“The problem of determining surely and universally which action would promote happiness of a rational being is completely insoluble… happiness is not an ideal of reason but of the imagination.” –Immanuel Kant
If you’ve ever studied ethics in any form you have most likely come up against Immanuel Kant, German philosopher and key figure in the creation of Universalist ethical thinking, and author of the dreaded ‘categorical imperative’…
Kant would have us believe, as noted above, that the application of the rational mind to the pursuit of happiness is a futile exercise due to the irrational nature of happiness. Duly noted… but are there some things that we can ‘do’ to help us release the magical genie out of the bottle and help us on our way to happiness?
This is not a be-all and end-all article on happiness – many books and theses have been written on the subject – rather it’s an observation from someone who has struggled with happiness and seen others struggle, sometimes to the point of despair… So, let’s call it a sharing of experiences.
First up I’d point out that it’s a holistic systemic issue – you can’t deal with one bit in isolation; you need to address the whole. By whole I mean all the parts of what it is to be human – physical, mental, emotional, material, spiritual.
In the diagram you will see that everything affects everything else – so the first thing you need to do once you’ve decided that you are going to have a crack at this happiness thing is define it –
- What are you actually trying to create?
- What does good look like?
- How would it feel, and what would it look like if you were actually happy?
Let’s hear from Kant again, “The concept of happiness is such an indeterminate concept, that, although every human being wishes to attain this, he can still never say determinately and consistently with himself what he really wishes and wills.”
Oh… okay so first up – get with the program – everything changes. What you really want and need and wish for will change throughout the course of your life. You won’t answer this question once. You will answer it over and over again. However, you can do some work on essence rather than form. So let’s go through the five areas in the diagram.
Nourish your body
For example – physical – essence can be, ‘I want to feel comfortable about my physical form, be pleased with who I am, and have enough energy and well-being to do what I wish to do.’
Note that this is very different from form – ‘I want to be 65kg, have a body fat percentage of 12%, and be able to fit into size 10 clothing.’
Essence means to go for the feeling; not the form
Feeling is about energy – you can’t see feelings, you feel them – yeah I know, der, it’s obvious right, but how often do we feel unhappy and then try to work it out by engaging the rational mind?
Physical affects all of the other parts of self. Physical exercise is shown in studies to have a positive effect on well-being and happiness pretty much on par with drug-type therapies (you can Google the research).
Here’s a picture to demonstrate:
Want to be happy? Exercise, or at least move
Physical issues also affect happiness through other pathways:
- Food allergies – affect mood (http://extrahappiness.com/happiness/?p=1948)
- Different foods can lift your mood.
- Parasites – Google parasites and happiness and you will see the link between the two and possibly get paranoid about the little critters crawling around inside of you.
- Places – see Scientific American’s article, “How room designs affect your work and mood” http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/building-around-the-mind/
A commitment to happiness means a commitment to action. Little things accumulate – little things mean little habits – for instance something as simple as avoiding iced donuts if you work out after years and years (like I did) that, even though they taste great as they go down, a little while later their gift is a deeply negative mood!
The key process here is:
- What do you want? What does good look like and feel like?
- Self assess – where are you at out of 10?
- Are you doing anything that’s undermining your own happiness? For example, eating the wrong foods, feeding your parasites, allowing yourself to be in physical environments that don’t serve you?
- What little things do you need to habitually DO to BE who you want to BE, e.g., a daily yoga, walk, bike ride?
Stimulate your intellect
Remember that physical affects mental – so if you’re feeling down and out and unmotivated, a good starting point is often the physical side of life. Once you’ve moved and got the brain engaged, then it’s a good time to address the mental side.
The mental side comes down to an enduring battle between the rational mind and its self-appointed role as commander-in-chief, and the intuitive, sensing part of the brain. A lot of the to-do part of happiness comes down to training the brain in little habitual processes that will allow it to self-manage. See Daniel Kahneman’s TED talk, ‘The riddle of experience vs memory’. http://www.ted.com/talks/daniel_kahneman_the_riddle_of_experience_vs_memory
The bottom line is – you can have great happy experiences but if the remembering self chooses not to remember these experiences, then you will be an unhappy person. Your task is to direct your attention.
Teach the brain to habitually remember the good experiences
Every day at the end of the day ask yourself, ‘What did I do right today?’, and/or ‘What am I happy about today and what am I grateful for?’ Consider writing the answers in a journal – the physical act of writing these things will assist in reinforcing your happy story.
Martin Seligman has spent a lifetime studying optimism, pessimism and happiness – see his website, “Authentic Happiness”. https://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu/ One of the keys to Seligman’s work is the difference between how an optimistic person and a pessimistic person describes events to themselves. This is what I refer to as internal dialogue. The distinctions Seligman uses are:
If a bad thing happens, an optimist will describe the event as impersonal, temporary and specific, e.g., ‘I just got the sack, but it’s not about me; it’s a corporate downsizing; it’s just a temporary setback and I will be back on my feet in no time’.
A pessimist might describe the same situation as personal, permanent and pervasive. ‘I just got the sack. It’s all my fault; bad things are always happening to me and I will never get back on my feet again.’
A bit dramatic I know, but do you get the picture?
So, what to do?
- habitually direct your attention to remembering the good stuff
- monitor your internal dialogue and check how you are describing experiences to yourself
- change your life narrative by asking empowering questions that direct your attention to the positive, e.g., ‘Why am I so blessed?’
This brings us to emotional.
Nurture yourself emotionally
Emotional well-being is about FEELING and then CHOOSING. Repressing feelings won’t help, just as being overwhelmed by feelings won’t help. Choose to feel and then choose what to do about those feelings.
See the work of Candace Pert and specifically, ‘Your body is your subconscious mind’. http://candacepert.com/ Candace Pert’s work focusses on the relationship between the mind and mood, and the chemical changes in the body. She was a great proponent of bodywork and the ability to shift emotional blocks through bodywork – for instance massage and other bodywork modalities.
Knowing what you are aiming for again is key
What does good look like? e.g. ‘I am fully emotionally expressive. I feel deeply and then choose what to do with those feelings. Gracefully I honour my own personal space and feel loved and appreciated by my friends and family.’
Training your body to know what this feels like is a good start
I recommend an exercise called ‘Creating a circle of honour’ which can be found on my website. http://www.acping.net/catalyser/creating-circle-honour
Knowing what good habits will support your emotional well-being is also critical. For example, if you want to have good relationships with people it takes time – quality time. So ask yourself questions like, ‘If I am going to be clear and connected with my family what do I need to DO habitually to make this happen?’ For example, weekly dinners out with your partner, picking up the kids from school occasionally if you are the parent who usually does not do this, scheduling regular family holidays, and making sure you have one-on-one time with kids, friends and partners as needed.
Again though – if you don’t know what good looks like, you’ll find it hard to DO stuff regularly that delivers this. You may instead end up simply being reactive to life events.
Adopt graceful materialism
Material stuff dominates our capitalist world. Many people focus exclusively on the material when they do goal setting and the like – but is this what you really want? Sure I’d like a huge warehouse full of classic cars, a massive house, and even a yacht would be cool, but if it means that the entire time I’m stressing about my things and worrying, then am I truly rich or do I have a poor mentality? Money ranks right up there as a source of unhappiness and relationship conflict.
The research on this is interesting. Essentially it says that, up to a certain point – about $60K per annum if you’re in the USA – there is a correlation between happiness and material wealth. However, over that the correlation falls apart. And of course, like many statistics, it’s a gross generalisation. As I’m sure many of you know people who are rich but poor in spirit and many who are poor but rich in spirit. When looking at the Happy Planet Index http://www.happyplanetindex.org/ Costa Rica ranks #1.
Again it is essence that is key
Maybe good looks like, ‘I am comfortable, relaxed and grateful for all of the things that I have. I allow the flow of abundance in my life and trust that what I am getting now is perfect.’
You’re probably starting to see the interconnectedness between all these aspects of self. So it should come as no surprise that Spirit sits right in the middle of the picture.
Feed your spirit
People can get really reactive when others start talking about spirituality. Many confuse spirituality with religion and, if you’re like me, it may have negative associations with memories of Sunday School, prayer and the whole idea of a dominant patriarchal figure looking down from above.
The best way of describing the distinction that I’ve found is that religion is about answers (of what’s right and wrong, e.g., the Ten Commandments) and spirituality is about questions.
For me, spirituality is simply about acknowledging a connection with the unseen aspects of life. Some, like my Dad, do this by pursuits such as fishing. Others like a walk on the beach with the dog at sunset. Still others meditate, pray, do yoga, Zen breathing – the list goes on. The point is that at our core we humans have a need to connect with something bigger than ourselves. Fundamentally, we need to have faith that there is more to life than we can actually see. And a belief that there is divine justice in the world. A spiritual practice feeds this and sustains us when things don’t go the way we want them to.
Peace, deep inner peace, is what you’re looking for here; a practice that enables you to let go of any worries about the past or the future and simply be present in a simple open-hearted way. The doing part of this is finding something that resonates with you and enables you to get to that place. Exploration of the possibilities is key.
“Often people attempt to live their lives backwards; they try to have more things, or more money, in order to do more of what they want, so they will be happier. The way it actually works is in reverse. You must first be who you really are, then do what you need to do, in order to have what you want.” –Margaret Young[author title=”About the author”] [share title="Share this post" facebook="true" twitter="true" google_plus="true" linkedin="true" email="true"]