We all want to be happy, and yet happiness so often eludes us. What makes it so hard? And why, when we try to be happy, can it sometimes seem to slip further away?
Questions like these, on happiness and its causes, were the subject of a major international conference that I attended in Melbourne this June. I was lucky enough to have a brief conversation with the guest of honour, the Dalai Lama. We talked about how important it is to consider happiness as a major priority at every level: individually, within communities and at the national scale.
Buddhist thinking about happiness is closer to our modern Western science than you might imagine. One of the leading Buddhist teachers in the West, Thich Nhat Hanh is attributed with this quote:
“There is no way to happiness, happiness is the way”.
I find this idea very intriguing. It hints that there can be no happiness where happiness itself is viewed as a goal.
The fact it needs to be stated is interesting in itself. Can we become so fixated on wanting to be happy that we undermine our chances to feel it when we are? It is this neglect of the journey that Thich Nhat Hanh warns us about.
What is ‘happiness’ then, if it’s not a state we can hope to achieve, but simply a way of being?
A useful answer can be found in the relatively new field of ‘positive psychology’. Despite the wealth of research that has been undertaken by psychologists about human emotions, it is only a relatively recently that positive emotions, like happiness, have come into focus. While psychology has tended focused on the ‘negative’ emotions – the ones that are painful or difficult to feel – like fear, anger, depression and sadness; happiness has traditionally been seen as a proof of adequate functioning. Happiness was understood as an absence of badness or pain; a baseline of ‘okayness’ which let the organism know that nothing needed to change.
But psychologists know that emotions are more than simply feeling states. Emotions are deeply linked to the functioning of the organisms – and have evolved in ways to make us fit for purpose.
Fear, the emotional component of the fight-flight system, immediately stimulates in the organism a need to detect danger and to run away. Anger erupts when a norm has been violated. Sadness is aroused by loss, specifically the loss of a support system, and the human being tends to bed down into a low energy state, preserving energy until a new support system can be found. Happiness, too, it is now emerging, has a functional role never previously imagined.
Barbara Fredrickson, a professor of Psychology at the University of North Carolina has demonstrated through prize-winning research her broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. Her work demonstrates that experiencing positive emotions broadens people’s ‘thought-action repertoires’, literally widening the array of thoughts and actions that come to mind. Through multiple studies she has shown that positive emotions help us create and seize opportunities. For example enthusiasm helps us to mobilise the energy needed to achieve our goals. A feeling of joy prompts us to play, to push at the limits and to be creative, whereas a feeling of interest creates the urge to explore and in doing so expand the self. These positive emotions, and others, like contentment and love, create broadened mindsets which carry indirect and long-term benefits, building enduring personal resources.
Being happy is linked to multiple other positive outcomes, including better health, higher income and increased lifespans. Perhaps one of the most famous studies is a lifelong tracking of 180 nuns who all entered the same convent in the 1930. As part of their training, the young novices were asked to write a short autobiography of their childhood. Those nuns who felt happy and wrote about happier life experiences went on to outlive their unhappy sisters by 8 years. Another study compared the college photos of students who were smiling and students who were not. Just these photo smiles predicted better health, higher income, and happier marriages over 30 years later.
These results might sound amazing - but they do make sense. If someone is happy and they smile at you, it is a message for you to approach them. If they scowl, you are more likely to stay away. All these little moments will open up, or close down, a multitude of opportunities.
If you think for a moment of how all these micro-interactions play out in the modern workplace, you can see what an impressive cascade of effect can be released between fellow workers, as well as in relationships with customers and clients, from something as seemingly small as the genuine feeling of happiness that promotes a smile. There is no doubt that with missed work-days, low energy meetings and blocks to creativity, unhappiness at work costs firms a lot of money.
So I think making “happiness the way” - whether in our personal lives or in our workplaces - is sure to bring a lot of positive benefits. Indeed I can think of no finer example of this philosophy than the Dalai Lama himself. He seems to radiate pure happiness wherever he goes and inspires millions of people to live peaceful yet thoroughly engaged lives.