Explore Happiness

I know, I know; I’m either stupid or brave to even think about tackling this topic. Alright, we’ll go with stupid.

Before I start today’s chat, let me say that I know there is no ‘answer’ or consensus to this discussion. No sh*t Sherlock. I’m not stupid enough to think there might exist one universal standard or school of thought when it comes to this topic, perhaps just a bunch of different thoughts, ideas and philosophies. Like most of you, I’m still exploring it, which is why I have chosen to make it just that; a discussion, an interactive chat, a group exploration. I’ll open the door on it and you guys can come in and chat. It could get messy, so buckle up. I’d love to know your thoughts and feelings on the subject because it’s an issue which is relevant to every person on the planet. It’s probably the one topic which commands universal interest.

This morning I spent some time on radio (ABC Melbourne) chatting with the principal of a very wealthy, high-profile school here in Australia which is about to start teaching ‘positive psychology’ as an integral part of it’s curriculum in 2008. It’s described by some as ‘Happiness 101′.

This ‘subject’ is now taught in numerous colleges and graduate schools around the U.S. (over 200) and has been largely driven (championed is maybe a better word) by American psychologist, Dr. Marty Seligman. I’ve read a little of what the good Doc says (it all seems reasonable) and, as I said, spoke to the school principle who is spending sixteen million dollars (that’s some school) on a ‘wellness centre’ for his students (which will incorporate the positive psychology stuff). Where I went to school we got excited when the principle spent sixteen dollars on some new sporting equipment!

The interesting discussion I had with Mr. School Principle got the cogs in my small but curious brain turning. In a recent magazine article here in Australia (Good Weekend Magazine) the science of happiness was explored (this was the catalyst for the radio interview). It seems that (according to the article anyway) despite all our stuff (resources, technology, money, education, toys) we’re no happier — in fact overall, probably less happy.

Do they have a happy-ometer? How do they know?

Apparently, happiness is now something that we need to teach. We’re losing (or have lost) the skill. Is happiness a skill? Or a mindset? A way of being perhaps? Can it be learned?

I was amazed to read that depression is now ten times more prevalent than it was fifty years ago. Not sure about that stat, but that’s what was reported in the article. Maybe we’re just more aware now, more educated about depression perhaps. Hmm.

I have some amazing memories of spending time on a little Island in Vanuatu called Espiritu Santo a few years back, where I made some great friends who taught me all about real happiness. They weren’t trying to teach me anything, but they did. No electricity, no TV, no radio, little money, no bank accounts but lots of fun, lots of laughs, lots of love, an old guitar with four strings and lots of happiness. I wonder who taught them how to be happy? Probably did one of those positive psychology courses by correspondence or perhaps they have a copy of The Art of Happiness. Maybe they have the entire Tony Robbins CD collection.

Careful, you may trip on my sarcasm.

By the way, I’m not being critical of the program, its introduction into schools or the notion of exploring positive psychology. I guess it’s just a weird (but insightful) commentary on where we are at as a society when we have to take classes (at college level no less) on how to be happy. Maybe we should just send our kids for a semester of ‘Life 101′ on the island of Espiritu Santo with my islander brother, McKenzie (his first name).

In the magazine article, the comparison was made between ‘feeling good’ (chasing or partaking in something which makes us feel good for a while – food, drugs, sex, new clothes) and ‘doing good’ (helping others, being generous with our time, money, skills) and which might provide us with a greater level of long-term and overall happiness.

In a way, the self-ish verses self-less debate.

But the million dollar question has to be, what is happiness? Is it different things for different people? Can it be defined? Is it a psychological state? An emotional state? A spiritual plane? A combination of the lot perhaps? A myth? None of the above? Is it teachable or is it in our DNA? Some people are just happy people right?

How do we know when we’re there? What are the symptoms? Er, signs?

What if we have all the ‘happiness ingredients’ but we’re still not happy? Is that possible? Perhaps there’s something wrong with our wiring? Or maybe the ingredients need to be different for every individual? Maybe there are no ‘set’ ingredients? Maybe we keep changing the ‘happiness rules’? Constantly raising the ‘happiness bar’? Subconsciously pushing it out of our own reach? Self-induced misery perhaps? Why do we do that? Strangely, some of us seem determined to find our way back to unhappiness. Just take a look around.

Some psychologists teach us that if we are needed, wanted, appreciated, stimulated and loved, then we should be pretty happy. But what if we have all that and we’re not happy? I’ve seen it, so have you.

Is happiness a four-year kid old squealing with delight as her dad pushes her on a swing, or is that a momentary emotional state? Temporary euphoria? Excitement? Joy perhaps? And when she starts crying once the swing stops does that mean the happiness has stopped? Or perhaps she’s just a brat? Or just a kid who wants to be swinging?

Is true happiness something that is (for the most part) always there? Like that deep sense of contentment, inner peace, satisfaction and calm that we might guess someone like the Dalai Lama takes everywhere with him? That deep sense of knowing that we are in the right place, doing the right thing? Maybe it’s impossible to be happy all the time? Or not. Maybe happiness is a matter of interpretation and perception?

“I didn’t know how happy I was until it was all taken away from me.”

Of course every religion has an opinion on it too. If they can’t agree what hope do we have!? So often there seems to be a degree of “we’re right and they’re wrong” in their theology (psychology/philosophy). Religious arrogance always amuses me. Seems a little contradictory to me. But then again, I’m just a simple exercise scientist. Not as enlightened as some, I s’pose.

Maybe happiness is the absence of certain things? Fear, frustration, hate, illness, pain and insecurity, for example. We know different things make different people happy, so maybe happiness is an individual response to a range of varied stimuli? For one person, a pregnancy might be a source of great happiness but for another… not so much! Maybe it’s not about the situation, circumstance, environment or event, maybe it’s about the individual in it; their personal response to, or interpretation of, that experience.

And what about things which once made us happy, but not any more? Because we’ve changed. Maybe for the worse. Maybe we make ourselves miserable, focusing on what we don’t have, rather than enjoying what we do?

Perhaps we don’t really know how to appreciate what, or who we have in our life? Some people suggest that living in an environment where we have so many choices (check out the cereal selection at your supermarket) has led some of us to being perpetually dissatisfied, always wanting more, always looking over the fence. Always believing that a bigger, better or newer version (of whatever) will make us happy.

Finding misery in an otherwise pretty cool life seems to be a common practice these days.

Perhaps we’re too analytical? Perhaps our tendency to analyze and re-analyze every single facet of our lives inside-out and upside-down has turned us into a bunch of neurotic, self-absorbed, insecure, needy Sigmund Freud-wannabees? Maybe all the self-help ain’t so helpful? Perhaps all this ‘therapy’ has made us more dysfunctional? Maybe we think and talk about it too much?Maybe I shouldn’t publish this article? Maybe I’m helping perpetuate the problem? Or not.

Maybe we should spend less time trying to make ourselves happy and more time and energy trying to make others happy, and in doing so, we’d make ourselves happy! That’d be cool.

Hey, I’m back at the selfish verses selfless debate aren’t I?

Maybe there’s something in that?

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