Santosha- Happiness as Moral Obligation

So we arrive today at the second of the “moral restraints” of yoga, the niyamas. This one is Santosha, or contentment. For information on the first of the niyamas, click here. For more information on what all this is about anyway, click here


I love this smiling picture of my beautiful friend Joy visiting NYC. While meditating with closed eyes in the park there, she was (joyfully? heh) surprised to find that all the people she could hear sounded happy. 

Recently I ran into an old co-worker, who suggested that I return to work with her in order to have a more financially stable lifestyle. “You know,” I said, “I really wasn’t happy there. I’m happy now.”

I recounted the story to another friend, who said to me, thoughtfully: “Are you happy now?”

This was sort of the conversational equivalent of running into an invisible wall. I stopped short and thought. Am I happy, really? Well, actually, in the past few weeks, I haven’t been acting very “happy.” I’ve been quite worried about some stuff, and I’ve forgotten to appreciate the things that are so very wonderful about my life (and there are quite a few).

Nischala Joy Devi, in her book The Secret Power of Yogasays, “Some of us are open naturally to joy, while others need to cultivate it more carefully.” I am the latter. Whether it is chemical or conditional, my default response over the course of my life has been to see the glass as half-empty. I’ve come to believe that this is not a terrible thing- it’s something to live with, like having a birthmark, or being right-handed. Like many others, I just have a natural tendency to dwell on the shadow side of life a little more heavily. My yoga and meditation practices work to create new thought patterns that are more positive, but 30+ years of conditioning are a lot to overcome. So it’s not always a picnic, but I work with it.

Santosha, the second of Patanjali’s Niyamas, or moral observances, asks that we observe contentment:

When at peace and content with oneself and others (Santosha), supreme joy is celebrated.     -Yoga Sutras 11.42

When I find myself slipping into old patterns of depression, anxiety, self-doubt and worry, I am generally subscribing to the belief system that if something were just different in my life, I could be happy. Past experience (and logic) tell me that this is not true. Relying on external objects or experiences for fulfillment can only lead to more suffering, since they are temporary. Instead, in Santosha, I practice remembering that everything is basically okay already. Even when the circumstances aren’t what I would like.

In true freedom and happiness we like whatever we do, but we do not always do whatever we like. -Swami Nirmalananda

This might be a challenge to buy into, but I believe that it is perhaps the most important thing I can do at this stage in my life. The Dalai Lama suggests in his work The Art of Happiness that not only is it nicer to be happy, but that it is an ethical obligation!  When I consider how much nicer I  am to be around when I am happy- how much more present, loving, kind and compassionate I am for my students, my family and friends, and even strangers, it is selfish NOT to strive for contentment, joy, and happiness.

Seeing Santosha as an unselfish practice is what makes it work for me. Victor Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist imprisoned by the Nazis in WWII, said “Man is ready and willing to shoulder any suffering as soon and as long as he can see meaning in it.” This really resounds with me. Yes. I can take on this work of cultivating happiness, the pain of challenging situations, with gratitude when I remember that doing so is for a greater good.

I am at my weakest state, mentally and emotionally, late at night and first thing in the morning. Sometimes I wake up feeling pretty unhappy. For the last month, as I wake up, I’ve made my first thoughts the following:

  • I have important work to do that helps others
  • I cannot do this work, I cannot help others, while I am caught up in despair
  • My time is limited and I will do my best not to waste it wallowing in unhappiness

To return to the question at the beginning of this post- Am I really happy now? The answer, my friends, is yes. Do I always remember that I am happy? That’s the trick, isn’t it? No. But I know the work I need to do and I am committed to finding my way to a more stable state of Santosha. Then, perhaps, the real (more interesting) work can begin.

A poem for you:

Like Barley Bending, by Sara Teasdale

Like barley bending

In low fields by the sea,

Singing in hard wind



Like barley bending

And rising again,

So would I, unbroken

Rise from pain;


So would I softly,

Day long, night long,

Change my sorrow

Into song.

4 thoughts on “Santosha- Happiness as Moral Obligation

    1. Dear Bekah- thank you so much for your comments. I’m sorry it took me so long to respond! I am thrilled that you were able to relate… as a blogger, I know you can understand how vulnerable it feels sometimes to share your experiences. Knowing that someone else “got it” makes it all worthwhile. Thanks again 🙂 -Laura

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