Riddle: When you look for it, you won’t find it, but when you forget it and go beyond yourself, it will come to you. What is it? Answer: Happiness: for happiness is not an objective, it is a reward.
To write about happiness is boring. Instead, it seems it is often sadness that is paired with beauty. Perhaps it is the pain of unrequited love, or the suffering over the loss of a loved one that gives pathos a sense of the sublime. As the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley observes, “Our sweetest songs are those that tell of our saddest thoughts.” /1/ Nonetheless, at the risk of sounding boring, I would like to share a bird’s eye-view of what it means to lead a happy life.
“Happiness” is an elusive word. Unlike joy where our whole world becomes luminous and our being bathed with rapture, happiness is quieter, but also more enduring. That is because the essence of happiness is not feeling. All feelings are transitory. Instead, happiness is a state of mind, a lasting set of attitudes that enables us to choose how to live, and to adapt to any challenges that life may throw at us.
It is said that Nelson Mandela was a happy man in spite of the fact that he spent nearly 30 years in a tiny prison cell. He was nurtured by an attitude that he had a task—to end apartheid in South Africa. Likewise, condemned to push a boulder up the mountain only to see it roll back down again, Sisyphus of Greek mythology was happy, or so argued the French writer and philosopher Albert Camus, because he had accepted the absurdity of his task. /2/ By the same token, a factory assembly-line worker doing seemingly repetitive tasks day after day could also be happy knowing he is putting food on the table for his family.
What then are these attitudes that lead to happiness—attitudes that go beyond the self? Firstly, we have to discount the effects of our genes over which we have little control. Many scientists claim that happiness, along with traits such as intelligence and extraversion, is to some extent heritable, i.e., a tendency to be happy or miserable can be found in our DNA.
Then, there are demographic factors: notwithstanding the consensus that money cannot buy happiness, better off people are generally happier than the poor. The young and the old are generally more satisfied than the middle aged. People with friends and family have better support systems. Ethnicity is another indicator. Although I have heard of no research which involves Filipino subjects, I would hazard a guess that Filipinos are born with a better than average potential for happiness. On the other hand, pundits usually talk about Teutonic angst, referring to the Germanic sense of anxiety.
This “bliss” molecule—our natural marijuana--is called anandamide, a fatty acid neurotransmitter found in our brains. It seems that differing levels of anandamide make some people inherently more or less anxious, and more or less able to forget fearful and unpleasant experiences.
Having discounted these influences, we can now go to the insights of positive psychologists: what are the attitudes that we need to cultivate in order to lead a happy life? Martin Seligman, in his book Authentic Happiness, starts with a little “formula” for happiness. He equates it to the sum of our genes for potential happiness, acted upon by our environment, and most importantly, the choices we make as we respond to this environment. /3/ Indeed, as Albert Camus posits, life itself is the sum total of our choices. Happiness is therefore about volition, and that puts the responsibility for it squarely where it belongs--on our shoulders.
Towards the past, Seligman encourages us to express gratitude for what we have, to learn forgiveness to those who have wronged us, and to be satisfied with what we have accomplished. Towards the future, we are admonished to develop a sense of optimism and hope, whilst holding our expectations at bay, i.e., high hopes, low expectations.
Towards the present, it is about being mindful of the world around us and yes, enjoying pleasurable events. Pleasures are the sensual experiences many might mistakenly think of as happiness, except that they are activity-based. When the activity passes, pleasure ceases. Nonetheless, savour each pleasurable experience, we are told. Take souvenirs—Filipinos are great photographers--or even simply tell friends about the experience in order to better keep it in our memory. At the same time, we should prevent habituation--space out the cake-eating, or exercise some restraint by having a bit less of what the heart desires. It’s good for the body and the soul to leave the dinner table a trifle hungry!
Perhaps the most significant experience of our present is the idea of “flow,” a state of being when we are so totally absorbed in what we do that time stops. We lose awareness of place, and indeed of ourselves. Our involvement becomes seemingly effortless as there is an absence of sensation, often including feelings of pleasure. It is only in retrospect that we find the experience fulfilling.
We hear about “flow” when we talk to artists and musicians, but we all can achieve it by doing something we truly love! Whilst ignoring our weaknesses, we can cultivate our strengths. For instance, one of my strengths is a love for learning, which I inherited from my father. This has led me to a life of a teacher, wanting to share my acquired knowledge through a purposeful career.
Going forward into less time-bound attitudes, we all know about how much humans need meaning in our lives. The Nobel Prize winning American author Saul Bellow in his book The Dangling Man, writes about the protagonist waiting to be drafted to go to war. Certainly, he knows of the risks of being killed, but still he looks forward to the draft because it will give his life meaning. /4/
Meaning and a sense of purpose are exemplified by our response to an all-powerful calling. Any job, says Seligman, can be made into a calling by simply re-labelling and re-crafting it. Responding to such a calling takes us away from ourselves into thinking of others. So can a city janitor transform his job into a calling by thinking of himself as a “front-line” worker entrusted with the responsibility of the health of the community.
Peter Drucker, a management guru, writes about the parable of the three stone cutters. The first stonecutter was asked, “Why do you cut stones?” He replied, “I do an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay.” The second stonecutter was asked the same question, his reply, “I want to be the best stonecutter in the whole world!” It was, however, the third stonecutter who looked up to the skies and answered, “I am building a cathedral!”
The first stonecutter, says Drucker, worked for a reward that was extrinsic to the job. For many of us, it is enough. We may get our purpose from elsewhere but need the maintenance of a stable income. The second cutter’s reward is an intrinsic satisfaction of doing something well—thus many professionals and artists achieve “flow.” For these some others, that is indeed a sufficient purpose for their lives, and they lead good, meaningful lives. The third stonecutter wants to achieve something even more. He has a mission, a calling, a sense of purpose bigger than himself. /5/
And how to face a perfect storm? We need an anchor to fortify our spirit. This anchor will give us a peace of mind that doesn’t bend with the ebb and flow of life, building us a ship with an even keel to ride out the storms. For many of us Filipinos, it is our religion. For some others, it can be a sense of spirituality and transcendence.
As we can see from the views mentioned above, the paths to happiness are many, just like a tree with its many branches—but the over-riding purpose of all these leafy branches is to distribute the nourishment away from themselves, through the trunk, to the roots underneath. The roots will then make the tree grow big and strong, rewarding the branches with ever greener leaves that can bask under the warmth of the sun! That is happiness.
Footnotes: /1/Percy Bysshe Shelley. TO A SKYLARK in PROMETHEUS UNBOUND, Edinburgh, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1820; /2/Albert Camus. THE MYTH OF SISYPHUS. London, Penguin Books, 1975; /3/ Martin Seligman. AUTHENTIC HAPPINESS. London, Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2003; /4/ Saul Bellow. THE DANGLING MAN. New York, The Vanguard Press, 1944; /5/ Peter F Drucker, THE PRACTICE OF MANAGEMENT. New York, Harper & Row, 1954.