give me the awe of understanding over the awe of ignorance every time - Douglas Adams

How To be Happy

To be happy is the simplest thing, and yet is one thing that so often seems to elude people. All of us, even those living in the most trying circumstance have happy memories, we all know what happiness is. By happiness I don't mean a state of perpetual bliss, or manic joviality but that feeling of inner calm, when a smile comes easily, when all seems well with the world and small problems are just small problems. What does it take to get happy and, perhaps more important, stay happy? What follows is entirely unscientific its just a collection of thoughts based on my personal experience. You may or may not agree but I'm so happy I just have to share it!

There are some obvious barriers to happiness, such as pain, hunger, sickness, and loneliness. It is a given that the basic human needs have to be taken care of. We humans are animals and we need feeding, we need sleep, we need other people to have any hope of happiness. Whilst to our shame it seems there are always some people in this world who aren't getting these basic human rights, it is fortunate that most people do have enough to eat, somewhere to sleep and the company of family and friends. If we look at those of us who do have our basic needs available, which is most of us, then all of these people are happy some of the time. The apparent variation in happiness levels is however enormous, from those whose experiences of happiness are brief and fleeting, to those who seem happy almost all of the time. I have no doubt that there are genetic factors to these differences in people and their happiness. If you are descended from a long line of miserable gits, or a long line jovial jesters, this is bound to affect your view. This however does not offer any thorough explanation of the variation in happiness levels.

It is my contention that being happy is a learnt skill, those people who seem to be happy most of the time have this skill. Some learn how to be happy by imitation as a child. Some learn it by conscious effort, by study and practise, from a teacher or some remote form of learning. Some seem to just stumble upon it by happy accident! The common factor I see among the really happy people is the understanding and application (and the daily re-application) of this vital life skill.

If I only could win the lottery, or if only I could find the right life partner, or if could just sort out this problem, or if only my prayers would be answered, or any number of ifs are things we have heard said or may have said ourselves, as if it is a lack of something that is the cause of unhappiness. Intellectually we most of us understand that riches and comforts of themselves are not going to make us happy. To exchange relative poverty for relative wealth is simply exchanging one set of problems for another set. For sure, the problems of wealth may be easier than the problems of poverty, but wealth is not a pre-requisite of happiness. Indeed it is almost certainly just a distraction.
The common search for and acquisition of objects or people and the status and thus the feeling of self worth they are supposed to bestow upon us is central to our modern society, and the driving force of our economy. This is an example of what was appropriate survival behaviour for our hunter gatherer ancestors becoming stretched and pushed beyond reason. If I am hungry I feel a little pain and this induces restlessness and the urge to find food. I find food and eat, I feel sated and relax and feel happier. If I am cold or embarrassed by my lack of clothing and find some nice warm clothing, then that will make me feel happier. These are perfectly reasonable survival responses that have been vital in ensuring our ancestors survived to breed and that we too survive. The problems arise when these inherited drives run on beyond their usefulness and far from making us happy make us sad. Eating three meals a day and wearing appropriate clothing for the season will help to keep us healthy and happy. Eating six meals a day and having a wardrobe full of clothing will not make us healthier or happier!

Achieving a rational control of the inherited drives is therefore vital to happiness. This is simply taking the intellectually understood fact that over consumption and excessive drive for wealth and status are detrimental to your happiness (and health) and never forgetting it. The path of our life is made from a long series of decisions, many of these decisions seem innocuous and inconsequential but may turn out to be highly significant to our well-being. If we can make the right decisions most of the time then the path we choose is more likely than not to go where we hope. All those myriad decisions we make everyday, are vitally important. Shall I get out of bed? Shall I eat breakfast? Shall I cross the road now or wait a while? Should I buy Fair-Trade food? Should I speak a foreign language? Whilst some decisions are amenable to rational debate, like should I have a medical procedure? In such a situation it is entirely possible and sensible to do the research, think carefully about the risks and benefits and decide accordingly. Many everyday decisions (which may have unforeseen consequences) are not amenable to such decision making processes, as we don't have the information and/or the time. We make most of our decisions irrationally, based on learned experience, inherited personality or guessing or reading tarot cards or any number of methods. We just do it!

So is it just a matter of luck whether we make the irrational decisions that make and keep us happy or is it a skill? I seems apparent to me that much is learned experience. As an adult we cross the road with barely a thought, we look assess the speed and distance of moving traffic and in a split second we stay or go. Get it wrong and you will very soon be very unhappy, or dead! Children have to be taught this skill which takes years of practise. So learned decision making skills are vital to happiness too.

Most of the decisions we make are neither learned skill decisions or carefully rational ones they are entirely irrational in the sense that we don't think about it. Not thinking just doing when done with full on concentration is when people are often their most amazing. Have you ever played a ball game, like tennis, cricket or even snooker? Playing the game is a learned skill like crossing the road but the better players don't just hit the ball they hit it in the right place at the right speed. This is achieved not by mentally assessing ball speeds, angles, spin and a dozen other relevant variables. They just look and they do, and practise, practise, practise! Whilst much of life is less controlled than tennis, cricket or snooker, that same skill of not thinking but just giving it full on concentration and just doing it works in just the same way in the complex game of life. Confidence in your own abilities helps!

Last and perhaps the most important point is to never expect anything. Expectation will inevitably lead to disappointment. This does not mean “abandon all hope!” To hope that the weather will be nice is understandable but to expect it (especially if you live in England) is to invite disappointment. Living in the “now” is not to abandon the art of planning or living without imagination of the possibilities, it is just not expecting it to be exactly as you imagine it will be. In fact just don't expect anything and when the things that you planned for do happen in some close approximation to your hopes then you will be delighted. If your plans don't work out the way you hoped then you weren't expecting them to anyway

To summarise my brief essay on how to be happy:

Sleep, eat and keep good company
Take control of your inherited drives
Take reasoned careful decisions when there is information and time
Develop your learned skills throughout your life
Play the “game of life” with total concentration and confidence
Expect nothing and ENJOY!

Well, it seems to work for me!