On Friday 20 March 2015 the United Nations’ celebrated International Day of Happiness inviting people to focus on their connections with others in order to raise the issue of social isolation.
It seems a noble but rather curious concept to hold such an event because happiness is an intangible, subjective emotion that cannot be magicked up out of nowhere. For me it raises questions about whether happiness is something we can pursue and, if we can, whether we can grab hold of it and keep it. Or is it just a fleeting moment that some of us will experience now and then?
I feel the idea of pursuing happiness is flawed because in order to experience happiness one may argue you must also experience the opposite, unhappiness. It can’t be a permanent state and nor can it be defined – as Matthieu Ricard, microbiologist turned Buddhist monk, says, all great thinkers are vague about happiness because people have to interpret it themselves. Happiness is abstract, subjective, untouchable.
Perhaps we get confused between happiness and pleasure; you can pursue pleasure, after all that’s how our consumer society functions. However pleasure is a transient thing. Think about a chocolate cake, suggests Ricard – the first slice is delicious, the second is ok but by the third is disgusting. You’ve experienced the pleasure and now it’s gone. One thing’s for certain – pleasure isn’t happiness, pleasure is derived from external elements, the chocolate cake, a warn bath or a new pair of shoes, happiness comes from internal elements. You can watch a sad film, tears rolling down your cheeks and still feel happiness.
Dan Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, talks about our ability to synthesise happiness based on internal events in our brains. In that sense, it is not external events that make us happy or unhappy but rather our brain’s ability to synthesise happiness.
Research shows when given limited choices we are much more able to synthesise happiness. Conversely, the huge range of choices offered to us by the consumerism of modern day life has made it easier for us to miss those things we haven’t got – the latest Ipod, a flashy car, a Caribbean holiday – rather than be content with what we have. Ironically, the chances of achieving happiness are lessened rather than increased by having greater choice. Yet we place a value on having the freedom to choose in society. When you have little or no choice you either constantly desire what you haven’t got or value what you have got – the people with the least are often the happiest.
Happiness can’t come at you nor can you manufacture it, so to pursue it as an ideal state is an illusion. For me, rather than pursue happiness we should focus on wellbeing which can offer us the capability to be happy.
Matthieu Ricard talks about striving towards a deep sense of serenity and fulfilment, a state that pervades and underlies all emotional states including joys and sorrow. He invites us to see ourselves as a shoreline – one minute we are flying on top of a beautiful wave, the next we are on the bottom crashing onto the stony beech. Then think of ourselves as an ocean – the water on the surface may be stormy or it may be still, but the bottom of the ocean always remains the same. Achieving wellbeing is about the ocean rather than the shoreline.
Mind training can contribute towards wellbeing. You can work on the physical side by eating well and staying fit but that’s only a part of wellbeing. We only have the capacity to experience one emotion at a time, mind training will allow you to overcome the negative emotions such as anger and frustration which in turn can free up your mind for positive emotions.
Matthieu Ricard suggests that when an event makes you angry you should focus on the emotion rather than the event itself. See anger as something like your breath on a cold day – it’s visible but you can’t touch it and it disappears. It could be that you visualise a bird flying across the sky – you watch it but then it disappears beyond the horizon. Do this often enough when you are angry and you will discover that you control your emotions rather than them controlling you. It’s about opening up new pathways in your brain – by making anger or frustration a fleeting moment you will have more capacity for letting happiness in.
We spend a lot of time focusing on fitness and physical health but little time on training our brain – yet that is the part of us that determines how we experience life. One way of really getting inside your own head is to ask yourself the miracle question – you go to bed at night and while you are asleep unbeknown to you, a miracle happens. What will notice that is different for you the next day?
When I asked a colleague this question, she replied that she would stop worrying and that has given her a very strong focus for improving her wellbeing. We have choices, we can identify what is causing us the most angst or trouble in life and really getting inside it; it may be a tough journey because it can bring up painful events from the past and sometimes deep and suppressed emotions. Or we could take Richard’s advice an deal with the emotion not the cause.
It may be that you can improve your wellbeing by yourself but for some people coaching or counselling can be the quickest way to address the challenges in their life and move forwards. Finding a new way to live your life both in the physical and emotional sense is not only a game changer, it’s a life changer. Rather than chasing the illusion of happiness, perhaps we should settle on pursuing wellbeing – an achievable and tangible goal that can bring lifelong contentment and the possibility of experiencing happiness as the bonus, but not the goal.