One of my students called me from the US. He was quite excited. “You know I spent the whole day with my family. I started the day bathing the kids, took them for shopping, prepared lunch for them, and read them stories. I am feeling great. It is giving me immense happiness that I could spend the whole day with my family. I have a very important presentation tomorrow morning. I am feeling so confident.”
At the end of a long telephonic conversation, I also felt very happy for my student. Since the time he took up an assignment in the US, he was too stressed. He needed ventilation. He was missing his parents, his earlier work place, and his colleagues in India. Spending time with his wife and kids, talking to his friends and relatives back in India, helped him close his gaps of desires.
Often little things make a big difference. Vacations give temporary pleasure but are very useful happiness fillers. When we are on vacation we are more open to new ideas, we are friendlier to others, and our mind is more relaxed. By recalling the vacation experiences, we can bring the happiness of those times into our lives.
Daniel Kahneman says, we are unhappy because we spend most of our time, money and attention on the activities that taxes rather than soothes our minds. Expectation of perfection in all situations is certainly not a great idea. Only unhappy people hope for such perfections. Trying to achieve something too 'consciously' is a disease. Similarly, trying to achieve happiness too consciously is a bad idea.
Happiness is a feeling, a feeling we all like to sustain, as long as possible. Its arrival is random and its departure is unexpected. It has no logic and it doesn't follow any rules. It is said that happiness is a place to visit and not to stay. The lure of happiness works best when we are under the illusion that bliss will persist. Some of us are born happy. A negative experience, however, destroys a happy feeling. The good news is that mild to moderate doses of negative experience can be beneficial to build happy feelings.
Our happiness is related to our desires and expectations. Desires are insatiable. They are boundless and we possess limited capabilities to fulfil our desires. Many a times we don't know what our desires or expectations are. It also happens that the things we desire are not the things we end up liking. Many a times we desire more than what we deserve and we entertain more desires than we can fulfil.
No one is spared from the ups and downs in life. It is possible to keep up happy spirits during bad times. It is possible to be happy even under 'pathological' circumstances and in an inhospitable world. We can create for ourselves a fantasy world of happiness. Only the dreamers can create mental images that are better than what they see in the real world. There was an Auschwitz survivor, who used to spend many hours in his imaginary world. Once an interviewer asked Stephen Hawking, how he kept his spirits up. He said, his expectations were reduced to zero when he was twenty-one. Everything since then has been a bonus for him. The problem is most of us do not have Hawking's limitations or his strengths.
Conscious use of the power of thought can be turned into a happy experience. Fortuitous solutions of many of our problems are possible through daydreaming. Daydreaming can provide inspiration and motivation for creative work and can regulate emotions. Our unconscious thoughts are like clouds; they come and go. With conscious thoughts, it is possible to entertain positive feelings and the belief that we can achieve them. In order to master our conscious thoughts we need to improve our will power and concentration.
All thoughts don't get materialized. Some thoughts are weak and get washed away easily. By driving the mind consciously, it is possible to bring positive thoughts and filter negative thoughts. We can often release positive feelings by visualizing and thinking with concentration, desire, and faith. Thoughts alone are not enough for creative visualization. Feelings and emotions are also required to convert the thoughts into action. Thoughts charged with emotions make much stronger impact.
Each person has a specific 'happiness set point'. It is suggestive of one's degree of natural happiness. When something good happens, a person becomes happy for a while, and then comes back to his natural happiness set point. If something bad happens, a person will get sadder for a while, and again, after some period of time, he will get back to his natural happiness set point. This explains why some people are naturally happy and some are naturally sad. Some people are happy regardless of their less-than-ideal circumstances, while others are unhappy even when they seem to have it all.
In certain situations, happiness is influenced by our emotions and experiences. We derive immense satisfaction when we are in the company of family and friends, when we are enjoying good food, or listening to good music. Optimism, hope, trust, faith, and confidence associated with our future endeavours also give us tremendous satisfaction and happiness.
Martin Seligman, a proponent of positive psychology, believes that one can make oneself happier. His suggestions include: writing down things that went well and why; identifying strengths and using them in different ways; writing letters of gratitude to those who have been helpful but have never been properly acknowledged. According to Seligman, full life is a synthesis of three traditions of happiness: pleasant life, good life, and meaningful life.
The pleasant life aims at maximizing pleasure and minimizing pains. The good life aims at getting what one wants; fulfilment of a desire contributes to one's happiness, regardless of the amount of pleasure (or displeasure). The meaningful life is about happiness in acquiring truly valuable things such as career accomplishments, friendship, freedom from disease and pain, beauty, education, love, knowledge, and good conscience.
Another proponent of positive psychology Tal Ben- Shahar argues for the need to build bridges between the 'Ivory Tower' and 'Main Street'. His happiness tips include: if we accept emotions -- such as fear, sadness, or anxiety -- as natural, it is easier to overcome them; engage in activities that are both personally significant and enjoyable; our level of wellbeing is determined by what we choose to focus on, and by our interpretation of external events ( for example, do we view failure as catastrophic, or do we see it as a learning opportunity); avoid doing more and more in less and less time.
An experience of moving effortlessly with the current, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called it 'flow', is a moment of high enjoyment. Csikszentmihalyi says, one experiences flow when the goals are clear and the process to reach the goal seem effortless, and when there is balance between opportunity and capacity. The most important realization of the 'flow' experience is our altered sense of time;' what seems like fifteen minutes has been two hours'.
Psychologists say that our experiencing self prefers the pleasure of absorbing events or captivating interactions, while our evaluating self prefers the things that make life easier or that we are familiar with. Too many choices cause unhappiness. Most of us don't know the ways to handle 'too many choices'. The paradox of choice is that it is easier to assume that unwanted options can be ignored, but in reality it is not so. In the midst of too many choices and material abundance, it is quite difficult to keep track on our desires and expectations.
We generally face problem when our desire and reason are in conflict and a result of this they pull us in different directions. But even when desire and reason are not in conflict, problem may arise, because, for the implementation of the desire, reason is not sufficient. Jonathan Haidt has given a nice description to understand this situation: “The image that came up with for myself was that I was a rider on the back of an elephant. I am holding the rein in my hand. I can direct things, but only when the elephant doesn't have desires of his own. When the elephant really wants to do something I am no match for him.”
“Without the pain of farewell, there is no joy of reunion,” George Vaillant asserts. “Without the pain of captivity, we don't experience the joy of freedom.”
We must recognize one basic fact, and that is, we can't be and also are not supposed to be happy all the time. Our compass of happiness must fluctuate. “What good a compass is if it is always stuck on the north?”
Our brains are designed to crave but never really to achieve lasting happiness. Our brain evolved during the ice age when we were sharing the planet with dangerous animals. We, therefore, developed a brain which has overriding need for security. No wonder, out of the six universal emotions, four (anger, fear, disgust, sadness) are negative, one (joy) is positive, and one (surprise) is neutral.
According to the “Satisfaction with Life Scale' devised by Edward Deiner, an 'extremely satisfied' person would change almost nothing if he were to live his life again.
Quietly we begin our day. Then the noise of the day disturbs our quiet. The noise can be filtered out, but in order to do that, we need to isolate ourselves from the world we inhabit. That is not what most of us will like to do. We cannot escape to the 'jungle of delusion'. If we do that we shall have to abandon the 'desires of joy'. We would very much like to be a part of the environment even when we know it is noisy. We may not be able to avoid various noises emanating from our surrounding. But we can fit a few noise reducers inside as well as around us, if we want to make our evenings as pleasant as our mornings.
It is hard to know what makes one happy. It is relatively easier to know what makes one unhappy. A good guideline for happiness, therefore, would be to find the reasons for unhappiness and then clear them one by one. There is a big gap between what we want and what we need. In most cases, what we want is more than what we need. Should we make addition in our need, or deletion in our want, to be happy?
Our failure to use and spend what we have is one of the major causes of unhappiness. We are unhappy when we use our capacity far below our potential. How to realise our unrealised possibilities, therefore, is one way to achieve happiness. Sonja Lyubomirsky, the author of The How of Happiness, says that people can truly become happier if they are engaged in 'intentional activities'.
We are living in a world that is doing much better in terms of health, life expectancy, and child mortality. We are living in a more individual world. By becoming more individual, are we becoming happier? Does our collective power improve our individual happiness? Are modern people happier than medieval people, and were medieval people happier than Stone-Age people, asks Yuval Noah Harari, the author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Harari puts forth 'romantic view of history'; according to this view, power makes the world more mechanistic, and in this world, one becomes more ill-suited for the real world.
It is true that comfortable living makes us happy. It is also said that we are willingly paying the price for our 'more comfortable' living. Should we not make use of smart choices that are available to us more smartly?
If evolutionary biologists are to be believed, happiness is not really determined by political, social or cultural factors, but by our biochemical system. Things like getting a promotion, or winning a lottery makes one temporarily happy. Happiness is like a homeostatic system.“Just as our biochemical system maintains our body temperature and sugar levels within narrow boundaries, it also prevents our happiness levels from rising beyond certain thresholds,” writes Harari.
We want to lead a happy as well as meaningful life. These two goals, however, are in conflict. Happiness and meaningfulness have some overlap but they have substantially different roots. We are happy when our needs and desires are fulfilled. We are happy when we are free from unpleasant events. Meaningfulness reflects our life's purpose and value. A meaningful life may make one feel worthwhile and happy, but life could be meaningful even when one is unhappy. Meaningfulness does not always have to bank on morality or goodness. A good athlete may be a good human being but he may not necessarily be good to his competitors.
Happiness is present-oriented, whereas meaningfulness is not. Meaningfulness assimilates past, present, and the future. It takes into account 'spatially distant realities (and even possibilities)'. If happiness is 'a taker rather than a giver', meaningfulness is 'a giver rather than a taker'. Meaningfulness may lead one to unhappiness, as to achieve it one may have to go through a lot of stress and anxiety. This unhappiness, perhaps, is temporary in nature, as one expects happiness to return, once stresses and anxieties are over.
Happiness is natural. Meaningfulness is cultural. Meaning is more linked to one's cultural identity than happiness is. Although, both happiness and meaningfulness may involve interpersonal connection, they differ in how one relates to others. Happiness is about having one's needs satisfied. It means, interpersonal involvements that benefit the self should improve happiness. Meaningfulness, on the other hand, comes from making positive contributions to other people. Money matters to both happiness and meaningfulness; scarcity of money reduces both meaningfulness and happiness.
Roy Baumeister's work suggests that the effect of money is considerably larger on happiness than on meaningfulness. It appears, spending money in ways relevant to one's own values, goals, and motivations contribute more to happiness than to meaningfulness. Social connections are important for both happiness and meaningfulness, but their direction and focus differ. Happiness is intertwined with the benefits one receives from others. Meaningfulness is instead associated with the benefits that others receive from the self.
“Happiness is experienced both as fleeting sensations and emotions, and consciously appreciated as a permanent disposition of the mind,” Ladislav Kovac writes in The Biology of Happiness. Our state of happiness gets disturbed due to various reasons. We like to return to stable levels of happiness, as quickly as is possible. We think 'designed happiness', if fed into the system, can sustain happiness for long, but that hardly happens. Our brains are not designed to achieve lasting happiness. The onset of happiness is often uncertain, and its disappearance, mostly unpredictable. A person's happiness set points is determined by his temperament.
Can we avoid the presence of anxiety from our lives? Can we remain calm in an agitated surrounding? Can we become emotionally numb whenever we want to? Can we feign 'all is well' all the time? One is not necessarily happy when his unhappiness is removed. Totally eliminating suffering and blindly chasing pleasure are not paths to happiness. Mari Ruti, the author of The Call of Character: Living a Life Worth Living, says that the key to good life lies in the capacity to metabolise pain. It is this capability that makes us better equipped to develop relationship with ourselves. Ruti writes, “The irony of happiness is that it's precisely when we manage to feel happy that we are also most keenly aware that the feeling might not last.”
What about a happy family?
In a happy family there is lot of understanding. A happy family follows a few basic unwritten rules. It is informal, respects gender and individual differences. It does not believe in hierarchy in the stricter sense. The senior members are valued and respected for their 'experience' rather than 'age'. There is togetherness in the family, but this does not mean that all decisions are taken jointly. Opinion of the group is collected; the 'best' man does the synthesis. The family appreciates the difficulties in arriving at the consensus. The outcome may not satisfy all to the same extent, but the members understand that the decision has been taken to serve the best interest of the family. The family believes that shared values can resolve conflicts.
The Head of the Department (HOD) of a happy family is by rotation. The basis of rotation is needs and issues. A happy family has multiple 'centres of mass', but one centre does not disturb the movement of other centres, as is being practiced for ages by our solar system.
Members of a happy family are like a group of friends. Some of the characteristics one looks for in a friend are proximity, familiarity, similarity, physical attractiveness, emotion matching, and empathy. Respect is another essential feature of friendship. How one communicates respect may differ, but what matters is that it is communicated. Members of a happy family are not shy to display emotions to reaffirm their commitment for each other.
The size of the family matters. Small is beautiful even for happy families. According to a theory of evolutionary biology, Man evolved to feel strongly about few people, short distances, and relatively brief intervals of time, and these are still the dimensions of life that are important to him.
Bertrand Russell suggested a novel way to achieve happiness. There was a phase when he hated life. He was continually on the verge of suicide. Once he discovered the meaning of “diminishing preoccupation with myself,” he began to feel happy, began to enjoy life. He felt good by deliberating less on his “sins, follies, and shortcomings.” He gradually learnt to be indifferent towards himself and his deficiencies. He directed his attention more towards the external world. “External interests, it is true, bring its own possibility of pain: the world may be plunged in war, knowledge in some direction may be hard to achieve, friends may die. But pains of these kinds do not destroy the essential quality of life, as do those that spring from disgust with the self.”
Pascal said that man's unhappiness comes from his inability to stay in his room alone. For many people, staying alone in their rooms is not a problem. For some it is a big problem. Scientists can stay alone in their laboratories for long hours and are happy people. Perhaps, scientists respond better to positive events and opportunities around them. Perhaps, scientists can wear rose tinted glasses better.
George Vaillant has given us the simplest happiness tip - There is an age to watch your cholesterol and an age to ignore it.