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Sunday, April 23, 2017

Mindfulness and Happiness: Quotations for Reflection and Discussion

updated January 6, 2020

Photo by Katii Bishop from Pexels 

by Catharine Hannay

Does mindfulness lead to happiness?  And what do we mean by 'happiness,' anyway?  Here are a variety of perspectives on appreciating the present moment, letting go of attachments, embracing moderation, and finding meaning.

(Teachers, I don't necessarily suggest giving this whole long list to your students; I like to provide a lot of options so you can choose what's most appropriate for your particular context.)

Scroll to the bottom of the post for questions that can be used for personal reflection or as prompts for discussion and writing.

Appreciating the Present Moment

Mary Oliver, "Sometimes," from Red Bird:
"Instructions for Living a Life: 
Pay attention. 
Be astonished. 
Tell about it."

Elizabeth von Arnim, The Enchanted April:
"The simple happiness of complete harmony with her surroundings, the happiness that asks for nothing, that just accepts, just breathes, just is."

Ram Dass, Polishing the Mirror:
"The subtle joy of just being here … just delighting in the richness of the present moment…  Think of the kinds of experiences that give you a feeling of contentment.  Maybe your contentment comes from being in nature, listening to the birds or the sound of the waves meeting the shore, looking at the sunset or the stars in the night sky, or contemplating a rose in the garden.  Maybe it comes from singing or listening to music, sinking into a warm bath, or being touched in a way that eases the body.  Maybe it comes from watching your child or being with your dog or cat.  Maybe you experience it when looking into the eyes of a loved one.  Those are experiences that touch your soul."

Frédéric Lenoir, Happiness, a Philosopher’s Guide  
"The more aware we are of our positive experiences, the more our pleasure and well-being increase… Awareness enables us to ‘savor’ our happiness: in return, this makes happiness itself more intense, profound, and enduring.  Just as decisively, our happiness is nourished by the quality of attention we bring to bear on what we are doing.  The Stoic and Epicurean sages of antiquity had underlined this crucial point and claimed that a single instant touched on eternity.  Happiness can be enjoyed only in the present instant."

Pascal Mercier, Night Train to Lisbon:
"Gregorius sat before the empty plate and the steaming cup of coffee and had the feeling of never having been so awake in his whole life.  And it seemed to him that it wasn’t a matter of degree, as when you slowly shook off sleep and became more awake until you were finally there.  It was a different, new kind of wakefulness, a new kind of being in the world he had never known before.  When the Gare de Lyon came in sight, he went back to his seat, and afterwards when he set foot on the platform, it seemed to him as if, for the first time, he was fully aware of getting off a train."

Kurt Vonnegut, A Man without a Country
“My late Uncle Alex... was well-read and wise. And his principal complaint about other people was that they so seldom noticed it when they were happy. So when we were drinking lemonade under an apple tree in the summer... Uncle Alex would suddenly ... exclaim, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.’ So I do the same now, and so do my kids and grandkids. I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.’”

Mary Oliver, Evidence:
"You have a life--just imagine that!  You have this day, and maybe another, and maybe still another... Let me keep my distance, always, from those who think they have the answers.  Let me keep company always with those who say 'Look!' and laugh in astonishment, and bow their heads."

Ellis Peters, A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs:
"To have happiness and know that you have it, and know how wonderful it is to know it, that's almost too much for any one day."

Nonjudgmental Awareness

Sharon Salzberg, Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation:
“Despite my initial fantasies… I haven’t entered a steady state of glorious bliss.  Meditation has made me happy, loving, and peaceful—but not every single moment of the day.  I still have good times and bad, joy and sorrow.  Now I can accept setbacks more easily, with less sense of disappointment and personal failure, because meditation has taught me how to cope with the profound truth that everything changes all the time.”

Martha Beck, Finding Your Own North Star 
"Learning the art of nonresistance means distinguishing between enjoyment, which leads to happiness, and attachment, which doesn’t.  We tend to conflate these phenomena, though they’re actually very different.  Enjoyment is present-moment delight with pleasurable circumstances.  Attachment is the wretched cluster of emotions that go with fear of loss—anxiety, clinginess, neediness, sadness, flat-out panic.  All creatures, so far as I can tell, seem able to enjoy.  But only humans become attached, obsessing about potential future loss even in the best of circumstances."

Barbara Sher, It’s Only Too Late If You Don’t Start Now
"Take a moment to fantasize what your days would be like if you had absolutely no need to control every outcome.  Think about it for a moment.  Imagine you do your daily work to the best of your ability, but you have no intention whatsoever of doing more than is reasonable or of being responsible for making things come out right. How would that feel? What would you do differently? And what would you stop doing?"

Vinita Hampton Wright, Simple Acts of Moving Forward: A Little Book about Getting Unstuck:  
"Give me the discipline to get rid of the stuff that’s not important, the freedom to savor the stuff that gives me joy, and the patience not to worry about the stuff that’s messy but not hurting anybody."

Donald Altman, One-Minute Mindfulness:
"If there is any joy, gratitude, or appreciation to be found in life, there is no better place to locate it than right here and now by bringing an open heart and compassion to all the uninvited visitors that inevitably enter your life—the good, the bad, the ugly, the boring, the unpleasant, the despicable, the habitual, the blissful.  When you become skillful with your awareness in present time, you will find that acceptance brings an amazingly powerful and positive outcome for even an unwelcome life obstacle."

Bernard Glassman and Rick Fields, Instructions to the Cook: A Zen Master’s Lessons on Living a Life That Matters:

“We should realize making and holding judgments can create problems. Let’s say it rains one day. If I had been planning a picnic, I might easily become angry at the rain for ruining my picnic. But the same rain might make me very happy the next day because it provided water for my garden.”

Moderation and Gratitude

"Contentment isn’t high on the priority list in the West. We’re all about achievement and consuming, getting more. Maybe we’re afraid the wheels of progress and the economy will grind to a halt if everybody becomes content. I remember someone once accusing meditators of ‘bovine passivity.’ Living in the moment, being fully present, is anything but passive. But it does lead to a profound feeling that everything is just enough, a feeling of deep contentment... Contentment, as a practice, is different from satisfaction. It’s not a feeling of accomplishment from doing something. Contentment is just being complete in the moment."

Matthieu Ricard, Altruism:
"For many of us, the notion of ‘simplicity’ evokes a privation, a narrowing of our priorities and an impoverishment of existence.  Experience shows, however, that a voluntary simplicity in no way diminishes feelings of happiness, but on the contrary brings with it a better quality of life.  Is it more enjoyable to spend a day with your children or friends, at home, in a park or outside in nature, or to spend it trotting from store to store?  Is it more pleasant to enjoy the contentment of a satisfied mind or constantly to want more—a more expensive car, brand-name clothes, or a more luxurious house?"

Ellis Peters, The Summer of the Danes:
"It is a blessed thing, on the whole, to live in slightly dull times, especially after disorder, siege, and bitter contention."

Frédéric Lenoir, Happiness, a Philosopher’s Guide 
"Some children may be extraordinarily happy with a single basic toy if they have been able to develop their imagination and creativity, while others will be bored by a hundred sophisticated toys if they constantly need new toys to derive pleasure from."

Idries Shah,  The Exploits of the Incomparable Mulla Nasrudin

"Nasrudin saw a man sitting disconsolately at the wayside, and asked what ailed him.

'There is nothing of interest in life, brother,' said the man; 'I have sufficient capital not to work, and I am on this trip only to seek something more interesting than the life I have at home. So far I haven’t found it.'  
Without another word, Nasrudin seized the traveler’s knapsack and made off down the road with it, running like a hare. Since he knew the area, he was able to out-distance [the traveler]. 
The road curved, and Nasrudin cut across several loops, with the result that he was soon back on the road ahead of the man whom he had robbed. He put the bag by the side of the road and waited in concealment for the other to catch up.

Presently the miserable traveler appeared, following the tortuous road, more unhappy than ever because of his loss. As soon as he saw his property lying there, he ran towards it, shouting with joy.

'That’s one way of producing happiness,' said Nasrudin." 

“It is surely more difficult to be content when we have more things than when we have fewer.  The more stuff we have the bigger locks we must install, and the more accessories we must buy, and the more time and energy we must consume to protect and care for what we have.  Greed cannot cohabitate with contentment.”

Finding Meaning

Dr. Byron Karasu, The Art of Serenity
Happiness doesn’t mean gratification of all the senses, or constant and frenzied pursuit of excitement… There is no easy or quick path to happiness, only a slow and arduous one toward it, as there is neither an end product nor a finishing line, only a starting point.  In your quest for joyful serenity, there is no single spot where you can start.  Where you are right now is the best place to begin.

“What is your life about? Why do you exist? Do you exist simply to consume as much as you can and get as much pleasure as you can while you are here on this earth, or do you have a higher purpose? How do you understand your life purpose—your vision or mission or calling? And are you spending money in ways that are consistent with this life purpose? The answers to these questions are very important… Our society tells us that our life purpose is to consume—to make as much money as possible and to blow as much money as possible. But surely we know that cannot be right.”

Martha Beck, Finding Your Own North Star
 “It’s very common for people to decide that they’ve discovered the One Way to happiness, and that everyone would benefit from living in exactly the same manner… These people are extremely principled, kind, and well-intentioned. Ignore them.”

Eleanor Roosevelt, You Learn by Living
"The most important requirements for happiness:  
  • a feeling that you have been honest with yourself and those around you;
  • a feeling that you have done the best you could both in your personal life in your work;
  • the ability to love others;
  • the feeling that you are, in some way, useful."

"As I try and understand how life works – and why some people cope better than others with adversity – I come back to something to do with saying yes to life, which is love of life, however inadequate, and love for the self, however found.  Not in the me-first way that is the opposite of life and love, but with a salmon-like determination to swim upstream, however choppy upstream is, because this is your stream...  What the Americans, in their constitution, call ‘the right to the pursuit of happiness’ (please note, not ‘the right to happiness’), is the right to swim upstream, salmon-wise…. What you are pursuing is meaning, a meaningful life."

Frédéric Lenoir, Happiness, a Philosopher’s Guide
"To be happy means to choose—to choose not only appropriate pleasures, but also our path, our profession, our way of living and loving, as well as our leisure activities, our friends, and the values on which we build our lives."

Book titles link to Amazon, just in case you'd like to know more about the sources of these quotes. receives no financial benefit from books ordered through links from this site.

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

  • Which of these quotations most resonates with you?  Why?
  • Do you disagree with any of these quotations?  Why?
  • Think about the happiest moments of your life.  Were you being 'mindful' at the time?
  • Do you think that we have a choice whether or not to be happy?
  • In your opinion, is the search for meaning connected to mindfulness?  Why or why not?
  • How do you define ‘happiness’?