Posts Tagged ‘Happiness’

I’ve just found out that 20th March is International Happiness Day. It seems like there’s an international day for pretty much everything now (the 20th March is also shared by “Snowman Burning Day” in the USA and Switzerland), but there is something rather nice about the first day of spring, the spring solstice and international happiness all coming together on the same day. It feels appropriate that as we welcome in the Persian new year (Nowrooz) we also celebrate happiness, and encourage it in our lives.

But what is “happiness”? It’s something we all want, but it’s not always clear how we get there. Here are some thoughts…

While the coming of the 13th Baktun of the Mayan calendar failed to bring about the end of the world on the winter solstice of 2012, other voices came forward to suggest that it was not an absolute ending that the ancients predicted, but the beginning of a new era. In particular, the Mayans of present-day Guatamala believe that this new era will be one in which big social and environmental issues will find resolution.

While I’m not one to jump to superstitious conclusions, it does seem that with the advent of the global financial crisis, enduring poverty worldwide and the rise of climate change as a pressing issue in our social consciousness, more people are questioning the values we live by and seeking to improve them.

At the very heart of this process of enquiry is our understanding of happiness, and the means by which we try to achieve it. A recent documentary, The Happy Movie, is a fascinating insight into the conditions in which happiness thrives in cultures across the world. One of it’s most poignant conclusions (taken from recent cross-cultural studies into happiness) is that a middle class American person has the same level of average happiness as a rickshaw driver in India, working 16 hours a day and living in a tiny shack with a large family and only basic possessions. In one fell swoop this documentary, and other similar films and writings, undermine the line our modern economy has been built on – that happiness and prosperity are won as a result of accumulating more, whether it be wealth, sexual appeal or Facebook friends. Instead, they present a version of happiness which is based on a basic level of financial sustainability and deep social connections.

It’s no secret that mental illness, particularly depression, is on the up in time-stressed Western societies as communities become fragmented and families get smaller and dispersed across the world. Think tanks like the new economics foundation (nef) have advised on the inevitability of shorter working weeks to encourage more time outside of the office participating in community-focused activity, and also wider distribution of wealth. What that means in practical terms, very few companies have figured out yet, but thought leadership like this is like a seed freshly planted – it takes time for them to develop root. But it seems like more and more people are in on the game of re-imagining how we might organise our social and economic systems to encourage more people-focused, rather than wealth-focused, priorities. Bhutan’s decision to adopt GDH (Gross Domestic Happiness) over GDP as their primary measure of national prosperity is one macro example of how these ideas are manifesting.

The key seems to be that in happier societies, people come first. Social relationships are valued over financial wealth and material possessions. People are content with owning less because their lives are enriched by strong, cross-generational emotional bonds, and collaborative social activities. Both the ancient mystical traditions and science tell us that compassionate and empathetic activities don’t just help other people, but also make us happier and healthier.

As Rumi says: “When we practice loving kindness and compassion we are the first ones to profit.” There have been several campaigns and initiatives I’ve come across in recent years which have tried to galvanise more compassionate action, from Karen Armstrong’s Charter for Compassion to the (perhaps more gimicky) Free Hugs campaign. And of course there are all of the individuals, organisations, carers, spiritual movements and religiously driven initiatives that work on local, national and international levels to bring happiness into people’s lives.

These are great and necessary, but at the end of the day, the only thing that can make us truly happy is ourselves – we have to work at it and, as the Dalai Lama says, “Happiness is not something ready made. It comes from your own actions.” We can’t buy it off the shelves, or receive it from a friend. It’s something we cultivate; it’s a state of mind. Abraham Lincoln once said that “People are just as happy as they make up their minds to be.” And I think it’s true. Happiness almost always seems to walk hand in hand with contentment; be happy with what you have and you will always be rich. Seek riches and you will never have enough.

So, I guess my new years resolution is to value more what I already have, and try to find happiness through positive action. Happy Nowrooz to all my Persian-speaking friends and family… and make the new year/spring solstice bring good health, new adventures and happiness to you all!


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