Five Pillars of Happiness, all of which appear to be prerequisite courses to ‘Happiness 101’.  By ‘happy’ we’re not talking about emotional highs that new love brings, ecstatic experiences, or the feelings that a wonderful vacation can bring.  We are referring here to an enduring sense of contentment, of peace of mind, of satisfaction with life as it is.  Happiness is cultivated, not consumed.  The harvest is subtle.  Sweet, but not syrupy.  Enough, but not plenty. It is nutritious, rejuvenating, and restorative but you cannot buy it at Whole Foods, or anywhere for that matter.  Try to grasp it, and it slips away.  In fact, the very pursuit of happiness may be what is making you unhappy. 

Each pillar has five components within it, and each is connected to each other pillar.  A pentagon-upon-pentagon structure, with crosslinking connexons helps us visualize the balance and interdependence of internal and external factors that promote happiness. 

The First Pillar is 1) Healthy Relationships’ its composite components are acceptance, assertiveness, patience, compassion, and forgiveness. 

The Second Pillar is fairly obvious, it is: 2) ‘Living The Good Life’, that is, we are happy when we engage in activities where we experience ‘Flow’ (a timeless experience where we are fully attentive and engaged, without judgment).  For some it’s surfing, for others its playing music, for others it is being in nature.  This Second Pillar however, must be strongly supported by the 4th and 5th pillars (more later).  Here, ‘Go with the Flow’ applies. 

The Third Pillar is less intuitive, it is: 3) ‘Living A Good Life’.  A slight difference in the preposition, ‘The vs ‘A’ and the meaning changes altogether.  Here, we are referring to ‘a life well lived’.  That is, living according to one’s principles, and values, and contributing in some manner to society or nature.  It also encompasses a sense that we are part of something much larger than us, and we can gain solace and wisdom from our connection with ‘something greater than, or beyond, the limits of our mundane experience. 

The remaining two pillars are psychological in nature.  The Fourth Pillar refers to: 4) Thought Content, i.e. what we think about.  The new field of Positive Psychology, and, not coincidentally, what several lines of Buddhist philosophy have hypothesized for centuries, tell us that what we focus upon, what we think about, strongly influences our happiness (and conversely other less comfortable emotions).  It turns out that happy people’s thoughts are predominantly in the domains of gratitude, beauty, humor, and curiosity.  Their thoughts are also predominantly in the present.  The quip, ‘The Past is History, the Future Mystery, Today is a gift, That’s why they call it The Present’ applies here.  Most of us are not here now.  Where are you right now? Yes it seems that on average, 46% of the time we are distracted.  We all have 86,400 seconds each day, if you are not absolutely and completely present for 40,000 or more of them, then you are more distracted than the average American!  Compare that to the average practitioner of Mindfulness Meditation and, well…are you happy now?  When was it that, the last time that you took a shower, you were in the shower?  Think about it…where are you now?  In the shower? 

The Fifth Pillar is complex.  It refers not to the content of our thoughts, but to our 5) Thought Processes; especially how we think about the inevitable losses, pains, and disappointments a conscious and empathic person experiences in everyday life.  Happy people do cry, and do feel anger, and do experience despair; But, though they feel these emotions, and sometimes very deeply, they are not overwhelmed by them.  They ‘process them’ and move on to more pleasant content, and they resurface, are processed and they come back to the moment.  More on processing difficult emotions in the workshop.  Even the Dalai Lama will tell you that if you hang out with him for awhile, you will see his impatience, his anger, his disappointment.  He is awake, compassionate, human, but not attached to his emotions.  Pema Chodron, a widely read Canadian Buddhist nun, points out that pain and suffering are part of life, but resistance to, or avoidance of, these inevitable experiences creates so much more suffering than is necessary or healthy.   Emotional Forecasting (Daniel Gilbert) renders us perpetual seekers of Happiness.  We think that when we reach point B, as we imagine it at point A, then we will be happy.  However, everytime we actually reach point B, it never looks as we imagined at point A, so we set our sights on a new point B where the real happiness lies, and so on.  We are all a bit quixotic, relentlessly pursuing happiness, only find ourselves gone with the wind, milling about disillusioned, until we spy the next ‘B Happy’ prize, that turns out to be just another windmill.

            The 4th and 5th Pillars of Happiness are the most challenging, yet the most critical; they prop up the first three.  The what and how we think are presented poetically in the lyrics of ‘Child of the Wind’ by Bruce Cockburn, a Canadian folk/rock artist and human rights activist.  Ponder these words, if you will. 

Little blue planet in a big universe

Sometimes it looks blessed, sometimes it looks cursed

Depends on what you look at, obviously

But even more, it depends on the way that you see

Wisdom from the Dali Lama

Cultivating an attitude of compassion and developing wisdom are slow processes. As you gradually internalize techniques for developing morality, concentration of mind, and wisdom, untamed states of mind become less and less frequent. You will need to practice these techniques day by day, year by year. As you transform your mind, you will transform your surroundings. Others will see the benefits of your practice of tolerance and love, and will work at bringing these practices into their own lives.”

Passage Selected by Dr. Cummings