What is happiness?

7 January 2015

Happy New Year! We all wish for a positive and successful year ahead, hoping 2015 will bring renewal and abundance; healthy communities, more efficient and inspiring workplaces and happier people around. So, what is happiness?

There are a number of documentaries, books, writings and discussions dealing with this state of mind or feeling. Scientists are increasingly interested in the benefits of contentment and positive thinking – for our health, individual achievements, society’s progress and even world finances. Happiness manifests a remarkable simplicity that has the power to transform our entire civilization.. It enhances productivity, team-spirit and intelligence, while reducing sickness, misunderstanding and hostility. One can be happy whether they are rich or poor, young or old, busy or care-free. It has to do with self-awareness and life-ownership: the truth is that each one of us plays a major role in the good things that are happening in our lives. Extensive research has proven that the ‘old-school’ methods of self-suffering, resentment and negativity have not been productive at all.

Happiness can mean different things to different people – and yet, it is a state that most wish for in their daily life. Happiness is not perceived as a one-off. A good point of departure is to explore and try out things that make us happy as individuals. Another great tip is to be aware of the kind of environment we operate in – what impact does it have on our mood? What little things can we do to counter-balance it? Given the challenges we all face –individually and communally– being happy might sometimes seem like a distant dream, unrealistic and perhaps utopic. However, there is a myth linking happiness to big events, great strokes of luck and external resources. On top of that myth, there is a fear that happiness is not sustainable because it demands lots of work and perhaps time or money. We assume that first we have to beat our weaknesses, get a pay rise and then, maybe, we could have a bit of fun, right?

Well, actually no. Since we live in the era of communication and information, it is so much easier to understand the self-repairing quality of human nature, when we allow it to manifest itself and take the lead. It comes down to mechanics. A small step can make a walker. A small change in an everyday habitual pattern can make a happy person. It all begins with attempting some of the positive events that make us happy on a personal level – a small treat, a dance, a movie that evokes laughter, a hug. The tactic is to ensure we have at least two of those in our daily life, in order for our mind to recover from any external negative impact – and also, to allow ourselves to enjoy these little moments. Understanding what makes us happy, leads to self-awareness and motivates us to add more happiness-enhancers to the mix.

Happiness is a fascinating new field of study in Psychology – it embraces human intelligence and our ability to change and heal. Without denying humanity’s flaws, positive psychologists recommend focusing on people’s strengths and virtues in order to effectively change unhealthy behaviours. ‘Their lab experiments might seek to define not the conditions that induce depraved behaviour, but those that foster generosity, courage, creativity, and laughter’ (The Science of Happiness, Harvard Magazine, Jan/Feb, 2007). It is remarkable that, historically, Psychology has been focusing on the study of human failings and pathology – while now, there is an increased interest in the power of human triumphs and the healthy aspects of our nature. Courses such as Harvard’s Positive Psychology, alongside the Psychology of Leadership, both taught by professor Tal Ben-Shahar (PhD), are extremely popular.

On a final note, there are many tools we can use to train our brains towards positivity: simple, physical tools such as a smile (seriously, a smile is powerful: it can raise the spirits, as the brain releases uplifting chemicals in the body) and breath (proper oxygenation of the brain). We can also use creative habits such as gardening, baking, constructing, etc, to increase the positive influence. There are also more advanced avenues such as Mindfulness practice, team sports, arts, music and general learning (developing skills, either practical or theoretical, to stimulate brain renewal). All the above tools not only exercise but also activate the human brain, generating new cells and neural pathways, keeping us younger and healthier for much longer.

The Science of Happiness is utterly inspiring: a small change & advancement in an everyday, ‘fixed’ habitual pattern can bring immense changes in our perception of reality and state of mind. In return, this can bring a healthy change in the society we live in, enhancing the way we communicate and interact with each other.