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The Habit Of Happiness
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The Habit Of Happiness

Sam was an international antique dealer with a holiday house in the South of France, a yacht, a beautiful wife and two children. He’d worked his way up from very poor beginnings in the Western suburbs of Melbourne to build a successful business out of a natural passion for antiques and it was now turning over millions a year. Yet for all this, Sam was sitting in my small two bedroom apartment telling me how dreadfully unhappy he was.

He said, ‘I’m rich, successful and I love my work so I should be happy …’

I asked him what he imagined this happiness would feel like if he had it. He described it as a powerful satisfaction, a euphoria, an ‘elation of the spirit’, then posed the rueful observation, ‘… but I’m no happier now than when I was a depressed little kid living in the poor part of town.’

There is a basic psychological theory which says that each individual is born with a ‘set point’ for their capacity for happiness; a conditioned predisposition determined by genetics and personality. And while this set point of happiness can certainly be raised by life events, such as a growth of income, falling in love, or material acquisition, the elation will only ever be temporary. In time their ‘set point’ of happiness will return to the original level because, influenced by adaptation and social comparison, our expectations always increase in line with our life gains.

So it seemed as if Sam’s expectation of ‘happiness’ had formed itself into an impossible pot of gold at the end of a rainbow he would always be chasing, unless he let go of his expectations.

As a counsellor and meditation trainer, most of my work is to do with happiness. The getting of happiness, how to keep it and, more importantly, why happiness was lost in the first place.

Everybody wants it, and most feel they don’t have enough.

And at the base of each problem with happiness is the expectation that we should be happier than we are, together with an assumption that if we are not happy then something must be wrong: we don’t have enough money, or the right car, the right lover, the right job, and so on. We figure that if only we could buy that brand name dress, or that sound system, we’d be happy. And this keeps us running, trying to find the right combination of things that will break the ‘happiness bank’.

But in this idiotic yearning, we forget that we are a part of nature, and nature doesn’t respond to our human values of ‘happiness’ and ‘unhappiness’. Beneath the surface patina of civilised rationality, our human mind behaves no differently to the rest of Nature. Sometimes sun, sometimes rain, sometimes calm, sometimes storm. In nature the dark side of life is as inevitable as the light.

The irony is that it is largely our attempts to create more happiness than we deserve that causes most of our suffering.

We have been taught this terrible expectation by our parents and our culture, which requires that we consume continuously to keep the whole circus going. Every advertising campaign tweaks our ‘happiness expectations’, coercing us into consuming more products – to make us happy. Propagated by the mass media, we are bombarded with examples of how we should be ‘beautiful, successful people’ laughing and smiling, always having fun.

And here we find an important distinction that is all too rarely made.

If we examine the qualities of the happiness we have been taught to expect, all too often it is not happiness at all, but ‘fun’ – an adrenalised and euphoric state.

Remember how Sam described his expected happiness?

‘A powerful satisfaction, a euphoria, an ‘elation of the spirit’.

This is a description of the intense feelings of fun – not the calm well-being of enduring happiness. Fun occurs when we are at a party, or in passionate love, or driving our new car. It is an intoxicated state, impossible to maintain as a constant feeling, yet all too often the question of whether we are ‘having fun’ or not is what we reach for as a register of whether we are happy or unhappy. Somewhere along the way, we’ve confused the two states, and in the process, lost touch with the more subtle feelings of true happiness.

So this begs the question, ‘If happiness is not fun, what is it?’

In responding to my own questions about happiness a Theravada Buddhist monk I knew once said: ‘Happiness is a habit, not a gift. As such, it must be practiced.’

When he said this to me, it burst an assumption I’d never questioned before. Like Sam, I’d grown up with the belief that’ things’ create happiness. We ‘get’ happiness because of luck, money, good fortune or opportunity. And this notion of happiness had created a very anxious state, in which the quality of my temperament was constantly at the mercy of providence. Not a very happy way to live.

But here was a whole new view; a habit of happiness can be built. Inspired, I began to look at happiness as a practical component of my health, rather than as some cosmic jackpot which I either hit or missed.

I began experimenting, figuring out how to build a habit of happiness. In this I was encouraged by something Richard Heinburg wrote in his book, ‘Memories and Visions of Paradise’ : ‘Medical experiments have consistently shown that mental attitudes and emotional states have a significant influence on health. Emotional states associated with egoic separateness - anger, blame, and feelings of isolation - tend to reduce the levels of body chemicals that serve to raise the pain threshold (endorphins) and that maintain immunity to infection (immunoglobulins). Emotions associated with transcendence of ego - for example, empathy, forgiveness, and nurturing - produce higher levels of these critical body chemicals.’

I figured that if happiness arose out of well being; the right balance of hormones in my body, and the right habits – then the only way to build it was to make the right actions – actions that would create the conditions for feelings of happiness to occur. So my first task was to practice letting go of my expectations – to try to focus on acceptance of life as it came – however it came.

Next, I stopped panicking when feelings of unhappiness, or sadness arose in me, and I stopped looking for fun to pep me up. I began practising walking more slowly, looking around me: encouraging myself to expand beyond the little cocoon of my personal concerns. As a result, I increasingly found myself taking pleasure in little things – a bird pecking at a crust of bread, a cat lying asleep n its back in the sun. Also, I began to notice that the small things that people did for me every so often could have a profound effect. A genuine smile from a stranger could transform my whole day.

I began to notice the small acts of kindness that people do, which rarely get noticed or acknowledged. Inspired, I too began to practice these things: leading with kindness instead of self interest. And I noticed the transformative effect went both ways - as I treated people so they began to treat me.

Instead of pushing to be first in the queue I began to allow others before me. Instead of arguing with people, I began listening - allowing different opinions to coexist alongside my own, which created a mutual sense of inquiry instead of the usual argument.

As the happiness habit built itself within me, I found my thoughts more infused with qualities of well-being: peace and tranquillity, friendliness, kindness, generosity and affection. I began to enjoy life in a way I had not in the past.

And am I happy now?

Well, no ... maybe ... I don’t really know, because I don’t think about it anymore. So I guess the end result is not happiness per se, so much as a disappearance of unhappiness – and that’ll do me.

Quote from Richard Heinburg, Memories and Visions of Paradise, The Aquarian Press, England 1990, p. 212.


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