Heart-to-heart talk: how to be happy – scientific and religious point of view

“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to always tell the difference”
Reinhold Niebuhr, Kurt Vonnegut

Cyprus, 2008.

I’ve been thinking about covering this topic in my blog for a long time and eventually decided to do it. Firstly to structure it all for myself and secondly to share some thoughts and interesting articles & videos which I collected for last couple of years. As a result, this post is quite long and wordy, so don’t open up the full article if you’re not really interested in such kind of philosophical issues and get bored easily by them. In this case you might think that this is just an unpractical gobbledegook.

I actually find the combination of how important and how ambiguous this issue is quite puzzling. Very high percentage of people respond to the question about meaning of their lives with “to be happy” answer. And very few of them actually have any particular idea what this happiness is, how to achieve & feel it. Even in their individual case, not universally.

No matter where you look there are more questions than answers. Is it possible to find an universal recipe for happiness or is it only individual, even intimate issue? Can you buy happiness or does money actually make us unhappy? Can the state of happiness be permanent or only fragmented in separate moments? Is happiness in achievement of one’s goals, in results or in process, constant “here and now”? And does the pursuit of happiness itself make us more or less happy?

Is it true that happiness is 100% subjective feeling that depends only on our perception or is it determined by external conditions that are outside of our control? Is “happiness regardless of conditions” really attainable or is it better left to psychos and Buddhist fairy tales? And if it’s attainable then how can one still keep the urge to grow and progress in this state? Can small habits change something significantly? Replies to all these questions vary greatly and often are simply opposites. Also, there are options of “truth is somewhere in between” and “both are true”. Or are these simply cliches and excuses not use one’s brain?

Why happiness level of countries differs so significantly, even on average? How is it all connected with meaning of life, success, motivation, goals, upbringing, religion, freedom of choice, level of expectations, life experience, stress, etc?

Well it’s clear that trivialities, such as “if you want to be a happy person, just be one” and “money doesn’t but happiness”, just won’t help here. Everything seems to be deeper, more ambiguous, but interesting. So, what can religion, science and various self-help popularizers tell us?

Buddhism, if you oversimplify it to an extreme, tells us that happiness can be achieved through the constant mindfulness of situation, our thoughts and feelings with simultaneous equanimity – letting everything be the way it is instead of creating internal conflicts. I think it goes beyond simple “letting go of one’s desires”. BTW, right now I listen to an awesome book which covers the topic in a greater detail — Science of Enlightenment by Shinzen Young.

From here we get an ages old concept of “happiness regardless of conditions” according to which we have an infinite amount of freedom between a particular thing happening to us and our reaction. Actually, this simple concept was sold billion of times by thousands of people, sometimes seasoned with different sauces and labeled differently. From enlightenment to proactivity, reframing & management of emotions.

Dan Gilbert, American psychologist in in popular and very funny TED talk presents an idea that we are actually very bad at predicting our emotional reactions to certain events. For example, people tend to largely exaggerate how happy winning in lottery would make them. And how miserable becoming disabled would make them. In fact Dan talks about same old “happiness regardless of conditions” concept, but calls it synthetic happiness. Apparently, we constantly transform our perception in order to be slightly happier. In a conclusion he talks about the same ideal state in which we realize intelligently that some scenarios are more preferable to others, but don’t pursue them with such a zeal that it undermines our equanimity & balance.

We act as though comfort and luxury were the chief requirements of life, when all that we need to make us happy is something to be enthusiastic about.
Albert Einstein

And in other talk at the same conference Richard St Jones talks about success. But in such a meaning that is very close to the topic discussed in this post. He shares his life experience and tells us how disappointed he was after achievement of his materialistic goals. After this, he turned to antidepressants that made them fell better, but the side-effect was that he stopped giving a shit about work & customers. Eventually he returned to normal fulfilled life and came up with his own definition of success. Which is a repeating circle of 8 things: passion, work, purpose, push, ideas, improve, serve, persist.

Few months ago I shared a video of debates on the topic “Is the Pursuit of Happiness Making us Miserable?” from Fora.tv which is certainly worth watching. In essence it’s a clash between what we think of as Western and Eastern world view. As a result, audience came to conclusion that it’s more possible than not that pursuit of happiness actually makes us unhappy (a little more than a half of people voted for this opinion).

Mark Anielski, whose book Economics of Happiness I already covered in this blog is interested in happiness on a national level and in an economic context. This approach is called happynomics and I was really interested in it recently, even thought of devoting my post-graduate paper to the subject. Before I actually was rejected in my attempt to change its topic. Anyway, besides other things in his book Mark looks on different traditional communities trying to understand their values. And often they seem to value free time and their social circle much more than money which is sometimes all the way around in our modern society. BTW, there is a very good talk on the topic of happynomics as well: Measuring what makes life worthwhile.

Further developing ideas of happynomics, Nic Marks created a Happy Planet Index which is based on Satisfaction With Life Index and Ecological Footprint of countries. Not surprisingly he also talked at TED and shared his thoughts on universal character traits that happy people possess and actions they take. In brief, these are following: connect, be active, take notice, keep learning, give.

In a meanwhile, Dan Buettner once asked a question why people in some places of the world called Blue Zones live much longer than anywhere else. As it turned out, health and longevity are determined with happiness and socializing not less than by healthy lifestyle. So, what’s the secret? Purpose – reason to wake up every day, time to slow down & reflect, support of close friends, love and only then diet and exercising. Of course, Dan also talked about it at TED.

Another aspect of happiness is related to our work and career. Daniel Pink in this RSA video called “Surprising Truth About Things that Really Motivate Us“, which I already shared once, describes what one needs for happiness in professional context, at work or in business. Basically, three things: autonomy, mastery & purpose. Or, in full version, factors are autonomy, relatedness, competence, complexity, connection between effort and reward.

And to finish I will shortly tell you about Tony Hsieh. This guy started LinkExchange company in his twenties, and eventually sold it to Microsoft for few million dollars. Currently works as a CEO in Zappos. Recently he wrote a book called Delivering Happiness, which I’m really looking forward to read. He states that one of the reasons he sold LinkExchange was the fact that corporate culture was terrible and he didn’t like working there. Now Tony tries to apply happiness theories in practice using them to create the right corporate culture in Zappos. In his Google talk he speaks about all those things in more detail. His version is as follows: perceived control, perceived progress, connectedness, vision/meaning.

In overall it looks that on one hand everybody talks about different things, but on the other hand about the same the same concept. I tend to think that it would make sense to divide these happiness determinants into 2 categories. First would be values and corresponding everyday states & actions. And another one would be the actual goals and achievements in areas that matter: “to be”, “to do”, “to know”, “to have”. But the most important and difficult thing is not to forbid yourself to be happy before everything is accomplished. And I still think that an attempt to understand what happiness is in one’s case is a personal journey of each one of us. While all the research and religious ideas can be used for reference and as a food for thought.

That’s all I actually wanted to share with you. Did anyone read it all? What do you think?

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