In a way it’s a very bittersweet time of year. Many of us hope to spread happiness and joy to those we care about. At the same time we cannot ignore all the unhappiness in the world and the suffering that many people – and animals too – are being forced to endure.
Thankfully there are millions of decent conscientious people in our world of all backgrounds for whom the message of Christmas isn’t just confined to a few weeks in December. These are the same people who already spend so much time and energy trying to change our world for the better. And they are the same people who will continue to lead by example when all the festivities are over come January the 2nd.
There will come a time in the future when all suffering will be eliminated. This isn’t just a hope that I have but an absolute belief. Just as our species and the human body has gradually evolved and improved over millions of years, so human civilisation will also continue to become progressively enlightened.
A new world order is in our grasp and education is the key. Before the end of this century, science, truth, justice, peace and democracy will have become the fundamental pillars of life for all people, and medical science will have enhanced humanity beyond our wildest expectations. As we strive towards this new enlightenment however, I believe that we can and actively should encourage each other to be happier, and to embrace happiness as a way of life.
In a strange way happiness has become somewhat of a taboo subject. Those who are happy and those who seek to encourage greater happiness are often viewed with suspicion. I suspect this may be because for centuries the promise of happiness has been used by individuals and groups of people the world over to exploit fellow human beings. Even today we can do a simple online search to find countless people willing to help you find happiness – for a price.
Suspicions aside (hopefully) how many of us actually spend time really thinking about happiness or about ‘being happy’? Is it something that we allow our minds, bodies and souls to experience? Or do we more often than not delegate the idea of being happy to our future selves?
Sadly it is so much easier for us to focus on what we need and what we lack; on what we hate and on what causes us physical or emotional pain. Many people simply avoid thinking about happiness altogether, believing that it will inevitably come into their lives just as soon as they have enough money, and thus the freedom to purchase goods and services.
Whilst happiness is of course very subjective and personal to each and every one of us, philosophers and faith traditions throughout history have always cautioned against seeking happiness through money alone. Moreover studies have shown time and again that there’s more to happiness than just wealth and material possession.
A Gallup poll released just this week for example surveyed 150,000 people around the world and found that 7 of the 10 happiest nations on Earth are in Latin America. These countries, which included the likes of Guatemala, Ecuador, Venezuela and Costa Rica, also happen to be amongst the poorest nations in the world.
Happiness is by no means a fixed concept. Even today, scientists and scholars are trying to define, re-define and better understand exactly what happiness is and how we can experience it. Quite understandably then, there are numerous theories and approaches which seek to explain happiness, or at least identify the key ingredients from which it may be produced.
Psychologist Martin Seligman explained that happiness was an amalgamation of 5 things: pleasure; engaging activities; relationships with others; meaning and belonging; and accomplishments. Psychologist Abraham Maslow’s theory of human motivation, which has become a fundamental principle in the world of business, consists of a hierarchy of 5 essential needs: physiological needs; safety; love / belonging; esteem; and self-actualisation.
Aristotle believed that unlike riches, honour, health or friendship; happiness was the only thing that humans desired for its own sake. He considered happiness to be an activity rather than an emotion or a physical state, and that ‘activity’ was the ‘practice of virtue’. The Buddhist approach is beautifully simple and an idea that I firmly agree with: compassion and generosity is more fun, and more fun leads to increased happiness! Put another way, the secret to happiness is making other living beings happy through compassion and generosity.
I believe that happiness begins in the mind through meditation. Also known as positive thinking or having a positive mental attitude, it is by far the easiest and most beneficial act that any one of us can take – to actually think ourselves happy. To create within our own personal consciousness a state of mental and emotional well-being, which in turn flows outwards like ripples in a pond, and encompasses our physical bodies and the world around us. Interestingly it would seem that science and evolution also concurs with this approach.
The human brain weighs around three pounds and has tripled in size as our ancestors evolved over the last 2 million years. Thanks to our frontal lobes, we as a species are now completely unique in the world, in that we have the ability to simulate the future and visualise actions or products before they exist in real life.
This also gives us the psychological ability to ‘synthesise happiness’ and to change our view of the world, so as to make ourselves feel better about our circumstances. In other words, we have what it takes within our own minds to create happiness and to feel happier, irrespective of the world around us. Having a positive mental attitude therefore – and thinking positive – actually works!
This extraordinary finding has been backed up with reliable data and scientific study by the eminent Harvard psychologist Professor Dan Gilbert. Gilbert also suggests that paradoxically we believe that synthetic happiness is not the same as natural happiness. That is to say, people assume that self-taught, self-proclaimed happiness is not as enriching or as rewarding as the happiness that comes from actually getting something that we want.
However his research has also found that this assumption is mistaken. When measured in controlled experiments, Gilbert found that “synthetic happiness is every bit as real and enduring as the kind of happiness you stumble upon when you get exactly what you were aiming for”. Whilst some may mock the idea of synthetic happiness, in the real world and in the human mind, there is no differential between synthetic happiness and naturally occurring happiness.
So there we have it: the secret to happiness is to ‘fake it until you make it’. You can either be unhappy or less happy until you find happiness by getting what you want, or you can create happiness seemingly out of nothingness inside your own mind; a happiness that will be beneficial and fulfilling to your emotional, mental and physical well-being, and allow you to spread even greater happiness to other living beings through compassion and generosity.
Ultimately, I believe we need a lot more happiness in the world, and I think we shouldn’t be afraid to do something about it.
I wish all my friends, relatives, colleagues and constituents a very happy Christmas, a very happy New Year, and a very happy and fulfilling future.