I recently went on a pilgrimage, away from intrusive phone calls and emails. My mind was free to wander and observe. The more I looked around, the more I realized that directly or indirectly all of us we are simply trying to be happy. It became obvious that nature has programed us for two basic purposes – to survive and to be happy. No wonder the American constitution lists the pursuit of happiness as a fundamental right.
Since the time human beings began to contemplate, the concept of happiness and its pursuit has captivated us. Seers have endlessly deliberated on it; reams have been written about it. Yet, happiness remains elusive and shrouded in myths. Why?
I thought back to what Benjamin Franklin had said: “The constitution only gives people the right to pursue happiness. You have to catch it yourself”. I think although most of the world has an idea of what happiness is all about, we have failed to figure out the process of “catching” it. Maybe it’s time we uprooted existing beliefs and figured out a simpler, more natural process of being happy.
Happiness and Accomplishments
Look around. Can you see people running, struggling, fighting and competing to achieve something? That’s how they believe they can catch happiness, by achieving “something,” as if happiness were the peak of a mountain waiting to be scaled.
Conventional wisdom talks about delaying contentment till the right time. “Study now, play later” is what we grow up hearing. Unfortunately, this is a flawed notion. On the contrary, accomplishments follow happiness. People have achieved incredible success when they have been busy doing something that makes them happy rather than worrying about the outcome. Serotonin – the happiness endorphin, has a profound impact on our performance. So why do we continue to look at happiness upside-down? Because all our focus is on our future happiness.
When we chase success that will make us “happier in the future,” the underlying belief is that the present is not good enough to give us joy; that there is something inherently wrong with our present lives and selves. We unwittingly indulge in comparison – comparing our present selves with our future selves. And in our minds, our future selves are so much more happier, so much more confident and deserving of joy that our present selves. So, even if our present is happy, comparison with a “brighter future” makes it seem inadequate and pale. Consequently, although there is no guarantee that our efforts will produce happiness in the future, we effectively ruin our chances of being happy in the present.
Karma and Dharma
The notions of Karma and Dharma have been misused for centuries, ever since Krishna spoke about them. The existing Karma model infers that there are prescribed tasks that have to be performed as duties or Dharma, irrespective of an individual’s inclination toward them.
However, if we look at it from another perspective, in their most simplistic terms, Karma according to Dharma means rightful action according to natural disposition. Going deeper, it means that nothing is right or wrong. Our natural duty or Dharma means doing that which one is disposed to do or in other words that which one enjoys. A lion needs to hunt to survive but more than that, it enjoys the game of chasing and killing the prey. Satiation of hunger often becomes an incidental outcome of the pursuit of the happiness of hunting. On the other hand, lions at the zoo or circus are comparatively less healthy and happy, although they get food without the effort of hunting. They get food to survive, but they miss out on fulfilling their natural desire of hunting.
Therefore, your Dharma or duty actually implies working according to your natural instincts. Recent developments in the field of positive psychology prove that people who follow their natural talents and dispositions have a far greater propensity to succeed.
Brene Brown, author of New York Times bestseller Gifts of Imperfection uses a decade of research and data to demonstrate that most of us want to change ourselves to match society’s perception of what we should be – a surefire way to generate unhappiness.
Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston, urges people to “let go of who you think you’re supposed to be and embrace who you are”. It doesn’t take a genius to realize “who you are” is what you are in the present. If your focus is constantly on the imagined future self (who you are supposed to be), you will never be able to love your present self. And you can’t be happy when you don’t love yourself.
A bigger problem with sacrificing our present selves to create happy future selves is that though each one of us imagines who we will be in future, the human mind is fundamentally incapable of accurately predicting what are future selves will be like. Harvard College Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, Daniel Gilbert, in his 2006 bestseller Stumbling upon Happiness demonstrates how we make basic and consistent mistakes when making predictions about the future. If our system to predict the future is faulty, then the act of sacrificing our present on “how to make it happier” is bound to boomerang.
Another pitfall of chasing future happiness is that practice makes us perfect. We usually become experts at what we do. If we live our lives preparing for a happy future, we will gain expertise in “preparing for happiness”. If you want to be happy, you have to practise being happy.
Happiness Fact File
• Unhappiness can reduce your life by 9 years, research shows. Compare this to the effect of cigarettes on life expectancy. If you smoke one pack a day, you are likely to lose only three years of your life. The impact of unhappiness on health is commonly underestimated. Most people believe that if we are healthy, we are happy. They don’t see the reality—if we are happy, we are healthy.
• The happiness-health correlation was strengthened in 2000 when Martin Seligman, Professor of Psychology at University of Pennsylvania and a renowned expert in the field, recognized that psychology needed to shift focus from the “repair of unhappy states” to “propagation and nurturing of happy ones”. He realized that strengthening what is right with us generates healthier and happier individuals. This led to the emergence of positive psychology, which is practiced widely today.
• Happiness boosts creativity. Not only are we healthier when we are happy, we are also more productive. Endorphins that accompany happiness, free the mind of anxiety, fear, stress and worry. Emptied of negative emotions of self-doubt, hatred, and envy, we become conduits for passionate creative energy. Alive with attention, we see and make connections that an unhappy mind cannot, and we experience heightened productivity. Creativity gets a free rein and we reach a state commonly known as “flow”. Artists, musicians and writers have all experienced flow—a period of intense creativity and joy.
While in the western world the pursuit of happiness has been equated with material success, a large part of the East firmly believes that the pursuit of happiness is selfish. We are taught to sacrifice our personal joy so we can make others happy. We assume that our happiness is somehow mutually exclusive with the happiness of others. Whereas, the exact the opposite is true. Most problems in the world are created by unhappy people who are out of balance with themselves and the natural forces around them. Tilt it as much as you want, an empty jar cannot fill the glass with happiness. You cannot share what you do not possess.
But the good news is that nature has designed happiness to be self-propagating. The happier you are, the more you will create happiness for yourself and others. All you have to do is to begin.