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The Road to Happiness
Roslyn Ross' last piece for Webdiary was We can live in truth or lie in death
by Roslyn Ross
Happiness is something we all want but what is it exactly? The dictionary defines it as a "state of wellbeing." But is that something which any of us can have all of the time?
Probably not, when you think of the levels of physical, emotional and psychological pain which people frequently accept in order to achieve.
So, when we say we want to be happy, do we really mean it as a general sort of "happiness" interspersed with non-happy states, or is it okay for non-happy states to be interspersed with happy ones?
Is it something you can pursue as the Americans state in their founding charter? Is it a "right" as so many in the self-help business believe? Or is it something for which one can legislate as Governments like that in the United Kingdom have begun to ponder?
According to Mark Easton, the BBC’s home editor, who has prepared a six-part series called The Happiness Formula, it was a "November afternoon in 2002 when, over tea and biscuits at the Treasury, strategists plotted the first steps in a pamphlet entitled Life Satisfaction: the state of knowledge and implications for Government".
This was no mere statement of policy, says Easton, but in quoting the words of economist Professor Richard Layard, one of those gathered in Room 2/18 that day: "This is a revolution in how we think about everything."
The conclusion reached at that meeting was that there was a case for state intervention to boost life satisfaction. Since then, says Easton, that policy has been pushed at Government level.
Some British local councils now believe that they have a duty to "promote well-being" and it is their job to "make people happier."
The chief executive of South Tyneside Council, Irene Lucas, said some local schools now teach children how to be happy.
"We would like our children to be able to put as much of a premium on happiness in their life as they do on being very good at geography or very good at history," she said.
In Scotland, the Scottish Executive supports a group called the Centre for Confidence and Wellbeing which aims to make Scotland 15 percent more optimistic within ten years.
"Optimism is a major component of happiness and I think it is the part that we can most immediately see is missing from Scottish life" says the centre founder, Carol Craig.
There’s a growing view that happiness might be a more powerful factor in maintaining good health than smoking, diet and exercise.
Richard Layard, the author of Happiness: lessons from a new science, believes it is now possible to "measure" happiness in the same way as GDP is measured.
Neuroscientists are able to measure pleasure, he maintains, and are suggesting that happiness is more than a vague concept or mood, but something real and quantifiable.
Social scientists on the other hand, who have been measuring happiness for some time, do so by asking people how happy they are. They base results on the "fit" between how an individual rates his or her happiness and what friends or even strangers might say in response to the same question. Interestingly most people say that they are fairly happy.
Scientific surveys indicate that happiness, or a modicum of happiness, leads to long life, health, resilience and good performance so perhaps it is not as silly as it might sound for Governments to work toward improving the happiness quotient of the population.
In survey after survey involving large groups of people, where scientists compare reported happiness and factors like age, sex, marital status, health, income, religion and unemployment, there are significant correlations between happiness and other factors.
In one study there was a difference of nine years between the happiest and the unhappiest group. Compare that "win" with a loss of six years for a heavy smoker. I guess that says a happy heavy smoker only gets "three" extra years instead of "nine."
The other thing which the studies show is that despite a substantial increase in wealth for many people they are not significantly happier.
Professor Daniel Kahneman of the University of Princeton said: "Standard of living has increased dramatically and happiness has increased not at all, and in some cases diminished slightly. There is a lot of evidence that being richer ... isn’t making us happier."
Another element is having goals, things toward which you can work and which provide you with enjoyment and fulfillment.
And then there is meaning, something that I believe is what really holds everything together ... a belief in something bigger than yourself. This can be religion, spirituality, a philosophy of life, or, I would suggest family, friends or anything that we love doing and which enables us to "lose" ourselves in the doing.
It is meaning that makes the worst of things bearable and which gives us a sense of purpose which can translate into hope during the darkest of hours. When we believe that what we are doing or experiencing is of value we can be fulfilled or content, even when we are, to all intents and purposes, deeply unhappy.
When we can find meaning in our situation it diminishes suffering. We can experience physical and emotional pain and remain in a state of well-being psychologically if we can find meaning in that pain. Athletes and ballerinas do this, so do women in childbirth and soldiers in war.
Having recently read Stalingrad, by Antony Beevor, I was struck by this aspect when comparing the resilience of the Russian soldiers and their German enemies during this truly horrendous seige. The Russians were fighting for their homeland and had a great sense of meaning in what they were doing while the Germans were invaders and had lost faith in their leaders. While both sides experienced the same terrible circumstances, it was the Russians who possessed a greater capacity to survive the ghastly conditions. The meaning made the unbearable bearable!
It's another reason why it is impossible to win a war of occupation in the modern world when genocide is no longer 'allowed' as an ultimate solution. Those living under occupation will always have more endurance and resilience because they can find a deeper meaning in their suffering than those who are fighting for non-worthy causes or causes in which they do not personally believe. When you believe completely that your cause is just there is nothing which will deter you from the path and nothing which can destroy the greater will.
A difficult childhood taught me the value of meaning and it’s one reason why I did not wish "happiness" for my children but wished rather for them to be fulfilled. It’s a more realistic "bet" than happiness and a place of far less disappointment. I knew they would have times of happiness, and hopefully many of them, but I also knew they would have times of unhappiness which needed to be lived. One may be deeply unhappy but still be fulfilled, particularly if meaning can be found in the experience, whereas happiness is a rather less reliable state and frequently fleeting.
The scientists are not yet prepared to say if people are healthy because they are happy or happy because they are healthy but they will say that the evidence suggests that happy people live longer than depressed people.
Having had a mother who suffered from depression and yet who lived a lot longer than other relatives who were apparently "happier", I can only assume that for some people "happiness", or fulfillment, may be found in situations that others would regard as miserable.
In the same way that physical illness can serve a positive purpose and provide "meaning", albeit perhaps unconsciously, one presumes that mental illness can do the same. If being mentally or physically "unwell" protects us from something or gives a feeling of strength or power, then the illness becomes imbued with meaning, either consciously or unconsciously, and so mitigates toward a sense of fulfilment, contentment or even happiness.
The place of illness as a necessary or "fulfilling" form of expression in human beings is perhaps most dramatically revealed in cases where the onset of physical illness brings sudden recovery from mental illness and the cure of the physical illness brings a return to mental illness. I had read about this phenomenon but was still astonished to see it happen to my mother-in-law, whereby after ten years of severe mental illness, she "returned" to normalcy a few weeks before being diagnosed with the illness which ultimately killed her. But this is a digression from the topic.
The best guide as to how worthy our happiness is, if we were to make that distinction, is how much it contributes to others in particular or our community in general.
Aristotle’s "good life" saw happiness on a long term basis with a focus on strong social relationships, civic responsibility and self-betterment.
There’s no denying that government interest in the importance of public happiness has the potential to stand all of us in good stead but one suspects that the most powerful forces for change in this regard need to come from individuals themselves. Government can create an environment which is more conducive to such change but, at the end of the day, the happiness quotient is ultimately dependent upon how we see ourselves and our life. Some of that is genetic and therefore out of our control, some of that is learned and therefore more easily changed and some of it is a reflection of our environment which is where Government may have some influence. But most of it is really up to us and it helps if we know some of the guidelines.
The University of Pennsylvania psychologist, Martin E. Seligman, author of Authentic Happiness says there are reasons why some people are happy and others are not.
"The happiest people," says Seligman, "spend the least time alone. They pursue personal growth and intimacy; they judge themselves by their own yardsticks and never against what others do or have."
Scientists believe that a person’s happiness level is fifty percent genetic. That explains why some people manage to look on the bright side no matter what happens and others are mired in gloom when to all appearances everything in their life is working perfectly. And perhaps it is the genetically "not so happy" who would most benefit from Government policies aimed at improving our potential for happiness.
Another psychologist, Ed Diener of the University of Illinois says materialism is toxic for happiness: "Even rich materialists aren’t as happy as those who care less about getting and spending," he says.
So if money doesn’t bring happiness, what does? Helping others is the biggest happiness booster and altruism a fount of deep meaning. No doubt the act of doing good creates a sense of being "of use" and "worthy." Feeling needed and feeling that we are "being good" naturally evoke feelings of fulfillment, purpose and contentment. We can find meaning both in ourselves and in what we are doing and that makes us feel happy.
Viktor Frankl, in his acclaimed book Man’s Search for Meaning, which drew upon his experiences in Nazi concentration camps wrote:
"Everything can be taken from a man (or woman) but ... the last of the human freedoms - to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way."
I would add that if the scientists are right, not all of us have an equal ability to "choose" what we will do or who we will be. I know my mother did not, although she certainly, by omission, more than commission "chose her own way." But it was a "choosing" limited by her nature.
And yet she too would have related to Frankl when he said: "There is also purpose in life which is almost barren of both creation and enjoyment and which admits of but one possibility of high moral behaviour; namely, in man’s attitude to his (or her) existence, an existence restricted by external forces."
Frankl believed that what mattered was not the meaning of life in general, but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at any given moment. This "meaning", he said, could be discovered through doing a deed, experiencing a value or by suffering.
The Qakers had a similar view and taught that every act, no matter how small or unpleasant should be approached as a gift which deserved complete and grateful attention. Therein lay the way to peace of mind.
Viktor Frankl’s experiences taught him that anything could be survived, and survived well, if one could find meaning in the moment. The scientific view is in agreement with this and researchers talk about being "in the flow", immersed in the moment. And this ability, whether it is immersion in action or thought is an antidote to unhappiness.
"It did not really matter what we expected from life," wrote Frankl, "but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life - daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual"
One could do worse than heed the words of Viktor Frankl as one continues to seek or pursue Happiness.