The happiness we need

One of the songs my children used to sing when they were little – and I imagine countless small children still sing it – went, “If you are happy and you know it clap your hands”.  Those few words were repeated many times, accompanied by highly enthusiastic hand clapping, proving in those sweet, simple moments that happiness was something we could identify, experience and celebrate.  At least while we are young.

As we get older, we may still be happy.  We may even know it – and be grateful for it.  But for many of us there will also be times when we seriously doubt our capacity for happiness. Even when we are genuinely engaged with our spiritual practice, our happiness may remain highly dependent on things, events and people going the way we need them to. Or we may worry about whether we are entitled to be happy in a world torn by injustice, violence and suffering.  And we may certainly wonder about the explosion of unhappiness that the World Health Organisation predicts as the greatest health problem we will face globally from 2020 onwards.

Even if this forecast is as pessimistic as the psychological condition it describes, it remains troubling. What’s more, it isn’t inevitably linked to some of the other horrors we potentially face, ecologically and socially.  As a stand-alone fact, human beings are getting sadder. But of course this fact cannot “stand alone”.  When we lose our capacity for happiness, not only does our ability to care for ourselves shrink, we are also less able to care effectively for other people. Our thinking becomes distorted. Our creativity plummets. We cannot work as effectively.  Our relationships suffer. We may be surrounded by other people, but we feel isolated.  Our physical health deteriorates.  And if our lack of happiness becomes entrenched, we may even become a danger to ourselves or other people.

Such loss of happiness is tragic individually. But it is always and also a social loss – with measurable effects on the wider world we are collectively creating. Our emotional states are contagious.  We may like to believe that we can keep our moods and the effects of our moods to ourselves.  This isn’t so.  Without saying a word, through what we believe and think and how we feel, we influence one another inevitably.  The only question is how.

In the face of all this, over the last decade or two a small “happiness” industry has developed.  This reflects in part the influence of Buddhism on the West. Happiness, along with suffering, is regarded as a worthy topic of concern within Buddhist psychology as well as philosophy.  And this multi-layered discussion has had an effect that goes way beyond Buddhist circles. The very notion that happiness is a state of mind that can be cultivated – even by thoughtful people, and even when those thoughtful people are aware of their own and others’ suffering – is startling for many.

This may in part reflect the worldview of conventional psychoanalysis which, somewhat like Buddhist philosophy, influences the thinking of far greater numbers of people than its actual adherents. It may also reflect a rather defensive cynicism that has driven mainstream academia and popular culture for many decades. (“Can anyone other than a newly-minted born-again Christian be genuinely happy?” I was asked recently by a professional working in the field of mental health.)

On the more positive side, this “happiness industry” also reflects changing patterns of response and treatment in some quarters, not just to psychological suffering but also to recovery from and even prevention of physical disease.

These changes in perspective and awareness have put happiness and emotional wellbeing squarely on the public agenda.  Some useful questions are being asked. Who are the happy people?  What can we learn from them?  How can we affect our own happiness? And what about the happiness and emotional strength of our children? Can we “make” other people happier? How does happiness relate to trust, faith and compassion? If we have to go looking for happiness, is it still an experience worth having?

These are not questions that I have dealt with directly through most of my two decades of a professional writing life.  I have certainly focused in each of my books on emotional and social wellbeing.  And I’ve paid close attention to how we develop insight, awareness and connectedness.  In fact, if I look back on the books I’ve written I can see that I have been constantly engaging with all the factors that contribute to a greater sense of aliveness, hope, joy, serenity, optimism, creativity, inclusiveness and gratitude (all expressions of what we call happiness).  But it is not until now that happiness has come to the forefront of my concerns.

Perhaps I thought that as someone who struggled with depression and anxiety in my younger life, and certainly with feelings of uncertainty and bleakness even when I seemed to be outwardly confident and successful, that I wasn’t qualified to write about happiness.  (“Leave it to the Dalai Lama,” I probably thought!)  But now – and I have the writing of this new book to be grateful for here – I really do see happiness and our relationship to it quite differently.

 I know now that experiencing the absence of happiness has given me invaluable insights that a sunnier history could not have allowed. I know that understanding that happiness is a process, an attitude towards life itself, and not a destination, shapes the way that we can think about ourselves.  It also shapes the ways that we can think about consciousness, mindfulness – and especially the potent issues of free will, good will, and plain old choice. Understanding how broadly an authentic vision of “happiness” can extend, and how little it necessarily depends on things going the way we believe they should, I am touched deeply by the teaching of the Buddha that our most important challenge is to “participate with joy in the sorrows of the world”.  As a quality of soul, we can understand happiness quite differently from when we see it only as a reflection of mood or state of mind, or only in relation to pleasure.

My new book (2005), Choosing Happiness: Life & Soul Essentials, began life as a resource for the psychological and spiritual essentials that can support us not only to live as well as we can, but also to be the best we can. It is still that.  But when the book was almost finished I saw that I needed to name it for what it is: a handbook of the skills that can bring us greater experiences of inner stability, choice, freedom and, yes, happiness, whatever our outer circumstances.  Understanding as I now do that a genuine vision of happiness can encompass – and soften – times of sorrow, pain, grief and confusion, I also know that happiness affects us collectively as much as it does personally.  And I know that skills and insight – and choice – matter every bit as much as good luck, good times or good temperament.

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