I’m reading the Dalai Lama’s book (written with Howard C Cutler) at the moment called “The Art of Happiness”. It’s been on my list of books to read for a long time and it’s a classic guide to a fundamental tenet of Tibetan Buddhism.
His Holiness is quoted in the book as saying: “ I believe that the very purpose of life is to seek happiness. That is clear……. whether one believes in this religion or that religion, we are all seeking something better in life. So I think, the very motion of our life is towards happiness…..”.
There are those of us who might respond to that statement by saying that seeking happiness is self-indulgent and self-centred, but surprisingly, the massive amount of research that has been conducted over the last twenty or more years on happiness has shown that in fact it’s the unhappy people who are most self-focussed and/or self-obsessed.. They are also sometimes socially withdrawn and antagonistic. Conversely, happy people are generally found to be more sociable, flexible and creative. Furthermore, studies have shown that they weather life’s challenges better than unhappy people. Most of all, they’ve been found to be more loving and forgiving.
One of the core principles of Tibetan Buddhism is that there’s an inextricable link between one’s personal happiness and showing kindness, compassion and caring for others. Interestingly, quite apart from the two and a half thousand years of practice and experience by the Buddhists in this respect, the link has now been borne out by many studies and experiments conducted in the West.
Kindness has been found to be a big factor in feeling happier as it releases a powerful energy which helps to build up relationships and fosters positive feelings for yourself and those around you. Kindness is about being friendly and open and being able to listen and help where you can. It’s more than just being “nice”. Nice people are often motivated by a need for approval whereas genuinely kind people have no ulterior motives.
Compassion is defined as being ‘sympathetic pity and concern for the suffering or misfortunes of others.’ It’s a quality that can be improved with practice by being mindful of the feelings and situations of others in a concerned and kindly way. Self-compassion is important for happiness also. This is about treating yourself just as you would treat your friends and loved ones – even when they might be screwing up! Self-compassion can help us towards greater self-esteem and self-worth as it comes from judging oneself positively. This in turn can enhance motivation and resilience.
Wayne Dyer famously said: “When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change”, and it’ so true. Your state of mind is governed by how you think, which informs how you approach and manage all the things you have to contend with in your relationships, the families you were born into, the jobs you do, and the myriad experiences that life brings you. Happy people know that happiness comes from within. They’ve developed certain habits and attitudes which create a sense of peace in their lives and an equanimity to everything that comes their way. Even when facing challenges or ill-health, they still manage to be happy!
Focusing on beliefs that you’re hard done by, misunderstood, or that generally luck, abundance and good times don’t seem to happen for you, will inevitably damage your confidence, drag your spirits down and lead towards low-self-esteem, feeling sad, unappreciated and very possibly, depressed.
There is a whole field of psychology which is devoted to studying the science of happiness. It’s called Positive Psychology and it was developed by the American Psychologist, Martin Seligman. (You’ll find plenty of information on Seligman, his books and his courses online if you want to know more.)
A study of the habits of happy people by the Pursuit of Happiness Inc. in 2016 suggests that certain aspects of life are key areas which should be explored in order to learn how to lead a happier life. They are:
‘Co-Operate in activities and share your personal feelings with a friend or relative. Expressing genuine interest in what people say, and responding in encouraging ways is a powerful way to enrich relationships and cultivate positive emotions.
‘Cultivate kindness. People who volunteer or simply care for others on a consistent basis seem to be happier and less depressed. This can be as simple s reaching out to a colleague or classmate who looks lonely or is struggling with an issue.
‘Keep moving and eat well. Regular exercise has been associated with improved mental well-being and a lower incidence of depression
‘Find your flow. If we are deeply involved in trying to reach a goal, or an activity that is challenging but well-suited to our skills, we experience a joyful state called “flow”. Many kinds of experiences like sports, playing an instrument, or teaching can produce an experience of flow. It can also be attained through artistic and creative expression. Most simply, it’s achieved from doing an activity which brings you pleasure.
‘Discover and use your strengths. Studies have shown that the happiest people have discovered their unique strengths (such as persistence and critical thinking) and virtues (such as humanity) and use those strengths and virtues for a purpose that is greater than their own personal goals.
‘Cultivate gratitude, mindfulness and hope. Grateful people have been shown to have greater positive emotion, a greater sense of belonging and a lower incidence of depression and stress.’
I would personally add one more thing to this list – and it’s this:
Re-find your ability to PLAY! This is an activity we all did when we were children and we did it so easily and beautifully. Remember? We could happily play on our own or with other children at any time and it was effortless! Sadly, as we got older, we lost the ability to play and life got too serious. But we can get it back!! Playtime doesn’t have to cost anything – think shuffling through the leaves, skimming stones on the sea, flying kites, football in the park, reading, painting, stroking the cat, walking with the dog, etc. etc. Many of these are what I would describe as “Boxing Day” pursuits. In other words, for some people, the day after Christmas Day is possibly the only day in the year when they’ll allow themselves the time to engage in such activities.
But why wait till Boxing Day? Why not make a commitment to allowing yourself the time and space to PLAY more – on a regular basis – NOW! – and just see what a difference that can make to your lifel!!!