Friday 28 October 2016

Happiness is an inner state - a sense of contentment

Patricia Casey

Published 17/11/2015 | 02:30

Time for oneself, in activities such as meditation is essential.
Time for oneself, in activities such as meditation is essential.

On the face of it, "minding yourself" so as to be happy, about which there are several pieces in this week's supplement, seems easy enough.

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Being physically healthy is a first step and there is a mountain of information on this. Leaflets in every doctor's surgery and in every pharmacy in the country, not to mention articles in newspapers and magazines, advising us to eat less and to avoid saturated fats.

We are instructed to exercise. Alcohol should be taken in moderation and smoking is to be shunned. Drinking water and getting a good night's sleep are a must. Everybody knows this: some of us try to abide by these obvious but sensible rules, most of us fail a lot of the time.

But physical wellness is only one element of happiness. By focusing on minding ourselves in order to achieve happiness, there is a danger that we will see this as permission to be self-indulgent, that we will take a narrow view of life and strive to avoid being discommoded at all costs.

"Living life to the full", "partying hard", "living in the fast lane" are clichés that are often used to create the impression of a happy life. Apart from showbiz circles or thrill-seeking youth, I doubt if this lifestyle would appeal to many. Similarly, the multi-holidaying family may stay in luxurious hotels and travel the world, but this does not necessarily ensure happiness.

Happiness is an inner state. Joy is certainly part of this, but more importantly, happiness is a sense of being contented with ourselves, of being important to others in our lives and of being able to give and receive love. This means family especially, friends also, but perhaps to a lesser extent, and having a purpose that charts our direction in life.

Philosophers have written about how happiness can be achieved and Aristotle sees it as the central purpose of human life and a goal in itself. He devoted more space to this topic than most others. He asks the questions "What is the purpose of life?" and concludes that seeking pleasure or money or a good reputation, while of some value, are not the ultimate goal for humanity.

He contends that happiness is the end, in itself, that we seek. He wrote in his work Nicomachean Ethics: "He is happy who lives in accordance with complete virtue and is sufficiently equipped with external goods, not for some chance period but throughout a complete life."

The external goods he referred to were health, wealth, friends, knowledge etc. He wrote that being happy requires us to make choices, some of which may be difficult. He developed the idea of "the golden mean", the middle path between excess and deficiency within which we should try to live our lives.

His words are as true now as they were over 2,000 years ago. For example, we might prefer to have a night on the tiles drinking with friends, but we would be better off at home chatting with our family. The instant gratification that some seek through drugs, for example, only provide a short-term reward, something that Aristotle cautioned against. So, in order to be happy we should try to make wise decisions.

Acting on impulse is a danger to our peace of mind, and instead, we should seek advice from those we trust and have the maturity to help us step back from our whims. Taking time to reflect is crucial to making the right decisions, both for ourselves and those whose lives we touch.

Not everybody is fortunate enough to achieve happiness because some essential elements are beyond our control. Grinding poverty, hunger, ill health are inimical to contentment and happiness. This underpins how lucky most of us are and why we should be grateful for what we have.Yet, we are time-poor.

We live in a frenetic world and its pace has increased enormously. The internet, while wonderful in many ways, has contributed to this as we are expected to respond immediately to emails; we have a world of information at our fingertips that is potentially addictive, as surfers know, and the demands of an increasingly complex world intrude upon our time for reflection.

It is hardly surprising that mindfulness, with its emphasis on meditation and accepting the moment, has gripped the public imagination so fiercely.

Time for oneself, in meditation, prayer or reflection, whether religious or secular, is essential. It will open up the space in our heads to allow us understand our needs and the needs of others.

Time in thought will help us appreciate the beauty that is around us.

A favourite quotation of mine by William Henry Davies encapsulates it all: "What is this life if, full of care,

We have no time to stand and stare."

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