How to find happiness

This article is all about happiness. Happiness: that thing we all want. You want it. Yet what is it? Before we immerse ourselves in the nature and pursuit of happiness we should get clear about exactly what happiness is.

The easiest way to begin is to dispense with some of the popular misconceptions. For a start, happiness is not shopping. Despite everything advertising tries to make you believe, you will not “become” happy by buying something. In fact, the evidence is that advertising is a major cause of unhappiness because it seeks to make people feel a sense of lack in their lives. Of course, advertising agencies only have that power if you put any credence at all in any of their spruiking. Sling away slogans (there’s one for your T-shirt) and you won’t be open to the depredations advertising can wreak on your psyche.

Like advertising, commuting is another happiness antidote. Harvard researcher, Professor Robert Putnam, calculated that every 10 minutes of commuting cuts all forms of social involvement by 10 per cent, leading to less time spent with families, local clubs and other involvement. We shall see later how connection to others is essential for happiness, so by reducing connection time, commuting also reduces happiness. Rather than centralise in industrial office parks, which might make developers happy, maybe businesses would do better if they moved closer to their workers, thus contributing to their happiness. A happy worker is a productive worker. Sometimes the mountain does have to go to Mohammed.

If you ask a politician they will tell you that happiness for individuals lies in economic growth, a perpetually burgeoning gross domestic product (GDP). (For an alternative slant on this check out the article on Bhutan and the idea of Gross National Happiness [GNH] in this issue.) For mainstream politicians of all sides, though, the accepted mantra is to deliver the best possible quality of life for us all by concentrating on a growing economy. That is why sustainable development and growth, growth and growth are part of all government planning.

There is plenty of evidence in the industrialised world to confirm that economic growth and wealth do not equate to happiness. Whether or not government should play a role in creating individual happiness is debatable but what is undeniable is that they should certainly get out of the way of the individual and community pursuit of happiness.

It is clear, then, that some of the nature of modern life does not lend itself to happiness but that does not really take us closer to what happiness is. To begin that journey, it will help to examine happiness in your body.

The biology of happiness

Most of the scientific research on the physiology of happiness has been on two related but perhaps somewhat distant cousins: pleasure and desire. In the 1950s psychologists found that rats would repeatedly press levers to receive tiny jolts of current injected through electrodes implanted deep within their brains. When this brain stimulation was targeted at certain areas of the brain the rats would repeatedly press the lever up to 2000 times per hour. In fact, they would stop almost all other normal behaviours, including feeding, drinking and sex.

These findings suggested that the pleasure centre in the brain had been found. The regions involved overlapped with the regions damaged in Parkinson’s disease. The main neurotransmitter in these regions is dopamine and so it was dubbed the “pleasure chemical”.

Recent studies, however, have suggested the brain regions that were being stimulated are involved in desire rather than pleasure. The research has found that rats have specific facial expressions for pleasant and nasty-tasting foods. Sugary food makes them lick their lips contentedly, much like human children will do, while a bitter taste leads to a lip-curling expression. However, by altering the rats’ dopamine levels, their expressions remained unchanged.

The question, then, is are these brain centres about “wanting” or “liking”? The belief now is that the dopamine system in the brain is responsible for desire while the opiate system, including endorphins, our own natural feel-good chemicals, is more closely linked to experiencing pleasure. Research now is focusing on a part of the brain called the orbitofrontal cortex, a region that is more recently developed in evolutionary terms and has connections to both the opiate and dopamine systems. When people report feeling pleasure, parts of the orbitofrontal cortex are firing.

The real issue, though, is whether all this dissection of pleasure and desire gets us any closer to the biological basis of happiness. Is happiness perhaps pleasure without desire? Or is that contentment, or are happiness and contentment one and the same? If this biochemical state is happiness, do we create happiness by cutting dopamine and boosting natural opiates?

As is usually the case, examining the minutiae of what is happening biologically in happiness does not bring us closer to understanding the nature of happiness itself. Understanding rarely derives from identifying component parts, but instead comes out of developing an integrated picture of the whole. So let’s take a step back to look at how happiness seems to operate in practice.

Happiness in action

Social researchers tend to measure happiness simply by asking people how happy they are. This might seem simplistic but results from this approach do seem to tally with what friends or family members say about a person’s happiness. So if we accept that self-assessment is a reasonable guide to when a person is genuinely happy, there are some things we can see that correlate with happiness.

As you will find in the article on happiness research in this publication, money and standard of living do not appear to bring happiness. Although richer countries do tend to be happier than poor ones, once you have a home, food and clothes, then extra money does not seem to make people much happier. This is thought to be because we adapt to pleasure. We go for things that give us short bursts of pleasure whether it’s a chocolate or a new car. However, it is as though your pleasure threshold resets itself and, the more you have, the higher your pleasure threshold rises. It also seems that people tend to compare themselves to others as a guide to how much pleasure they take from circumstances. So if you give someone 10 million dollars, their benchmark for how they are doing will become other millionaires rather than how they were doing before wealth came their way. Comparison holds no happiness and neither, it seems, does monetary wealth.

So what does make us happy? In 1943, psychologist Abraham Maslow proposed that all humans seek to fulfil a hierarchy of needs that he represented with a pyramid. The pyramid’s base, which he believed must be satisfied first, signified basic needs for things like food, sleep and sex. Safety and security came next in Maslow’s hierarchy, then love and belonging, then esteem and, at the top of the pyramid, a quality Maslow called “self-actualisation”. Maslow believed these needs can only be fulfilled in sequence and that people who have the higher-order needs met should be happier than those who don’t. Recently, however, these ideas have been challenged.

Researchers took data from the Gallup World Poll conducted in 155 countries from 2005 to 2010. The survey included questions about money, food, shelter, safety, social support, feeling respected, being self-directed, having a sense of mastery, and the experience of positive or negative emotions. The researchers found that fulfilment of a diversity of needs does appear to be universally important to individual happiness. The interesting thing, though, was that the order in which “higher” and “lower” level needs are met has little bearing on how much they contribute to happiness.

They found that the fulfilment of basic needs was linked to an overall positive life evaluation but that satisfaction of higher needs (social support, respect and autonomy) was more strongly related to enjoying life. This shows that happiness is about your place in the world and is much more than having a full belly. The really interesting finding from this global evaluation was that people reported being happier when others in society also have their needs fulfilled.

Plugged in to happiness

So here’s the paradox: pursuing your happiness to the extent that you focus entirely on you will not make you happy. Quite to the contrary. Being connected to, and concerned about, others is a prerequisite for true happiness.

Sufi psychologist Fleur Bonnin says, “Every time one is totally focused on the self, either interacting with others or responding to events, one is placing oneself on the surface of the ocean of life, trapped on the top of the waves. On the surface, one experiences being in a constant state of flux and repetition. Up and down, side to side, sometimes floating along, other times thrashing against the shore. But if one’s focus and awareness are expanded beyond the self, then rather than being on top of the water, one can experience being within and therefore a part of the ocean. Here, one becomes both the observer and the participant of the depth and calmness that exists under the waves as well as the activity of the waves. From this place, one need not react with fight or flight, or fear, or wallowing etc. There is no reason to react in an effort to ease pain because one is no longer being thrown around since one is also connected with the depth of the ocean. From here one can respond to events with the appropriateness that they deserve, no more and no less — through the eye of the observer, in a state of balance and peace.”

Part of achieving happiness, then, is to take your focus and awareness beyond your “self”. I recently wrote a book for which I interviewed a series of high-profile people who had varying levels of fame and monetary wealth. When I asked them what was their clearest measure of success in life they all said, in one way or another, to be surrounded by people they love (friends and family) and to be able to do things that serve other people.

Film director George Ogilvie spent some years as a devotee of Siddha Yoga where seva (service) is a central philosophy. Ogilvie says, “It comes back to the process and being immersed in the process instead of looking at outcomes.” Olympic swimmer Elka Whalan said, “Service is being compassionate and kind. It is listening to people, being there for support, being there for love and meeting people where they are.”

To meet people where they are you need to be aware of where they are, and to do that you need to know where you are and that means you need to know your own mind. So serving others and the happiness that arises from that service begins with genuine knowledge of who you are such as you achieve through regular meditation. Interestingly, the act of service itself is also a kind of living meditation that will foster your happiness.

Many spiritual teachers emphasise service and the power it has to not only support others but to transform you (although the latter should not be your reason for serving). Hindu swami Sathya Sai Baba summed it up by saying, “Understand that society is the source of whatever pleasure one derives and whatever wealth one achieves in life. We owe everything to society and should be grateful to society for all that we receive from it. We have to repay this debt by helping at least as many people as we can. With a genuine keenness or readiness to serve others, one can attain happiness in any group or community, and the very eagerness to serve others will endow you with the power and skill necessary for the required service.”

Sai Baba makes the other point that in order to serve, what you need to do is realise you are serving the divinity that exists in the person you serve. Once again, in order to do that you must work on realising that we are, all of us, doing our best and are expressions of whatever you perceive the higher reality to be (God, Universe, collective unconscious, mind etc). Although you should “serve” without any expectation of return, you actually do get something back. The great power of service, like the power of prayer or meditation, is to extinguish your ego and in so doing to help you live in bliss.

Buddhist nun Robina Courtin says, “Your motivation needs to be the wish to make others happy. Otherwise, even if you achieve success you won’t be happy; you’ll be miserable; but if you achieve success from a desire to do good things and from connectedness and you’ve gone past your own fears, then fantastic! Wonderful! Rejoice in it! Compassion, though, is not enough; you need wisdom. Cultivate your wisdom, know your mind and then you can help others and have fun on the way. Go for it — be a joyful person.”

No reason

“Go for it.” There is an undercurrent in that simple yet empowered phrase that you can reach out and create happiness in your life. Can it really be that simple? The answer to that is: it is and it isn’t.

Marci Shimoff is the author of Happy For No Reason, a book that resulted from her interviews with scores of scientists and 100 people she identified as “unconditionally happy”. As a result of all of her research, Shimoff came to the conclusion that there is a continuum of happiness. At one end are people who are “unhappy”, then there are those who are “happy for a bad reason”, those who are “happy for a good reason” and those who are “happy for no reason”.

According to Shimoff, there are distinct characteristics for each of these points along the happiness spectrum. She says of the “unhappy” segment, “Life seems flat. Some of the signs are anxiety, fatigue, feeling blue or low.” Then there are people who are happy for a bad reason. These people “often try to make themselves feel better by indulging in addictions or behaviours that may feel good in the present but are ultimately detrimental … This kind of happiness is hardly happiness at all. It is only a temporary way to numb or escape our unhappiness through fleeting experiences of pleasure.”

A little further along the spectrum lie those who are happy for a good reason and Shimoff says these are the people we usually identify as happy. These are people experiencing the pleasure of “… having good relationships with our family and friends, a nice house or car, or using our talents or our strengths well”. While Shimoff says there is nothing intrinsically wrong with this kind of happiness, “Relying solely on this type of happiness is where a lot of our fear is stemming from these days. We’re afraid the things we need to be happy may be slipping from our grasp.”

That is why Shimoff advocates being happy for no reason at all as the most genuine form of happiness. She is not the first to advocate this, as it is a principle found in many religious teachings, but she does put it well when she says that, when you are truly happy, “you bring happiness to your outer experiences rather than trying to extract happiness from them. You don’t need to manipulate the world around you to try to make yourself happy. You live from happiness, rather than for happiness.”

More than a feeling

This all leads to the conclusion that happiness has nothing to do with pleasure at all. It also suggests that asking “what makes you happy?” is to ask the wrong question. In reality, happiness is not a response to outside factors: it is an ambient quality within you.

Matthieu Ricard is a Buddhist monk and author of Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill. Ricard says, “Happiness is not limited to a few agreeable sensations, intense pleasure or a burst of joy. Rather, it is a way of being and of experiencing the world; a profound fulfilment that suffuses every instant of life and endures despite the inevitable daily hazards we encounter.”

We usually look outside ourselves for the causes of happiness. This externalising of the source of happiness leads you to believe that changing your circumstances might bring happiness. The Roman poet Horace observed, however, “You can change a man’s skies but you can’t change his soul.” If you don’t have the inner environment to be happy, changing your external environment won’t make you happy, either.

It is also devastatingly disempowering to believe that your happiness lies in your circumstances. Many times in life it will be beyond your ability to change the world around you. Yet you always have the capacity, although it can be difficult at times, to change your internal way of being.

According to Ricard, “Genuine happiness is being in a deep sense of fulfilment that arises from an exceptionally healthy mind; a way of being that pervades all emotional states and gives us the inner resources to deal with whatever comes our way.”

It becomes important, then, to identify the inner conditions that lead to genuine happiness as well as identifying those that destroy it. Ricard says, “We must cultivate the states of mind that favour authentic happiness and eliminate the afflictive thoughts and emotions that undermine it. This requires determination and perseverance … If happiness is the “goal of goals” we therefore need to identify and cultivate the inner conditions for genuine well-being; altruism, compassion, inner strength, freedom and peace. Simultaneously, we need to gradually phase out from our mind the mental toxins hatred, craving, mental confusion, arrogance and envy, which destroy our own happiness and that of others.”

Happiness, then, is not a transient state, no butterfly of emotion briefly inhabiting a sunny field of flowers. There is a fundamental quality of mind that is present at all times to true happiness. That is why meditation is so closely linked with ideas of happiness. By no means is meditation your only path to happiness, but the objective of meditation is certainly consistent with happiness. What we are discovering is that happiness requires familiarity with your mind and how it works. Out of that familiarity and knowledge of yourself can arise an inner state that corresponds with what we describe as happiness. That familiarity can be achieved in many ways but meditation is an ancient, and scientifically proven, method.

Ricard observes, “The more we generate loving kindness in our mind, the less there will be room for hatred in our mental landscape. This is why mental training or familiarisation — which is the true meaning of meditation — is crucial for dealing effectively with afflictive emotions as they arise so that they don’t build up into lingering moods and, eventually, afflictive traits or temperament. There are many other ways to free oneself from afflictive mental states. One may, for instance, cease to identify with anger, craving or jealousy and let the mind look at these emotions as if staring at a burning fire. If one does so, neither suppressing emotions nor letting them invade one’s mind, they will vanish of their own accord, like a fire that dies out.

The Tibetan word gom, usually translated as “meditation”, more precisely denotes “familiarisation” while the Sanskrit word bhavana, also translated as “meditation”, means “cultivation”. Meditation is not about sitting quietly in the shade of a tree and relaxing in a moment of respite from the daily grind; it is about familiarising yourself with a new vision of things, a new way to manage your thoughts, of perceiving people and experiencing the world.”

Happiness is not an event that might happen to you. It is a state waiting for you to create it. Go for it.


Terry Robson is editor-in-chief of WellBeing and editor of EatWell. He is a journalist, broadcaster, and author. 

Terry Robson

Terry Robson

Terry Robson is the Editor-in-Chief of WellBeing and the Editor of EatWell.

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