Regular readers of this blog will know of our interest in human happiness and wellbeing, especially since our political leaders began to talk about ‘the happiness agenda’.
On the train coming back to Koshien following the visit to Kyoto there was time to finish a book that was recently given away with the Observer – “Happier”, by Tal Ben-Shahar. The final section contains some interesting paragraphs:
As the Buddha said, “Thousands of candles can be lit from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared.” Unlike material possessions, which are usually finite, happiness is infinite.
I believe that the spread of happiness perception can bring about a society-wide revolution, no less significant than what Karl Marx had hoped to achieve.
Sixth Meditation : Take Your Time.
Time pressure is pervasive, and, to some extent, accounts for the culturewide increase in rates of depression.
We are, generally, too busy, trying to squeeze more and more activities into less and less time. Consequently we fail to savour, to enjoy, potential sources of the ultimate currency [happiness] that may be all around us – whether it is our work, a class, a piece of music, the landscape, our soul mate, or even our children.
What can we do, then, to enjoy our lives more despite the fast-paced rat-race environment so many of us live in? The bad news is that there are no magic bullets – or magic pills. We must simplify our lives, we must slow down. The good news is that simplifying our lives, doing less rather than more, does not have to come at the expense of success.
Our world becomes more complex and the pressure seems to mount by the nanosecond . . .
Time is a limited resource, and there are too many competing demands on this limited resource. Our immoderate busyness, the stress so many of us experience so much of the time, makes us unhappy across so many areas of our lives.
Psychologist Tim Kasser shows in his research that time affluence is a consistent predictor of wellbeing, whereas material affluence is not. Time affluence is the feeling that one has sufficient time to pursue activities that are personally meaningful, to reflect, to engage in leisure. Time poverty is the feeling that one is constantly stressed, rushed, overworked, behind. All we need to do is look around us – and often within ourselves – to realise the pervasiveness of time poverty in our culture.
In her Harvard Business Review article “Creativity Under The Gun,” Teresa Amabile dispels the myth that working under pressure yields better results. Time pressure leads to frustration, and when we’re frustrated or feel other negative emotions our thinking becomes more constricted, narrower, and less broad and creative.
A wine connoisseur does not chug the entire glass of wine in one gulp . . . To become a life connoisseur, to enjoy the richness that life has to offer, we too need to take our time.
Happiness perception is about recognising that happiness is the ultimate currency, the end to which all other goals lead. Happiness perception is NOT about rejecting the material, but rather dethroning it from its status as the highest on the hierarchy. Aristotle understood this when he said, “Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence,” as did the Dalai Lama, who asserted that “whether one believes in religion or not, whether one believes in this religion or that religion, the very purpose of our life is happiness, the very motion of our life is towards happiness.”
When the questions that guide our life are about finding more meaning and pleasure (happiness perception) rather than about how we can acquire more money and possessions (material perception), we are much more likely to derive benefit from the journey as well as the destination. Today, with the prevalence of the material perception, too many people are asking the wrong questions . . . No wonder levels of depression are on the rise.
Happiness perception is about asking the question of questions, “What will make me happier?” It’s about finding the overlap between the three questions, “What gives me meaning?” “What gives me pleasure?” “What are my strengths?” It’s about asking, “What is my calling?” and identifying the things you really want to do at school, at work, and with your life as a whole.
I am an optimist about the possibility of change toward a more emotionally prosperous society. I believe that people can find work that will provide them present and future benefit, that people can find education a rich source of the ultimate currency, that people can find meaningful and pleasurable relationships. I believe that the happiness revolution will come about. I do not, however, believe that these changes will happen overnight.
In this book I present a neat and structured theory of happiness, but life is neither neat nor structured. A theory, at best, can establish a stable Archimedean point amid the flux of life, a platform from which we can ask the right questions. Of course, making the transition from theory to practice is difficult: changing deeply rooted habits of thinking, transforming ourselves and our world, requires a great deal of effort.
People often abandon theories when they discover how difficult it is to put them into practice. It seems odd that most of us are prepared to work extremely hard for quantifiable ends yet give up quickly when it comes to pursuing the ultimate currency.
Then there are those who, stuck in the past, do not allow themselves to experience happiness in the present. They rehearse their unsatisfying histories, their attempts to live first as rat racers and then as hedonists; they brood over the relationships they tried to rekindle to no avail, the many jobs they worked at without finding their true calling. Always reliving the past, concerned with justifying their happiness, they forgo the potential for happiness in their lives. Rather than allowing ourselves to remain enslaved by our past or future, we must learn to make the most of what is presently in front of us and all around us.
One of the common barriers to happiness is the false expectation that one thing – a book or a teacher, a princess or a knight, an accomplishment, a prize, or a revelation – will bring us eternal bliss. While all of these things can contribute to our well-being, at best they form a small part of the mosaic of a happy life. The fairy tale notion of happiness – the belief that something would carry us to the happy ever after – inevitably leads to disappointment. A happy – or happier – life is rarely shaped by some extraordinary life-changing event; rather, it is shaped incrementally, experience by experience, moment by moment.
To realise, to make real, life’s potential for the ultimate currency, we must first accept that “this is it” – that all there is to life is the day-to-day, the ordinary, the details of the mosaic. We are living a happy life when we derive pleasure and meaning while we are spending time with our loved ones, or learning something new, or engaging in a project at work. The more our days are filled with these experiences, the happier we become.
This is all there is to it.
These ideas are a welcome contribution to the debate about human happiness. Whilst we don’t agree with all of them, there is much here to consider and use as a basis for future discussion and reflection.
A typical Zen approach, meanwhile, is well summed up in one of the quotations we posted on yesterday’s blog:
“Happiness is a simple thing: you are happy when you are not trying to be happy.”