Monday 21 October 2019

Don't worry, be happy: Is happiness as simple as accepting life as it comes?

We are constantly bombarded with messages about how to be happy, but is it really attainable? For thousands of years we have looked to religion, philosophy and science for the answer to that question, but perhaps it's as simple as accepting life as it comes

Perhaps we should just accept life as it comes. Getty Images.
Perhaps we should just accept life as it comes. Getty Images.
Matthieu Ricard

Orla Neligan

We're told that happiness is the Holy Grail, the pinnacle of life, the end goal. It has fueled a multi-million euro industry of self-help books, movies and songs. It provokes us to change careers, end relationships and strive to improve ourselves. We are confidently assured of its place as our 'end objective', something we attain through hard work, kindness, good health, honesty. It dangles precariously in our future like a giant carrot. But, is it really attainable? And, even if we get it, how long does it last? What's left after the dizziness of love, laughter and good fortune fades?

If we were to listen to Woody Allen who admits life is "grim, painful and nightmarish and the only way to be happy is to tell yourself some lies", our future might look bleak. But disappointment, pain and fear are as much a part of life as joy, success and hope. In my experience happiness is transient; I have had great moments of elation and loss. But, isn't the very fact that they are just that, 'moments', what makes them great?

"Happiness is a delusion, it doesn't exist," says Brian Colbert, psychotherapist and best-selling author of The Happiness Habit and From Ordinary to Extraordinary, "it is not an end destination you arrive at, but something you do or don't do. It's realistic to put happiness as a priority in life but we've a right to be miserable and sad sometimes too. Life is chaotic and it's about balancing that chaos and paying attention to what matters most more often of the time." In other words, paying attention to our values, those needs such as connection, security and recognition, that amount to our identity and that are always being sought after either consciously or unconsciously. "People need to feel they are progressing and evolving. Happiness isn't a choice you make but what you do to enact certain behaviours that will lead to happiness. Even in moments of despair, adversity and negativity, the key is being able to say I'm going to redeem this situation and move forward in a more positive way."

Advance mind coach with, Mark Walsh confirms happiness is a way of being, and training your mind to let go of negative emotions is the key. "Often people think about what they don't want and get caught in those negative feelings. If you can acknowledge the feelings, let go of them and identify the simple things that make you happy, then everything else is a bonus. It's also important to give yourself permission to make mistakes and allow yourself to make new mistakes in the future."

We've come a long way since Aristotle who believed happiness was the by-product of a life of virtue, choosing instead to associate happiness with gratification and a vague metric of 'feeling good', not helped in part by our culture's obsession with the illusive pursuit of it. We no longer look at happiness in a philosophical or romantic sense; it has become something that is quantifiable. Mood-tracking personal devices tell us how 'happy' we are at any given time. Large multinationals now employ 'chief happiness' officers to assess employees' moods and researchers have discovered the happiest places and people on earth from analysing posts on social media sites. No pressure then.

But it's commerce; there are big bucks in wellbeing. Selling happiness is the key to marketing goods from phones, cosmetics and vitamins to apps and wellbeing experiences. Ireland has a host of businesses intent on keeping us buoyant, from Chris Flack's holistic early-morning raves and Sinead Duffy's daily words of wisdom on Twitter to Sinead Kavanagh's laughter yoga and Dublin's favour exchange, where folks offer their skills for free. There's nothing sinister about this trend; being happy is a good thing, but perhaps the emphasis on happiness is putting us under too much pressure. Is happiness a healthy goal for us to have?

"I'd be a right Scrooge if I didn't advocate happiness," laughs Josephine Lynch, mindfulness practitioner with, "but often the stress of trying to be happy in itself causes additional stress." Similarly, psychologist and Clinical Director of AWARE Dr Claire Hayes does not see her role as 'making people happier' but helping people understand why they aren't feeling happy and helping them improve their situation. "It could be appropriate for someone to not feel happy. The question is, what are they going to do about it?"

Ask any mindfulness guru that question and they'll probably say absolutely nothing. The happiest man on earth is said to be a 67-year-old Buddhist monk and supreme practitioner of 'mindfulness' called Matthieu Ricard who spends his days gazing at the Himalayan peaks and meditating. My first brush with mindfulness was in Thailand with a wizened old monk who told me that the practice, in a nutshell, could be explained by Western society's 'don't just sit there, do something' mantra versus Eastern society's 'don't just do something, sit there'. He then crossed his legs, closed his eyes and told me to breathe deeply and be aware of myself. I tried but all I kept thinking about was the pain in my right knee and what I was going to have for my dinner.

It's about knowing our minds, being aware, and connecting with ourselves in the present moment, with kindness and without expectation, says Josephine Lynch. So, that's what I was doing wrong?

Positive psychologist Jolanta Burke says mindfulness is a practice that takes time and is not for everybody. "It is very useful but it is sometimes suggested as an intervention that will help everyone in every circumstance of their life - it's not as simple as that. It takes time to learn and very often what happens is people try it and when they don't see results initially they blame themselves, adding to their negative emotions."

There is no doubt it has had huge benefits for people suffering from anxiety and depression, but both Dr Hayes and Josephine Lynch agree that it may not be suitable for people in a vulnerable state. "Mindfulness can put people in contact with where they are at presently and connect them to their unhappiness first," suggests Dr Hayes. Positive psychology, on the other hand, is the science of optimum human functioning. Being evidence-based, it challenges myths and focuses on the indicators of wellbeing and how much positivity people have in their lives. Burke explains, "Rather than looking at what a person doesn't have in their lives, I focus on things like hobbies and laughter, positive indicators of happiness for that person. Happiness is often a compilation of elements such as engagement with life, meaning in life, a sense of achievement and what we do know is that these elements feature strongly in a 'happy' person's life."

If world happiness surveys were anything to go by we should expect ourselves to be in a constant state of near-explosive elation. The World Happiness Report puts Irish people at 18th in the world with an average happiness score of 7.076 out of 10 (despite the water charges, property tax, universal service charge). A recent Central Statistics Survey (CSO) on wellbeing went further showing more than three-quarters of the population ranked their overall satisfaction with life as 'high' or 'very high'.

A happiness index is all very well once put in its econometrics box; governments can better serve their nations if they have indicators as to the state of the economy. The tiny nation of Bhutan, for example, has long measured GNH (gross national happiness) over GDP, gaining itself almost mythical status as a real-life Shangri-La. But it is probably important to note that GNH is an aspiration. Happiness is, after all, a subjective emotion, which cannot really be measured appropriately.

On the flip side, AWARE reports 300,000 people suffering from depression in Ireland with one in four women requiring treatment at some point compared to one in 10 men. Rates of youth suicide in Ireland are now the fourth highest in Europe with suicide being the leading cause of death in men aged 15-34. Of course, the causes of depression and mental illnesses are many and varied but the added pressures of modern pressures life can play their part in many cases.

The more the demand for happiness, the higher the risk of unhappiness, and while TS Elliot's observation that humankind cannot bear too much reality may hold some weight, living in a rose-tinted bubble of positive emotions may give rise to a Pollyanna effect. Buying someone else's version of happiness is dangerous and unrealistic, says Colbert, whose books don't instruct people on how to be happy but are designed around finding the way there yourself. "There's only one version of happiness and that's yours," he says. But, is there a common denominator when it comes to the characteristics of happy people? "The reality is happy people sleep, eat and live better. They are more centred, balanced and focused in life in general," notes Colbert.

And, is there a common denominator when it comes to unhappiness? Money may seem to be an obvious reason but Jolanta Burke, who works with people who are experiencing depression and anxiety, trumps relationships over money. "People matter because they make us happier but they also complicate our lives a lot." Mark Walsh notes that people make the mistake of associating the accumulation of wealth with freedom. "Money is fickle, instead we should be concentrating on what can sustain us through good and bad times."

We only have to look at the fallout from the recession to know that the 'more is better' principal doesn't fly, not for Ireland anyway. I think it was Tommy Tiernan who said we were never meant to be wealthy anyway. "People were losing the run of themselves," says Colbert, "there was a sense of wearing a suit of clothes that didn't fit them. I think people are generally relieved that the Celtic Tiger has been shot and killed. The expectation is gone, allowing people to return to their true values. Irish people are becoming Irish again, we've got our authenticity back."

Since the recession, our happiness poll dropped a mere 0.068, proving it depends to a much smaller extent on wealth. Just recently, Fermanagh was voted the happiest county in Ireland. "Sure, why wouldn't we be," says my Fermanagh friend laughing, "we aren't connected to the world at all." It is exactly this sense of humour that sustains us, I think. As a nation we have a capacity to be both happy and miserable at the same time. 'What's wrong with you, the big happy head on you', an Irish expression that qualifies that wonderful aspect of our psyche: playful and filtered with cynicism and wit and that there must be 'something wrong with you' because you're happy. The fact is, Irish people are capable of enjoying themselves, which is often labelled as 'happiness' but we're also good at misery; we're expressive. We have a gift of not taking ourselves too seriously.

Perhaps we only need to look to ourselves as a nation to understand the key to happiness; that light requires dark to exist; that life is a tapestry of imperfections; that it's OK to listen to Pharrell Williams and Morrissey consecutively and that, in the words of writer Peter Chelsom, who wrote the screenplay to the movie Hector and the Search for Happiness: "Perhaps we should concern ourselves not so much with the pursuit of happiness but with the happiness of pursuit."

5 ways to be happy right now

Brian Colbert suggests five steps to how we can make ourselves happy

1 Know what makes you happy - food, movies, books, laughter - identify the things in your life that are good.

2 Cultivate an attitude of gratitude - notice what's good about your life: Whom do you love and who loves you? What do you enjoy? What are you free to do?

3 Take control of your thoughts - don't focus on the negative, the things that went wrong or that you did wrong, and start to think about how to improve things from now on.

4 Make happiness a priority - plan to be happy in advance: night and morning affirmations, random acts of kindness all raise your self-esteem.

5 Choose your words wisely - bad words as much as bad thoughts can affect our moods. Try to use positive words such as I can, I will, I need to, I have to etc, to help motivate you.

5 TED talks and apps that give you the feel-good factor

The Power of Vulnerability

- Brené Brown

With over 10 million hits, this TED talk by straight-talking public speaker Brené Brown is funny, personal and insightful, opening our minds to human connection and emotions - courage, vulnerability, connection, love, fear - in ways that can fundamentally change how you think of being happier.

The Habits of Happiness

- Matthieu Ricard (pictured)

The poster child for mindfulness, Buddhist Matthieu Ricard shares some of his wisdom; reminding us that thinking positively or negatively is a decision we have control over.

Want to be Happy? Be Grateful

- David Steindl-Rast

Benedictine monk Steindl-Rast suggests happiness is born from gratitude. He prescribes a simple 'Stop. Look. Go.' formula to slow down, look around and appreciate the gifts in our lives.

Headspace App

What began as a simple concept to help people to cope better with the stresses and strains of everyday life has now become a global phenomenon worth £25m, bringing mindfulness to the masses. The app offers soothing 10-minute bites of daily 'time out' prescriptions helping you de-stress.

Live Happy App

Based on the concept of positive psychology, the Live Happy app prompts you to engage in a range of activities to boost your mood, including savouring the moment and thinking about your best possible self.

5 minutes to mindfulness

RAIN technique

If you are experiencing feelings of anxiety, Joesphine Lynch recommends a common mindfulness technique called RAIN, which can provide immediate relief and reconnect you with yourself and the present moment.

R Recognising a difficult emotion. Ask yourself the question: What is going on for me right now?

A Allow the experience to be, just as it is. 'Allowing' is intrinsic to healing, and realising this can give rise to a conscious intention to 'let be'.

I Investigate with kindness. Offer a gentle welcome to whatever surfaces when asking yourself questions such as: What most wants attention? How am I experiencing this in my body? What do I believe?

N Non-identification comes from not identifying with the experience, not taking emotions personally. There is nothing to do for this last step; realisation arises spontaneously, on its own. We simply rest in natural awareness.

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