More thoughts on remembering to be happy

Young woman eating strawberryRecently I wrote a piece saying that I’m making a effort to remember to be happy. When I say that I need to remember to be happy, what I mean is that I need to pause, be mindful, and notice if there’s anything I’m doing that is inhibiting my well-being. Often I do this through asking the question, “Could I be happier right now?”

Often when I ask this question I find, in fact, that I’m being a bit willful and overly intense in the way I’m working. I get very focused on the thing I’m doing (writing an article, for example) and lose touch with how I’m feeling while I’m doing that task. Consequently I’m a little unhappy, or at least less happy than I could be.

When I become aware that there’s tension and unhappiness in my experience, I can relax my effort, allow myself to become more playful, allow the body to soften, and drop down to my heart, notice how I’m feeling, and be a bit kinder. Sometimes when there’s an uncomfortable feeling present I’ll just sit with it, allowing it to be there. Sometimes it shifts, and sometimes it doesn’t. Whether it does or not doesn’t matter.

The difficult thing is remembering to do this! When I’m very focused on getting stuff done, I can forget to broaden my awareness out and to become more mindful. Ideally I’d like to have the question: “Could I be happier right now?” pop into my mind at least a couple of times an hour during the course of the day. I’d prefer that this happened organically, rather than with the aid of a timer, but I don’t rule out the use of some kind of artificial aid like that.

For me, the word “happy” in the question “Could I be happier right now?” is just shorthand. I don’t literally expect to be full of joy all the time. For me the word happiness stands for a constellation of qualities, including calm, peace, an awareness of feelings, acceptance, and a sense of well-being. Actual happiness (joy, contentment, even bliss) may be a part of what arises when I allow myself to relax and be at ease, but it’s kind of like a delicious side-dish to a satisfying main course of well-being. It’s lovely to have it, but the meal is just fine without it.

There is in fact more than one type of happiness. In the Aristotelian tradition, there was hedonic happiness and eudaemonic happiness. Hedonic happiness arises from having pleasant experiences. For example you can find hedonic happiness through having a large and beautiful house, being surrounded by lovely objects, going out to bars and restaurants, partying, socializing, doing exciting sports, shopping, etc. Eudaemonic happiness, on the other hand, arises from a life lived well. It arises from living ethically, being honest, being kind, helping others, being patient,feeling that our life has purpose and meaning, etc. We don’t pursue eudaemonic happiness directly, because that would be self-defeating. Eudaemonic happiness is not a goal, but a side-effect of pursuing the goal of living a good life.

From the point of view of hedonism, spending time helping in a soup kitchen would make you unhappy, since you’re not just working, but also coming into contact with poor and probably unhealthy people. In fact, for the eudaemonist, this activity is deeply satisfying. Again, to the eudaemonist, bearing patiently with suffering is an activity that will lead, in the long term, to a sense of wellbeing. To the hedonist, suffering is simply to be avoided.

Although you might think that happiness is happiness, however it arises, hedonic and eudaemonic happiness even have different physiological effects. A 2013 study by Barbara Fredrickson of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill showed that hedonists and eudaemonists who self-reported high levels of happiness had very different patterns of genetic expression. The hedonists showed high levels of expressions of genes related to inflammation (which is commonly used as a marker for general health), while the eudaemonists had much lower levels. In other words, doing good seems to be beneficial for your health in ways that merely feeling good can’t.

Buddhism is a eudaemonic tradition, and so when I talk about happiness I mean eudaemonic happiness. Perhaps my question should not be “Could I be happier right now?” but “Am I doing anything right now that is inhibiting my well-being, and can I let go of doing that?”

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