Late on a Friday night, we leave for a holiday up north. We are driving in the darkness, the highway almost empty, except for the occasional passing car, its lights shining pale in the black. Outside it’s raining softly, a silvery mist illuminated in the beam of the headlights. In the front seat, it’s warm, the dashboard providing the only glow in the black. We listen to music, while in the back seat, our daughter is curled up under a blanket. She looks out the window at the night sky, the dog lying with his head in her lap, her hand resting in the soft fox-red fur behind his ears.
As I glance at her in the rear-vision mirror, I am happy. Deeply happy. I feel blessed with love and warmth and the thought of a week away, and I would like this drive to continue forever, although I know that if it did, this sense of wellbeing would eventually be replaced by tiredness, irritation and boredom. But for now, everything is just as it should be and I am content.
These moments (and they are just that) are the closest I come to experiencing a true sense of peace – a joy that is quite different to the intense pleasure of a delicious meal, or perhaps the purchase of something I thought I had longed for. It is a private source of warmth and sustenance, and when I experience it, I hold it close.
And so it is with some hesitation I admit to being slightly wary about happiness, a term that has recently become the subject of much discussion and debate, as we try to define and analyse this state of being. We want to know how we can achieve a greater measure of happiness in our own lives and we have a whole happiness industry – with experts who study it, conferences devoted to it and books written about it – there to advise us.
Perhaps my wariness comes from a suspicion that happiness is in danger of becoming a commodity, a personal right we feel justified in pursuing, no matter what impact our search may have on others. I know I felt this way when a friend of mine told me her partner had gone on a meditation retreat, only to return and say their marriage of two decades was over. He needed to find himself, he said. “I haven’t been happy for 20 years,” he told her. She was completely floored, despite recognising some truth in his claim. “Of course we weren’t that happy,” she admitted. “But then who is?” I am not sure.
As a society, we are materially wealthier than we have ever been. Most people have better access to health care and education now than any other time in our history. Our lives are good, and with this, our expectations have grown. We believe our relationships should be loving and communicative; our work fulfilling; and our friendships rich and satisfying. But we frequently fail to meet the mark. Depression has reached epidemic proportions in Western society. We are not happy and it seems we don’t know why.
Happiness vs pleasure
According to Matthieu Ricard, Buddhist monk and author of the best-selling book, (Little, Brown, 2006), part of the problem lies in the fact we frequently confuse happiness with intense, momentary pleasures. These pleasures are not only transitory, they are also usually dependent on outside conditions, such as the approval of others or material gain. We only have limited control over this outer world, and by making our wellbeing reliant on it, we become vulnerable to suffering. “This ultimately leads to a sense of self-loathing, a feeling that life is not worth living because we cannot find any meaning in it,” Matthieu says.
Joy is not in things, it is in us
Genuine happiness does not depend on external circumstances. It is a deep sense of fulfillment; a way of being that pervades all emotional states and gives us the resources to deal with the highs and lows of life. It can only be cultivated from within. “We all have ups and downs,” explains Matthieu. “This is what happens in life. A way of being is a platform – and it is possible to maintain genuine happiness even in sadness.” Matthieu received a PhD in Cellular Genetics at the Insitut Pasteur in France, before concentrating on Buddhist studies, which he calls “the science of the mind”. Over the past 20 years he has been involved in studies looking at the brain circuitry of emotions, in particular, the mental states achieved through meditation. He even had his own circuitry examined while he meditated, a study that led to him being termed the happiest man in the world – a tag he laughs off as a media creation that seems to follow him everywhere.
Matthieu believes Buddhism is a contemplative science, one that starts from the precept we would all like to suffer less. “Who wakes up in the morning wanting to suffer?” he asks. “And yet it seems we keep running to suffering; we are addicted to the causes of suffering.” In order to lessen our suffering and cultivate true happiness, we need to first identify the inner conditions for genuine wellbeing – altruism, compassion, inner strength, freedom and peace. We must then cultivate these states of mind through meditation, or as Matthieu frequently describes it, “mind training”. As he says: “What comes without training?”
“Over the past 20 years, neuroscientists have discovered the brain is more plastic than we long believed… new neurons are continually being generated and this faculty to change is called brain plasticity. The study of musicians who have played 10,000 hours of their instrument has shown the area of the brain that controls the movement of fingers had been considerably enhanced. Could mind training for happiness result in changes of similar magnitude?” Matthieu asks. In his book, he suggests a number of simple exercises to help us develop a sense of wellbeing, including taking the time to observe one’s own thoughts; focusing on moments where we have felt a true sense of happiness; and “flooding” negative thought patterns with positive ones.
It is, of course, far harder than it sounds. The few times I have attempted to train my mind towards developing a greater sense of wellbeing, a better base state with which to deal with the world, I have failed – miserably. I sit still, focusing on my breathing, trying to observe my thoughts, becoming increasingly agitated as I do so. My mind races, anxious about some small detail, I feel an itch on the back of my neck, my limbs ache – it is all too hard, and eventually I give up. But as Matthieu says: “What comes without training?”
I have attempted other exercises, ones of my own devising, also with little success. One New Year’s Eve I resolved to speak positively whenever I was asked a question. So, if someone wanted to know how my day was, I would talk of the more enjoyable experiences, rather than describing a frustration with work, or a person who had irritated me. The idea was that by speaking positively, I would train myself to think positively. I was never very good at it. In fact, I doubt I even lasted a week. Perhaps my make-up is such that I am more depressive than joyous? I am a writer after all, and writers love misery. In addition, there is a history of depression in my family – a combination of genes that has surely influenced my inability to move beyond small moments of peace to a more lasting sense of fulfillment.
Although Matthieu and the other happiness experts would certainly admit to genetics and environment playing a role in developing our happiness baselines, they wouldn’t see it as an immovable obstacle. “Genetic inheritance is like a blueprint for a house,” says Matthieu, “you don’t have to slavishly follow it. With mental training there is always room to move.” So, if it is possible to improve our happiness, or sense of wellbeing, why do we devote so little time to cultivating this inner sense of contentment, and so much more time to chasing external (usually material) pleasures that frequently fail to bring us lasting joy? Matthieu sees it as a question of our ignorance and our laziness. Other experts have other ideas.
Numerous studies have shown just how little happiness money brings. Lotto winners speak of the thrill of winning, and then say there has been no improvement in their happiness once this thrill passes. Perhaps they have bought a bigger house and better car? Perhaps they never have to work again? But in some cases, these changes only decrease their wellbeing as they find themselves living in an area without friends, bored without a job, and anxious about losing their new-found wealth. They are not happy, they tell us. Yet we fail to believe them. ‘It wouldn’t be like that for me,’ we think. ‘They just didn’t know how to enjoy their winnings – but I would.’
This, according to Harvard Professor Daniel Gilbert, author of (HarperCollins, 2007), is the classic mistake we all make – the mistake that keeps us chasing so much that contributes so little to our happiness. Even when we are told the pursuit of certain goals does little for our happiness, we continue to reach for them regardless. Why? He believes we receive bad advice from our culture and from our genes. Both need us to do things in their service. Flourishing economies require us to continually procure and consume, and they make us comply by telling us that it will bring happiness.
The same applies to having children. Professor Gilbert says studies show that although children bring us moments of intense joy, raising them tends to lower our levels of satisfaction with general aspects of life, such as socialising, sleep and sex — levels that increase again once we no longer have to care for our offspring. Yet we keep reproducing. Why, he asks? Because our genes tell us to. So what is it that we need for happiness? In terms of material wealth, not much. According to the Ancient Greek philosopher, Epicurus, it’s as simple as a roof above our heads, food in our bellies, clothes to keep us warm and good companionship. Anything over and above that, such as a bigger house, richer food or fancier clothes, contributes nothing to our sense of wellbeing.
According to the Buddhists and recent studies into happiness, selfless acts are also vital. Matthieu Ricard talks of a group of US college graduates who were asked to go out and experience a day of pursuing their own pleasures — whether it be getting drunk, staying out all night, or spending up big on themselves — followed by a day of volunteer work. All spoke of a greater and more lasting sense of contentment that came from helping others, rather than from simply getting their rocks off.
And this is an important point. Happiness is not selfish. It is a beneficial circle. As we develop our own wellbeing, we are more capable of altruism, and this altruism contributes to our own happiness. It also increases the happiness of others. As Matthieu says: “By transforming ourselves, we can gradually change the world.” So, once again, I return to the mind training. I close my eyes and think of that drive in the car, the warmth and the peace, the love on my daughter’s face as she buried her hand in the softness of the dog’s fur, and the glow of the dashboard as we drove on into the night.
But as I try to hold onto that feeling, it only slips away, banished by the distraction of yet another leg cramp, a crick in my neck, and a thousand petty anxieties banked up and waiting to take hold. I breathe in, shifting uncomfortably. It’s all too hard. And I open my eyes, remembering Matthieu’s words: “What comes without training?”