(Published in Forbes Life India’s Monsoon Edition, for their Curators of Interestingness series. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed writing and researching a column more.)
For the last month, I’ve been unexpectedly contented, occasionally joyful, often outright happy, and this drove me round the bend for about two weeks. Here’s the problem with unexpected, apparently long-lasting happiness: I didn’t know why it was happening.
The closest thing humans have to a fear of happiness is cherophobia—more accurately a fear of experiencing joy—and I am, thankfully, not a sufferer. But before I diagnosed myself with Excessive Happiness Disorder (the syndrome exists), the explanation arrived. A month of reading about happiness studies, the art of happiness and happiness in general proves one of the great laws of happiness—it is, like the common cold, infectious.
There is also a second, subtler aspect to this that the positive psychology movement is only beginning to assess—happiness and neuroplasticity, or the idea, explored by the neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran and others, that what you choose to pay attention to, read, or do, can rewire your brain for a variety of emotions. In other words, the brain can learn happiness, and mine was responding strongly to a steady stream of positivity.
Happiness studies has taken off in the last decade, and in just the last year, there have been a stream of books promising to teach us how to be happy, or to tell us why we’re not. But many of these attempts confirm another, and somewhat sadder, truth: the pursuit of happiness is not the same as the experience of happiness.
Lessons from a prison camp
The man who may have contributed the most to the current studies of happiness made his discoveries in circumstances that many gurus of positive psychology would consider absolutely inimical to pleasure, empathy or joy.
Viktor Frankl’s occupation in Nazi Germany was to study the minds of women who had become suicidal; he may have seen as many as 30,000 cases in the “suicide pavilion” before the brutal logic of World War Two came into play. Frankl was an Austrian Jew, and despite his work as a physician and the acclaim in which he was held, even by the Nazis, he was deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1942. He ran a suicide watch unit at Theresienstadt, but in 1944, he was sent to first Auschwitz and then Turkheim. His wife, his father and his mother died in separate camps—his father of illness, while his wife and mother were murdered.
Liberated in 1945, returning to a home without family, Frankl wrote Man’s Search for Meaning in 1945. It was a psychiatrist’s objective account of life in the camps, but through it all ran Frankl’s three great truths. The first was that no matter what the circumstances of our lives, men and women had the power to exercise choice—in the camps, the choice came down sometimes to whether they would be good prisoners, or oppressors of other prisoners, sometimes the choice lay in how one experienced suffering. Frankl’s second sharing was that spiritual growth, a belief in one’s Maker, was something essential to the human spirit, and necessary to it—even in circumstances of extreme suffering. And his third was simple: “The salvation of man is through love and in love.” Even in the camps, the contemplation of his wife, the need to believe in love, would carry him—and others—through.
In Alain de Botton’s The Consolations of Philosophy—a wonderful starting point for seekers after happiness—de Botton explores the approach made by the Greek philosophers to the experience of living. And from Socrates, whose life was lived in a constant search for what was true, rather than what could be conveniently accepted as the truth, to Epicurus, who taught the importance of living in the moment and working towards tranquil acceptance, de Botton notes that every philosopher of note advocated acceptance of the nature of life, in all its complexity and occasional sadness, as part of the key to happiness.
And perhaps it was Abraham Maslow who first proposed a 21st century understanding of the hows of happiness in his 1962 classic, Towards a Psychology of Being. He used his hierarchy of needs—first the physical, then the social, then the spiritual—to explain why humanity would always strive for transcendence. The ultimate human desire, in his view, was to “become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming”. But even as Maslow became influential in business studies and positive psychology, it was the material part of his hierarchy of needs that many of his students focused on—the needs for achievement, security, status were noted at the expense of the need for self-actualization and self-transcendence. Frankl, who lived for decades after his experiences in the camps, could have told Maslow’s disciples that they were going in the wrong direction.
In 2010, Barbara Ehrenreich launched an attack on what she saw as the tyranny of the positive psychology movement, its self-absorption, the insistence among some gurus on denying negative emotions, and the growing materialism of the happiness movement. Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World was prompted by her own battle with breast cancer, and her refusal to buy into the “think positive” mantras surrounding recovery at the time, but being Ehrenreich, she moved far beyond the personal. Her attack was on what she saw as a culture of mindless positivity, which also had a more sinister undercurrent: if you were unhappy, it was your fault. Ehrenreich wasn’t having any of this.
Just four years before this, Rhonda Byrne had made a massive impact with her self-help book, The Secret, and in 2010, would follow this with The Power. Both bestselling books were built on the foundation of The Law of Attraction—the idea that you attract into your life the positive or the negative depending on your thoughts. Many critiqued Byrne: some neurologists questioned the idea that thoughts could affect events, some pointed out that the logical corollary of the premises of The Secret would be to blame tsunami survivors, for instance, for bringing a tsunami down on themselves.
Getting to the hows of happiness, though, reading The Power is illuminating. The Power advocates several exercises, from positive visualization to meditation-style work—and if you really put Byrne’s ideas into practice, you will spend an hour or three a day working on happiness. Depending on whether you believe in the “endless bounty of the universe”, the laws of attraction and the power of love, this may or may not get you the Malibu mansion with a newly-divorced Javier Bardem as your personal slave—but it will focus your mind powerfully on what does make you happy, just as an hour or two of exercise draws attention to your body’s needs.
Far more scientific than Byrne’s bestselling New Age wooliness is Sheena Iyengar’s powerful The Art of Choosing—a brilliant examination of why we make the life choices and personal choices we do, how these are culturally influenced, and how to make better choices. Iyengar eschews self-help language for incisive, thought-provoking explorations, and along with Gretchen Rubin’s mellow The Happiness Project, this is one of the two books I would pick as a practical guide to finding happiness. Rubin’s project started out as a blog, and her laws of happiness are a clear, persuasive distillation of wisdom drawn from several sources—Buddhist philosophy, Walden, The Simpsons and the joys of cleaning closets.
The true counterpoint to Byrne’s The Secret, though, is Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness. Gilbert argues that what we think will make us happy—the new job, the perfect relationship, the fancy house—may not actually get us there; we are bad, as a species, at imagining the future accurately. If we really want to be happy, Gilbert argues, we should accept that happiness is unexpected, fleeting, but intense; we should practice self-awareness rather than projecting into an uncertain future. Martin Seligman’s equally seminal Authentic Happiness suggests that the way we choose to remember events, and to process the present, will be more conducive to lifelong happiness than the nature of the events themselves—and that wisdom is also what imbues His Holiness The Dalai Lama’s hugely influential The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living.
The gentle wisdom of the Dalai Lama says that happiness is in our own hands—but also takes this out of the personal into the wider world. If the purpose of life is to be happy, then we all have a responsibility to our environment, to contribute and to give back. He makes his point without preaching, and this is worth the price of a hundred shallow self-help books.
The garden and the battlefield
The writer Kiran Nagarkar, speaking of the Mahabharata, observed that it was an incredible feat of storytelling: which modern author would interrupt the battle that is the focus of the narrative in order to allow two characters to discuss the meaning of life? Of all the great religious texts, the Bhagavad Gita, and the conversation between a warrior and a god, captures the challenges of being happy in the middle of the vicissitudes of life perfectly. Here is what Arjuna faces: the prospect of killing those he knows well and has grown up with, of losing dear friends and family, and his question to Krishna is, very simply, why is this necessary? Krishna’s answer is, if you think about it, one of the keys to happiness: do not duck your dharma. Do what you have to do, on the battlefield, in the office, at home, and do it to the best of your ability. In that doing, you will find your answers.
But how can we be happy when life is filled with strife, death, challenges, discomfort, chaos? The Buddhist nun Pema Chodron had a quiet but powerful answer in her book, When Things Fall Apart: “We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart.” This, she says, is the nature of life, and there is no easy path, only a simple one: learn the practice of letting go.
This concept is often misunderstood as abdication of responsibility, a dropping out from life; what Chodron wants us to work towards is its opposite, a deep acceptance of the unstable nature of life, and a letting go of the outcome of our actions—while continuing to do what is best for us. The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, by Sogyal Rinpoche, goes even deeper, urging us to come to terms with the greatest and most pervasive fear of all—the fear of dying. Live your life as a preparation for death, see it as just another stage of life, and you will find your freedom, says Sogyal Rinpoche. And one of the best ways to deal with death lies in the cultivation of happiness.
In 1845, a man dropped out from the demands of his busy life, and set out to see whether he could create a life that was more suited to his essential nature. By living simply, in a cabin near Walden Pond, Henry David Thoreau did not build a less busy life—the seasons and their ebb and flow, the necessity of tending to his garden, the presence of neighbours, all of these kept his hours and days in a constant hum of disciplined activity. As he wrote in Walden, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
This is what often escapes many of the seekers after an easy route to happiness: Thoreau was not looking for an escape, or a retreat, but for a deeper, more meaningful life. In his pursuit of happiness, he was willing to spend time building and nurturing his dream, and he was willing to surrender completely to the reality of living out in the woods. He found his happiness the way Viktor Frankl, living in a concentration camp, did: not in escape, but in an acceptance of the burdens and small joys of every day, no matter how different the surroundings were for both men. They paid attention to themselves, and they thought deeply about their lives; and never, not for a moment, did they stop living their lives as best as they could.