|At a recent gathering, someone posed the question, “What is happiness?” The question opened a thought-provoking discussion on the notion of happiness. There are many words for happiness: bliss, contentment, delight, elation, euphoria, joy, exhilaration, optimism, or peace of mind, to name a few. Because of the range of feelings we associate with this notion, we are able to feel happy in a variety of ways. Is it an inner quality, a state of mind, or both?
“The purpose of our lives is to be happy.” Dalai Lama
Psychologist Martin Seligman and the findings from Positive Psychology studies asserts that humans are happiest when they have the following five things:
It appears happiness can be both immediate, sensual, and measurable as well as rational, reflective, and relative.
We know being happy is good for our health. Happy people have stronger immune systems and have a longer lifespan. When you are happy, you are more giving, you better handle stress, you have more successful relationships as well as a more meaningful network of friends. Happy people are more creative and energized and this attitude translates to their work performance. Happy people are reported to live 14% longer.
According to Dr. Robert Holden, a British psychologist considered Britain’s foremost expert on happiness, we are experiencing what researchers call “static happiness.” In the 1940s, when people were asked, “How happy are you?”, the average score was 7.7 out of 10. Most recently, the average score was 7.2 out of 10.
While it may be universal, the meaning of happiness remains complex and ambiguous. Given its very nature, reported happiness is subjective. It is difficult to compare one person’s happiness with another.
The psychological and philosophical pursuit of happiness began in China, India and Greece some 2,500 years ago with Confucius, Mencius, Buddha, Socrates, and Aristotle. There are remarkable similarities between the insights of these thinkers and the modern “Science of Happiness.”
Mencius (372 – 289 BCE) could well be called the pioneer of Positive Psychology. He spells out the role that feelings of happiness or satisfaction play in motivating people to do the right thing, as well as the sense of joy that results from the practice of humanity.
More modern day thinkers such as Abraham Maslow, an American professor of psychology at Brandeis University, theorized that human happiness is the outcome of meeting a set of needs. He listed these in order of priority, leading to a pyramid called Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. These needs include physiological, safety, love/belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. For a person to have happiness her or his needs have to be satisfied first.
In 2002, the notion of happiness presented itself to me in a unique way when I traveled to the tiny Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan. Nestled between India and China in the Tibetan Himalayas, it is often called “The Last Shangri-La.”
I was fascinated to learn Bhutan’s Gross National Product is Happiness. Understanding and embracing the concept of happiness, the Royal Government of Bhutan organized a Gross National Happiness Commission to execute a strategy for national happiness. Objectives included promoting citizens to live in harmony with tradition and nature, as well as investing in the nation’s greatest asset: its people.
While the GNH framework reflects Buddhist origins, it is solidly based upon the empirical research literature of happiness, positive psychology and well-being. The concept of GNH is transcultural – a nation need not be Buddhist in order to value sustainable development, cultural integrity, ecosystem conservation, and good governance.
Through collaboration with an international group of scholars and empirical researchers, the Centre for Bhutan Studies further defined with greater specificity these “Four Pillars of Happiness” into eight general contributors to happiness: physical, mental and spiritual health; time-balance; social and community vitality; cultural vitality; education; living standards; good governance; and ecological vitality. We can each certainly use these standards to personally measure how happy our lives are.
Gretchen Rubin’s personal 12-month journey, chronicled in her book, The Happiness Project, was based on a number of premises assumed to be foundations for happiness. They include “mindfulness,” a kind of no elaborative, nonjudgmental, present-centered awareness in which each thought, feeling, or sensation that arises in the attentional field is acknowledged and accepted as it is. This is an orientation that is characterized by curiosity, openness, and acceptance. Living in the present, which I relate to as mindfulness, as well as intention and gratitude are foundational concepts.They are also foundational concepts of Feng Shui.
“Each morning when I open my eyes I say to myself: I, not events, have the power to make me happy or unhappy today. I can choose which it shall be. Yesterday is dead, tomorrow hasn’t arrived yet. I have just one day, today, and I’m going to be happy in It.” ~
When I reflect on what makes me happy, the list is endless: everything from hearing my daughters’ voices on the other end of the phone, seeing a shooting star, teaching a class, having Tom’s arms around me, being with family and dear friends, watching my garden bloom and a million things in between. I know mindfulness, laughter and gratitude contribute to my happiness. The bonus? They allow me to better handle the sad and/or difficult times that life inevitably brings. On reflection, I have come to believe we are in control of our own happiness level.
“Being happy doesn’t mean that everything is perfect. It means that you’ve decided to look beyond the imperfections.” Unknown