Saturday,23 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1388, (5 - 11 April 2018)
Saturday,23 February, 2019
Issue 1388, (5 - 11 April 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Happiness is a mystery

“We look before and after and pine for what is not” —Percy Bysshe Shelley

We seek it, chase it, pursue it but when we think we have grasped it for a moment, it is no more. Elusive, transient, mercurial, it is here now but gradually vanishes, evaporates, like a passing cloud or a falling star. “That headless joy is forever on the wing” wrote John Milton, and how we wish it were not so.

People have agonised over this question for centuries. Happiness is a serious business and by no means a laughing matter. Philosophers, politicians and everyone in between has tried to define happiness, but it seems to take flight before it can be surveyed, leaving us beleaguered and befuddled. Is it an emotion or a state of wellness? There are degrees and qualities of happiness. We are not equally happy. The happiness of one may not necessarily be the happiness of another. It is not a matter of one size fits all. 

So complex and variable a predicament, one wonders if there is really such a thing as “happiness”. Can it be that it is simply an imaginary condition?

Who around us is really happy?

There are certain myths we adhere to which are supposed to attain happiness, dreams wishes, wealth, if achieved will provide us with the happiness we desire. Will the bachelor or single woman be happy if they find marriage? Will the childless couple be happy if they conceive? Will winning the lottery make a needy man happy? Apparently not.

Over time happiness wears out and is replaced by burdens, regrets, worries, complaints and we envision new requirements for happiness. Money does not buy happiness. It buys stuff and once you have it, you need more stuff, and so it goes.

The sooner we realise that happiness is short, elusive, capricious, fleeting, momentary, evanescent, the better we accept life and settle for what we can have, and what we can have is satisfaction, contentment and well-being. Why do we not call that happiness?

To be free of vexations, calamities, debts and worries may well be the only state of happiness we can reach, unless pleasure is what you have in mind. Having fun at a party, a fine hearty meal, a neat sports car, love, sex, etc, these are all pleasures. We chase these pleasures, mistaking them for happiness. No moment of feeling good will ever be good enough. The key to happiness is not feeling good all the time; it is not equivalent to cocaine.

What you expect all the time is not physically possible.

Happiness is not a right, but it is our right to pursue it. There must be a secret, a guide to make mankind happy.

Science began to tackle this question in the 1960s and surprisingly, genetics may be a factor. Some of us are cheerful by nature, they process adversity differently, they are not overwhelmed with misfortunes, they are resilient and live a long and fairly happy life. 

“He that is of a merry heart hath a continual feast.” Genetics, or not, habit can acquire these qualities. We can possess the ability to control how we feel, only with consistent practice. So says Sonja Lybominski, PhD, University of California, in her book Myths of Happiness. We can form new habits for a more satisfying, fulfilling life. Negative events do not have an enduring impact as we think they do, according to Lybominski. 

She recommends a regimen to overcome negative thinking. “Think of it as a diet.” You have the will to control how you feel as well as what you eat. With consistent practice you can form life-long habits for a more satisfying, fulfilling life. Make a conscious effort to think positive.

Controlled breathing lowers blood pressure and relaxes body and mind, increases levels of oxytocin and reduces levels of cortisol (a stress hormone). It helps transform our mindset from negative to positive. Every time you take a breath (20,000 times, 15 times a minute) oxygen is inhaled to nourish the cells and carbon-dioxide is exhaled ridding the cells of toxins and waste.

Breathing is what keeps us alive.

Lybominski also recommends to “let the sunshine in,” open the blinds, engage with the world, take a walk, smile, and get in shape, get that heart pumping.

James Levine of the Mayo Clinic agrees with Lybominski: “Sitting is the new smoking,” says Levine. Low activity lifestyles have been linked to many diseases. Couch lovers get up every hour on the hour, stretch; take a walk around the house, before you get back to your beloved couch. Move every hour. 

You will feel happy if you do something good for others. 

Feel grateful for one or two things in life that make you happy.

Here comes the best part: eat a piece of dark chocolate. It contains chemicals called polypenoids which have happiness boosting properties. Gladly.

If there is no formula for lasting happiness, we at least can feel good, satisfied and content. It seems so simple. Move, move, move. Aristotle once said that happiness is activity. Maybe that is what he meant.

Breathe deeply and get rid of those toxins. Make friends and love life, it is full of beauty. Eat a balanced diet and savour that piece of dark chocolate, et voila.

This is as good as it gets…. this is happiness.

What on earth were we so worried about?

“Knowledge of what is possible is the beginning of happiness.”

George Santayana (1863-1952) 

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